Gerson condemns O'Keefe saying that "O'Keefe did not merely leave a false impression, he manufactured an elaborate lie" The misrepresentation Gerson refers to involves O'Keefe posing as a representative of a Muslim group ready to donate $5million to NPR in exchange for favorable coverage to the religion.
Intentionally slanting news coverage, which O'Keefe's video certainly indicates is being done at NPR, is corruption of the journalistic process. Uncovering such corruption should be applauded by the journalistic community. Instead, Gerson and others in the traditional media have subjected O'Keefe to ridicule and scorn.
What a different news media world we live in now as compared to the late 1970s when the media celebrated a very similar investigative reporting venture conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times. It was in August of 1977 that a couple of reporters from the Sun-Times and an investigator from the Better Government Association of Chicago opened ”The Mirage,” a fictitious bar on the near north side of Chicago.
For a few months, the team of bar employees recorded bribe taking from Chicago city inspectors who overlooked the obvious code violations that bar had. There were hidden cameras and elaborate measures taken to document significant corruption by Chicago city employees entrusted with ensuring that bars and restaurants serving the public meet minimum safety and sanitary standards.
The result of this undercover investigation was a 25-part series that ran in the Chicago Sun-Times beginning in January 1978. While a few critics pondered the question of entrapment, the overwhelmingly reaction of both print and electronic media was admiration for an inventive undercover journalistic venture that disclosed real and pervasive corruption. Time magazine in a January 1978 issue recounted how “For just $10, the fire inspector was willing to ignore the exposed electrical wiring. For $50, the plumbing inspector ‘fixed’ the leaky pipes, and for $100, the ventilation inspector overlooked $2,000 worth of necessary duct work.” The CBS television magazine “60 Minutes” did a segment lauding the investigative work of the newspaper and the Better Government Association.
In August 2006, the Society of Professional Journalist held a retrospective about the methodologies used by the Sun-Time in “The Mirage” expose. The examination did question the validity of journalists engaging in any investigative venture that amounts to running a sting operation. Nevertheless, Zay Smith, the reporter who served as the fictitious bartender at “The Mirage,” was quoted in a news release distributed by the Society, saying, “There were many surprises along the way, but the project’s main duty was to prove if what we suspected was true. Mayor Richard J. Daley would always say to reporters who asked him about corruption in the city, ‘Where’s your proof?’ The Mirage investigation offered an answer to his question.”
Although Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was dead by the time the Sun-Times began its investigation, the Democratic machine of Chicago, as it was known, was viewed very negatively by media in Chicago and across the nation, so it was not surprising that The Mirage investigation was positively received by most media. Zay Smith was a competing editor of mine when I was managing editor in the mid 1970s of the Palos Regional in southwest suburban Chicago, and I knew of him professionally. I suspect he would bristle at a comparison between the Sun-Times investigation and one conducted by the young conservative activist.
Although O'Keefe might not have the academic or professional credentials of the Sun-Times staff, his methodology was very much the same. In both cases, a fictitious scenario was concocted to expose the corrupt behavior of corrupt people. In both cases, the investigators went into the investigation expecting to expose unsavory behavior that they already suspected. In his quote, Zay Smith admitted that he suspected corruption from city inspectors and set out to prove it. Mr. Gerson, how is that materially any different than what the conservative activist suspected about NPR and then would prove?