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."
Confusing The Context
In addition, several times the donors seek to goad Schiller and Liley into making inflammatory statements about conservatives or Fox News personalities, and they deflect them. At one point, Liley explains that she attended Purdue University, which she describes as a conservative and respected research university, and that people there relied on Fox to get much of their news.
Menz, the digital forensics consultant, said he found some of Schiller's actual remarks disturbing. But by analyzing time stamps, Menz concluded that many of Schiller's remarks in that shorter video are presented out of sequence from the questions that were posed.
"For me, in my background, it immediately puts things into question," Menz said. "You really don't know what context these were in, what was going on in the 20 minutes before and after this question was asked."
Take the political remarks. Ron Schiller speaks of growing up as a Republican and admiring the party's fiscal conservatism. He says Republican politicians and evangelicals are becoming "fanatically" involved in people's lives.
But in the shorter tape, Schiller is also presented as saying the GOP has been "hijacked" by Tea Partyers and xenophobes.
In the longer tape, it's evident Schiller is not giving his own views but instead quoting two influential Republicans — one an ambassador, another a senior Republican donor. Schiller notably does not take issue with their conclusions — but they are not his own.
Fueling The Public Broadcasting Funding Debate
Upon their release last week, O'Keefe's videos gave fresh life to the push by Congressional Republicans to strip federal funding for public broadcasting. In the shorter video, Schiller appears to be saying that NPR would do just fine without federal dollars, though some stations would go dark. On the longer tape, it's clear Schiller says it would be disastrous in the short term.
Tompkins said O'Keefe's editing is repeatedly and blatantly unfair.
"Except for a couple of unfortunate forays for political opinion, I think that Ron Schiller actually did a fairly remarkably good job of explaining how NPR works and what you can and cannot expect if you contribute money to the NPR Foundation," Tompkins said.
Blaze editor Baker said he emerged from analyzing the tapes with a surprising degree of respect for the professionalism of the two NPR executives, Ron Schiller and Betsy Liley.
"I think if you look at two hours in total, you largely get an impression that these are pretty — they seem to be fairly balanced people, trying to do a fairly good job," Baker said.
In recent days, several influential journalists have written that they regret giving O'Keefe's NPR videos wider circulation without scrutinizing them for themselves, given his past record and some of the objections that the Blaze first raised. They include Ben Smith of Politico, James Poniewozik of Time magazine and Dave Weigel of Slate.
"The speed at which the media operates when a video comes out is a problem," Weigel said Sunday. "I mean, the rush to be the first to report on a video — and, let's be brutally honest, the rush is to get traffic and to get people booked on [cable TV] shows to talk about it — and that nature leads you to not do the rigor and fact-checking that you would do in other situations."
An Accelerated Departure
Late Sunday night, NPR Senior Vice President Dana Davis Rehm wrote in an e-mail that the videos unfairly present several innocent comments by Ron Schiller and Liley as inappropriate.
"No one should be surprised based on O'Keefe's record that the video was heavily edited with the intention of discrediting NPR," Rehm said.
But from the outset, Rehm wrote, NPR confirmed that "egregious comments were made that were not distorted, doctored or fundamentally misrepresented."
Ron Schiller had already announced in early March that he would be leaving NPR for a job at the Aspen Institute in his hometown in Colorado. He had been commuting across the country, at his own expense, since joining NPR 18 months ago. But in the wake of the backlash to the videos, his departure was accelerated to take effect immediately. And then the Aspen Institute announced Schiller would not be joining its ranks. Liley has been placed on administrative leave.
Neither has commented — save for Ron Schiller's apologies for some of his political comments on the day the story broke last week.