Our thoughts: Former CJR assistant editor Greg Marx had a lot to say about O’Keefe’s first big splash, admitting that the provocateur had scored some scoops but questioning his methods and what the incident meant for the mainstream media. Since then, it’s been revealed that many of the tapes published on Breitbart’s site were heavily edited. California’s then-attorney general Jerry Brown found in April 2010 that the tapes showed many problems with ACORN but had been misleading in their edited form, and that ACORN had not committed prosecutable crimes. It’s difficult to evaluate O’Keefe’s contribution to the civil discourse here—as Marx notes, he did reveal some reproachable behaviors. But the same story could potentially have been gotten another way—if ACORN’s actions on these videos were widespread, why not find someone else who’d legitimately used their services to aid their illicit activities? If you can’t find that person, then questions arise about whether or not the ACORN employees would have acted in this way in any other situation by O’Keefe’s entrapment.
Rome’s Gay Priests On Film
What happened: Carmelo Abbate, a reporter for the Roman Berlusconi-owned weekly panorama, went undercover with a gay aide for twenty days and caught hidden video footage of three Rome-based priests patronizing gay nightspots and engaging in sex acts on Church property. The idea was to expose the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, which considers homosexuality a sin. Abbate’s aide allegedly had sex with one of the priests to corroborate the story, published mid-2010. Talk about fact-checking!
What came of it: Readers were outraged, and the Vatican promised an investigation to identify the priests described in Abbate’s article—they were not named—and strip them of their priesthoods.
Our thoughts: If, as Steele has written, one of the standards by which you test whether a hidden camera was necessary is asking if a story could have been gotten any other way, then this tabloid-y investigation fails big time: the list of ways one might get at this story without having an accomplice sleep with a priest is long. The almost anti-gay tone of the reports is a little unnerving, too. This was hardly a big scoop, either—Newsweek’s Barbie Nadeau, who reported on panorama’s story in July 2010, says gay priests are an open secret in the Italian capital. This was pure gotcha! journalism from a publication whose owner might be more careful which kettles he calls “nero.”
To Catch a Predator
What happened: This watchdog NBC Dateline series kicked off in 2004 and enjoyed a three-year run. Each week, adults from the group Perverted Justice—which conducts stings on pedophiles—posed online as children to attract men looking for sex on the Internet. They then arranged to meet the men at a house rigged with secret cameras. When a man arrived, he would meet host Chris Hansen, who, with cameras watching, would interrogate the visitor. When the man left he was usually arrested by local law enforcement.
What came of it: After a successful run and after spawning a number of spinoffs—the inevitable To Catch a Thief among them—the series was cancelled in 2007. Officially, it’s said the show became so popular that it was too difficult to find men gullible enough to entrap. But that was not before a heavily publicized controversy in which a man who had failed to show at the rigged house found his home stormed by SWAT teams (and an NBC TV crew) and shot himself in the head. NBC settled a lawsuit on the matter for $105 million. Read Esquire’s excellent piece on Bill Conradt’s suicide here.
Our thoughts: Aside from the rather explicit entrapment, former Dateline staffer Marsha Bartel claimed Perverted Justice was paid for its services on the show, and that Dateline also paid local law enforcement officials for information and to stage grand arrests. A former Dateline anchor has also said that in the Internet chats used to establish the relationships, oftentimes “the decoy is the first to bring up the subject of sex.” It’s difficult to come down anywhere near the side of a child sex offender, but the show’s methods were sensationalist and dubious, and the results were tragic.
Silverstein’s Man from Turkmenistan