By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; 6:50 AM
It is stunning video footage, one of the world's most famous women offering, in no uncertain terms, to sell access to her royal ex-husband.
But does it justify journalistic deception?
The News of the World scored big with its sting against Sarah Ferguson, who appears a sad and pathetic figure as she names her price: 500,000 pounds. The Duchess of York was caught so red-handed that she made no attempt to spin her way out of the mess, merely saying she was sorry for the serious lapse in judgment and is in a stressful financial situation.
She must miss that Weight Watchers contract. And Prince Andrew must wish his ex had found a more respectable way to support herself than claiming she could open doors at the top of the British government.
Still, in order to nail that story, the Murdoch tabloid engaged in--well, the technical term is lying. The paper's "Fake Sheik" reporter impersonated a businessman who wanted to do business with Prince Andrew. The alleged sheikh had $40,000 in cash ready to convince Fergie of his seriousness.
A News of the World spokesman told me there was a "legitimate public interest" in mounting the undercover operation, and it's true that this type of journalism is more common in Britain than in the States. The practice's popularity peaked here in the 1970s, when the Chicago Sun-Times famously ran the bribe-taking Mirage bar, and 1980s, when "60 Minutes" used it quite a bit. From time to time, American journalists still trot out the hidden cameras (NBC's "To Catch a Predator") and use phony identities (ABC placed undercover deli clerks in a Food Lion, which won $5.5 million in a lawsuit only to see the judgment knocked down to $2).
It's always tempting to say the end justifies the means. But to adopt that position, you have to be willing to say that it's okay for a reporter to pretend to be someone else because he or she has decided a particular story is worth it.
The most recent uproar over false identities and hidden cameras on this side of the Atlantic was, of course, the 2009 ACORN case. Two conservative activists, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, said they were acting as journalists when they posed as pimp and prostitute (though it later emerged that they didn't seem to be wearing the preposterous getups when they entered the ACORN offices). Their expose of ACORN staffers appearing willing to help find housing for teenage prostitutes devastated the organization and was cheered by much of the right. But it, too, was built on a lie and edited video (the News of the World posted only 4-1/2 minutes of the Ferguson transaction). So if you had qualms about the anti-ACORN tactics, those same qualms should apply to these anti-duchess tactics.
In the Independent, Stephen Glover wrestles with the ethics and ultimately approves of the tabloid's probe:
"No one seems very aerated about the News Of The World's entrapment of 'Fergie.' The general view is that she, and probably her former husband, had it coming to them. . . .
"Perhaps it would be more grown-up to work out what we think about entrapment as a journalistic device. In normal life nice people do not try to entrap one another.
"It is sneaky and underhand. But journalists for these purposes are not particularly nice people and neither, often, are the people they entrap. You cannot easily encourage a person to say or do something out of character, though one can imagine exceptions where extreme pressure might be put on someone."
Guardian media columnist Roy Greenslade also defends News of the World:
"First, it appears not have been a fishing expedition. The paper says it learned that the Duchess was 'already cashing in on unknowing Andrew by setting up deals with foreign businessmen.'. . . .
"Second, though I suspect from the video that the Duchess might have drunk more than was good for her, she did convict herself several times over without much obvious prompting. . . .
"Third, there is a valid public interest defence because, despite being divorced from the Prince, they remain close friends (well, until yesterday) and her continuing close proximity to him and his family places an extra onus on her to be squeaky clean."
Times of London columnist Libby Purves unloads on Fergie:
"There will be much hostile talk of greed and sanctimonious headshaking over the 'damage' to Britain's international trade reputation. . . .
"Sarah Ferguson was just not born to be looked at and judged by millions of strangers, or to racket around the world like Becky Sharp: to put it kindly, she's not very sharp at all. The News of the World undercover team -- who say that the operation was launched because she was reputedly doing such deals with real businessmen -- are not magical masters of the Dark Arts. The conversation as recorded is, to anybody who has done real business, implausibly vague, unbusinesslike and frankly unlikely. . . .
"I also feel that spiteful media did more than enough to wreck her mental balance in the first place. Before she had put a foot wrong maritally, Sarah Ferguson was the victim of insult and sneering: despite being a hearty, active black-run skier she was pilloried as 'the Duchess of Pork,' hated for not being Diana. . . .
"Poor woman. She is not evil or particularly greedy but just, frankly, a bit of an idiot adrift in a world that is clever and laughs at her."
Meanwhile, the New York Post says Fergie "is threatening to permanently leave England for the United States over her explosive, influence-peddling scandal, pals say -- sending the royal family into a tailspin over the prospect of losing control over their No. 1 loose cannon."
But the paper offers no source and then dilutes the story by saying America is her "likely" destination.Blogger Claims Affair
In the wake of Mark Sanford and his soul mate, no one running for governor of South Carolina wants to be tarred by an allegation of an extramarital affair. In a bizarre development, Republican candidate Nikki Haley, who is running with Jenny Sanford's endorsement, was hit by such an allegation yesterday--and it comes from blogger (and former Mark Sanford aide) Will Folks:
"This network of operatives has made it abundantly clear that in the process of 'taking down' Rep. Haley, they will also stop at nothing to humiliate me, destroy my family and take a sizable chunk out of the credibility this website has managed to amass for itself. . . .
"Specifically, within the last forty-eight hours several pieces of information which purportedly document a prior physical relationship between myself and Rep. Haley have begun to be leaked slowly, piece by piece, to members of the mainstream media. . . . Watching all of this unfold, I have become convinced that the gradual release of this information is deliberately designed to advance this story in the press while simultaneously forcing either evasive answers or denials on my part or on Nikki's part.
