NPR Fires Back: Analysis of O’Keefe Video Shows Highly Distorting Edits

In a little discussed release, National Public Radio has identified some alarming edits in the video footage released by James O’Keefe III — purportedly capturing NPR officials slamming conservatives and seemingly agreeing with radical Islamic funders. The analysis linked here shows a series of edits that produce a highly distorted picture, including the removal of statements defending conservatives and expressly warning that NPR’s coverage could never be influenced by financial support.

Ron Schiller’s comments appear heavily edited and sometimes taken out of order with immediately following material, according to the analysis.

For example, the tape released to the public shows Schiller laughing with the men as they described how their “organization sought to spread the acceptance of sharia across the world.” NPR notes that “[i]n reality, as the longer tape shows, that laughter follows an innocuous exchange as Schiller and Liley greet the two supposed donors at their table.” Other more disturbing claims of misleading edits are contained in the NPR analysis.

It make for interesting and disturbing reading.

Jonathan Turley

67 thoughts on “NPR Fires Back: Analysis of O’Keefe Video Shows Highly Distorting Edits”

  1. Why Do We Keep Falling For O’Keefe’s Smear Jobs?
    It took days for someone to factcheck the NPR “sting”—and then the job fell to Glenn Beck’s (!!) site.
    — By Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery
    (Mother Jones, 3/28/2011)

    To the list of journalism’s greatest disgraces, let us now add James O’Keefe. O’Keefe calls himself an investigative reporter, though as far as we can tell the only group of journalists he has anything in common with are habitual fabricators like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Janet Cooke.

    But that’s not the scandal we’re talking about. The real scandal is that—even though by the time he posted a “sting” of a top NPR fundraiser, O’Keefe was notorious for creating deceptive video smear jobs (ACORN? Hello?)—the media repeated the allegations uncritically. Let’s review.

    O’Keefe’s “scoop” debuted March 8 on the conservative Daily Caller. Edited down from a 2-hour conversation, the 12-minute clip purports to show NPR head fundraiser Ron Schiller wooing fake prospective donors who claimed to be part of a group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. To curry favor, Schiller slags tea partiers, calling them xenophobic and racist; he also says NPR could get by without federal funding.

    Republicans in Congress were already gearing up to defund NPR, but even that timing doesn’t seem to have raised red flags with the media. The story was breathlessly repeated by such mainstream reporters as Ben Smith of Politico, Dave Weigel of Slate, James Poniewozik of Time, and many others. Did they mention that O’Keefe had doctored tapes before? Sometimes. Did that cause them to hold off before passing on his sizzle reel? No.

    Within 36 hours, NPR had dumped both Ron Schiller and its successful CEO, Vivian Schiller (no relation). Twenty-two NPR journalists, from Robert Siegel to Nina Totenberg, signed a letter expressing outrage at the “appalling” comments. Twenty-two journalists assumed that a tape made by a known tape-doctorer accurately represented the comments of their co-worker. Scott Simon of Weekend Edition piled on, tweeting, “Conduct of NPR execs is disgusting. They dishonor a name built by great journalists.”

    It wasn’t until March 10 that an article on Glenn Beck’s (!!) site, the Blaze, reviewed the full tape (which O’Keefe had posted online—guessing, correctly, that reporters wouldn’t bother to watch it) and found massive deceptive editing. Schiller, it turned out, prefaced his comments by saying he was proud of having been raised a Republican; in saying tea partiers were racist, he was paraphrasing other GOPers; a laughing “That’s what they said?” referring to a restaurant was moved to suggest that he was making light of the fake group’s commitment to sharia.

    By the time the Blaze’s critique made its way around the internet, though, half the press corps—including many media critics—was headed to the SXSW convention in Austin, and the other half was busy with disasters in Japan and uprisings in the Middle East. Weigel and Smith posted detailed mea culpas (Smith later said he’d been “slipshod”); Poniewozik followed up, as did USA Today and The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan, but otherwise the major media failed to correct the record until after the defunding vote.*

    Why was this? Simple: A good lie is by definition a hot story—crafted and timed to hit an urgent issue at just the right moment—and in a 24/7 news cycle, that presents a compelling incentive to reporters: “Let’s be brutally honest,” Weigel told NPR when it finally got around to forensics six days later. “The rush is to get traffic and to get the people of your organization booked on shows to talk about it. [That] leads you to not do the rigor and fact-checking that you do in other situations.” And by the time you do, everyone’s moved on.

  2. LK,

    I’m not one of his supporters but I would like to give O’Keefe the finger for his efforts.

    Will VISA accept that?

  3. Elaine,

    Thanks for the refresher – When Weiner gets out of politics, I think he could have a very successful career in stand up!

  4. Weiner cracks me up sometimes …

    Rep. Weiner Thanks GOP For Saving America From Car Talk
    — By Stephanie Mencimer

    | Thu Mar. 17, 2011 12:34 PM PDT.

    You have to give Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) credit: He knows how to make a point. After the House today voted to ax public funding for National Public Radio, Weiner offered a big sarcastic kudos to his GOP colleagues for killing off Click and Clack, the Boston mechanics/MIT geniuses/brothers who host NPR’s beloved weekly Car Talk radio show. (The Senate still has to approve the measure before it’s final, an outcome that’s far from certain.) Holding up a “Save Click and Clack” poster of the Magliozzi brothers, Weiner went on a tear, congratulating Republicans for finally discovering, in a time of crisis, “a target we can all agree on.” Weiner thanked his Republican friends for ridding the airwaves of the brothers’ horrible Boston accents, and especially for putting some of the show’s staffers out of work—people like customer care guy “Haywood Jabuzoff,” or their corporate spokesperson,”Hugh Lyon Sack.” “I’m so relieved we had this emergency session…so we can finally get these guys off the radio,” he fumed.

