Correction: An earlier version of this column stated that James O'Keefe had allegedly attempted to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's office phones. The charge was reduced to entering federal property under false pretenses, to which O'Keefe pleaded guilty. According to the plea agreement, prosecutors and O'Keefe agreed that he did not intend to tamper with the phones. This version of the column has been corrected.

Michael Gerson
Opinion writer March 17, 2011

James O’Keefe’s guerrilla video attack on NPR has led to the resignation of its chief executive and an ethical debate: When are lies justified in pursuit of a political cause?

It is now clear that O’Keefe’s editing of the raw video from his interview with NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was selective and deceptive. The full extent of this distortion was exposed by a rising conservative Web site, the Blaze. O’Keefe’s final product excludes explanatory context, exaggerates Schiller’s tolerance for Islamist radicalism and attributes sentiments to Schiller that are actually quotes by others — all the hallmarks of a hit piece. Schiller’s comments were damaging enough without O’Keefe reshaping them into a caricature. Both Ron Schiller and NPR CEO Vivian Schiller, who is not related, resigned.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

But the controversy also raises deeper issues about the ethics of undercover journalism. In this case, O’Keefe did not merely leave a false impression; he manufactured an elaborate, alluring lie. The interviewers posed as representatives of a Muslim organization that wanted to donate $5 million to NPR. The stingers bought access to NPR executives with fake money.

There is no ethical canon or tradition that would excuse such deception on the part of a professional journalist. Robert Steele of the Poynter Institute argues that undercover journalism can only be justified on matters of “profound importance” when “all other alternatives for obtaining the same information have been exhausted.” This may excuse posing as a worker at an unsanitary meat-packing plant or as a mental patient in an abusive asylum. But it is hardly a matter of life and death to expose the conventional liberalism of a radio executive.

O’Keefe’s defenders contend that he is not really a journalist but a new breed of “citizen journalist.” This can be defined as someone who simultaneously demands journalistic respect and release from journalistic standards, including a commitment to honesty. The profession of journalism counts many biases, challenges and failures. But citizen journalism has a problem of its own. Do we really want private citizens deceiving, taping and exposing the foolish weaknesses of their neighbors, with none of the constraints imposed by responsible professional oversight? Modern technology makes such things possible. Human nature makes them enjoyable. Neither makes them ethical.

These tactics are not a new brand of gonzo journalism. They are a sophisticated version of the political dirty trick. Would it be citizen journalism to fool a senator’s psychiatrist into revealing demeaning information about his or her patient? Or to befriend a prominent conservative pastor, goad him into making homophobic statements, then edit, exaggerate and put them on the Internet? What ethical or professional standard among citizen journalists — in many instances, really political activists — would rule out such deceptions?

The ethics of lying, of course, are complex. The prohibition against bearing false witness made the Ten Commandments cut. But I suspect that Moses would allow for lying to hide a Jew hunted by the Nazis. This does not make the prohibition against lying minor or relative. It is a recognition that competing moral duties can be more urgent and compelling — in this case, the moral duty to save a life. A spy tells lies to protect his country. A general engages in deception to defeat an enemy.

But there can be no moral duty to deceive in order to entrap a political opponent with a hidden camera. There is no ethical imperative to provide a prostitute to a weak man and then videotape the scandal, or to provide drugs to a recovering addict and then report the result — or to promise $5 million to a radio executive to get him nodding to leading questions.

The popular justification for this approach is that the other side does it — the ethics of mutual grievance. A liberal journalist calls Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin pretending to be a conservative donor, fishing for incriminating quotes. O’Keefe pleaded guilty to entering federal property (the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu) under false pretenses. Abuses are employed as excuses for equal and opposite abuses. The result is more than a race to the murky journalistic bottom. It is the triumph of a thoroughly postmodern view of politics: Power means everything. Truth means little. Ethical standards are for the weak and compromised. Influence is gained, not by persuasion, but by deception and ruthlessness.

This escalation is really a descent.

michaelgerson@washpost.com