"I refuse to play that game. I refuse to have someone hold the political equivalent of a switch-blade in front of my face and just sit there and watch as they cut me to pieces.
"The truth in this case is what it is. Several years ago, prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki. That's it. I will not be discussing the details of that relationship, nor will I be granting any additional interviews about it to members of the media beyond what I have already been compelled to confirm."
Aside from the Haley family, he adds, "I feel no need to apologize or explain myself to anyone. People are human. We make mistakes."
Haley denied the affair: "I have been 100 percent faithful to my husband throughout our 13 years of marriage. This claim against me is categorically and totally false."
Hard to know what to make of this, but National Review's Jim Geraghty is skeptical:
"Will Folks was a spokesman for Mark Sanford. There was a controversy surrounding a domestic-battery charge against Folks in 2005; Folks pleaded guilty while insisting he was innocent."Don't Ask
The compromise has been around since Bill Clinton's first year in office, but now, reports the L.A. Times, "President Obama reached a deal with key Democrats on Monday that could repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy governing gays and lesbians in the military -- assuming Congress signs on.
"The proposal would let lawmakers vote now to repeal the law and allow people who are openly gay to serve, once the president and top military leaders certify that the repeal wouldn't threaten the military's 'readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention,' according to documents the sponsors sent to the administration."
It would also take the issue off the table while the Democrats enjoy big majorities on the Hill, but without actually doing anything except promising to try to do something later on.Belated Apology
It took him awhile, but the Hartford Courant reports:
"After nearly a week of criticism following revelations that he misrepresented his military record and five days after a press conference in which he expressed regret for his misstatements, Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Richard Blumenthal apologized. 'At times when I have sought to honor veterans, I have not been as clear or precise as I should have been about my service in the Marine Corps Reserves. . . . I have made mistakes and I am sorry. I truly regret offending anyone."
Would have done him a lot more good on Day One.Souder's Lament
Former congressman Mark Souder, who quit last week after acknowledging an affair with an aide, Linda Jackson, opens up to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:
" 'Why would somebody who's almost 60 years old and been a congressman 16 years do something juvenile?' he said of being discovered in a car with Jackson in a public place. 'Subconsciously, was I wanting to get caught? Or was God so frustrated with me he said, 'I've had it. You're so stupid here I'm going to, in effect, out you.'
" 'When you're a public figure and get crushed, you wonder whether life's worth living,' he said, recalling a conversation he had with former congressman and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford shortly after Sanford's affair came to light. . . . I'm not a suicidal guy for religious reasons, but I can understand how you can get really distressed. You wrecked everything.' "
Oh, and that abstinence discussion he recorded with his mistress? 'If some people see this abstinence video, I'm living proof of what we're saying in it,' Souder said. 'If they actually listen to the words, maybe it's worth it.' "
Do as I say, not as I do?The Rand Debate
Rand Paul has inadvertently sparked a broader debate about libertarianism. Here's NYT columnist Ross Douthat:
"Paul just couldn't help himself. He had to play Hamlet, to hem and haw about the distinction between public and private discrimination, to insist on his sympathy for the civil rights movement while conspicuously avoiding saying that he would have voted for the bill that outlawed segregation.
"By the weekend (and under duress), he finally said it. But the tap-dancing route he took to get there was offensive, tone deaf and politically crazy."
The Nation's Katha Pollitt sees one glaring inconsistency:
"As a libertarian, Paul theoretically wants to limit the government's power to do very much of anything -- so it's not surprising that his views coincide with those of [Robert] Scheer and other progressives on a few items, like the Iraq War, bank bailouts, and the Patriot Act. There's one area, though, in which Paul apparently wants the government to play a much bigger role: your womb. Women can forget about the 'privacy' and 'liberty' Paul touts on his website; warnings against government encroachment on freedom do not apply to female citizens of Paul's back-to-basics Republic. As per his website, we get the Human Life amendment banning all abortion even for rape and incest, a Sanctity of Life Amendment, establishing the principle that life begins at conception," a funding ban on Planned parenthood, and a ban on the Supreme court taking up abortion-related cases. . . .
"As with many of Paul's statements and positions, you wonder if he's thought about them for more than two minutes. How, after all, is a ban on abortion to be implemented except by a massive government intrusion into private and personal behavior?"
One lesson: it's easy to take ideologically pure stances when you're not in the political arena.Radio Regulars
At Newsbusters, the conservative Media Research Center raises questions about Ed Schultz's radio guests:
"Mark Graff, for example, founder of a company called Bio Green Clean, has come on the show 11 times -- in the last two months. Or Ted Massinello, president of USA Coffee Company -- 10 appearances since March 23. Radio host and legal analyst Norman Goldman dropped by six times in the last eight weeks. Lawson Nickol, co-founder of All American Clothing Company, made five appearances in the same period.
"What do all have in common? They are advertisers on Schultz radio Web site. . . . In fact, 26 percent of Schultz's guests over the two months from March 23 to May 23 -- 41 out of 156 guest appearances -- have been advertisers on his radio site."
Schultz had no comment.Gossip Calls It Quits
Anne Schroeder Mullins is leaving Politico. "I've loved spending the past decade living in and reporting on Washington's inner workings," she says, "and I'm excited to help pull back the curtain on this town for my clients."Reading Rush
In a new biography, Limbaugh says: "I know I am a target and I know I will be destroyed eventually. I fear that all I have accomplished and all the wealth I have accumulated will be taken from me, to the cheers of the crowd. I know I am hated and despised by the American Left."
The NYT calls the book by Zev Chafets one of "gushing enthusiasm."Now They've Gone Too Far
Dora the Explorer, illegal immigrant?
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."