    Really, print doesn’t do the rant justice, so watch for yourself here:


  5. From NPR (3/14/2011)
    Elements Of NPR Gotcha Video Taken Out Of Context
    by David Folkenflik (Morning Edition)

    Footage posted online last week by conservative activist James O’Keefe III captured NPR’s chief fundraising official, Ron Schiller, disparaging conservatives and the Tea Party and saying NPR would be better off without federal funding.

    Fueled in part by the attention given the video by the conservative Daily Caller website, an 11 1/2-minute version of O’Keefe’s hidden camera video ricocheted around the blogosphere Tuesday.

    It mortified NPR, which swiftly repudiated Schiller’s remarks and in short order triggered his ouster along with that of his boss, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who is no relation to Ron Schiller.

    A closer review of those tapes, however, shows that many of Ron Schiller’s most provocative remarks were presented in a misleading way.

    ‘There Are Two Ways To Lie’

    O’Keefe’s tapes show Ron Schiller and his deputy, Betsy Liley, at an upscale cafe in Georgetown for lunch in February. They meet with two men posing as officials with an Islamic trust. The men are actually O’Keefe’s associates — citizen journalists, he calls them.

    O’Keefe also posted a two-hour tape that he said was the “largely raw” audio and video from the incident so people can judge the credibility of his work.

    The Blaze — a conservative news aggregation site set up by Fox News host Glenn Beck — first took a look late last week and found that O’Keefe had edited much of the shorter video in deceiving ways.

    “There was certainly a lot there for conservatives and people of faith and Tea Party activists to be bothered about — but we felt like that wasn’t the whole story,” said Scott Baker, editor in chief of The Blaze. “There were a lot of other things said that may have been complimentary to conservatives and to people of faith and Tea Party activists in the same conversations.”

    My review was conducted with several colleagues. I also relied on outside people, including Baker, who have expertise in analyzing video and audio to review the two tapes.

    Broadcast journalist Al Tompkins said he was initially outraged by what he heard in that first, shorter video by O’Keefe. Tompkins now teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

    “What I saw was an executive at NPR expressing overtly political opinions that I was really uncomfortable with,” Tompkins said. “Particularly the way the video was edited, it just seemed he was spouting off about practically everything.”

    But Tompkins said his mind was changed by watching that two-hour version.

    “I tell my children there are two ways to lie,” Tompkins said. “One is to tell me something that didn’t happen, and the other is not to tell me something that did happen. I think they employed both techniques in this.”

    Sacramento, Calif.-based digital forensic consultant Mark Menz also reviewed both tapes at my request. He has done extensive video analyses for federal agencies and corporations.

    “From my personal opinion, the short one is definitely edited in a form and fashion to lead you to a certain conclusion — you might say it’s looking only at the dirty laundry,” Menz said. He drew a distinction between that and a compressed news story.

    O’Keefe’s ‘Investigative Reporting’

    O’Keefe hasn’t replied to several requests for comment for my stories on his tapes. On Twitter last week, he replied to me that his editing was no different from what other journalists do in crafting their stories — including my own.

    On Sunday, he told CNN’s Howard Kurtz that his use of hidden cameras is in the finest traditions of muckraking journalism.

    “Journalists have been doing this for a long time,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a form of investigative reporting that you use to seek and find the truth.”

    O’Keefe said on CNN’s Reliable Sources that his sting was inspired by NPR’s decision to drop longtime news analyst Juan Williams last October after Williams made comments on Fox News about Muslims.

    “The tape is very powerful,” O’Keefe said. “The tape is very honest. The tape cuts to the core of who these people are.”

    But 26-year-old O’Keefe’s own record is checkered. His takedown of the community organizing group ACORN relied on undercover videos that the California state attorney general’s office concluded significantly distorted what occurred. Last May, O’Keefe pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after an attempted video sting at the offices of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA).

    ‘A Big Warning Flag’

    In the review of the NPR tapes, O’Keefe’s edited video triggered criticism right from his introduction. He ominously describes the phony Islamic group, saying that its website “said the organization sought to spread the acceptance of sharia across the world.” (Shariah is Islamic law based on the Quran, although there are wide disparities in how different Muslim sects and cultures interpret what that entails.)

    On the tape, Ron Schiller is then shown and heard creased with laughter, saying, “Really, that’s what they said?”

    In reality, as the longer tape shows, that laughter follows an innocuous exchange as Schiller and Liley greet the two supposed donors at their table.

    “That to us was a signal that they were trying to condition the person watching the piece to feel as though there was assent to these ideas,” said Scott Baker of The Blaze. “That was a big warning flag.”

    Tompkins said O’Keefe sought to portray the fundraisers as though they would do anything to appease donors.

    On the shorter tape, for instance, one of the fake donors is heard assailing a “Zionist” influence on the media — and Liley, NPR’s senior director of institutional giving, is heard responding affirmingly.

    The O’Keefe associate posing as potential donor Ibrahim Kassam says NPR is “one of the few places that has the courage to present it [fairly]. There’s kind of a joke that we used to call it National Palestinian Radio.”

    Some laughter follows. But the shorter tape does not include Ron Schiller immediately telling the two men that donors cannot expect to influence news coverage.

    “There is such a big firewall between funding and reporting: Reporters will not be swayed in any way, shape or form,” Schiller says on that longer tape, in one of several such remarks.

    Tompkins found that meaningful, noting that Ron Schiller was a fundraiser, not an official affecting the newsroom.

    “The message that he said most often — I counted six times: He told these two people that he had never met before that you cannot buy coverage,” Tompkins said. “He says it over and over and over again.”

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