The Hidden Camera: Technology, Testimony, and Truth

Conservative hidden camera insurgent, James O’Keefe, has notched a victory on his own checkered activist scorecard, taking down the CEO of National Public Radio, Vivian Schiller, who resigned under pressure this morning.

Pretending to be a potential donors (funneling money from the Muslim Brotherhood), O’Keefe‘s associates lunched with Ron Schiller, a vice president of development (read: fundraising) at NPR who had already announced his impending departure from public radio.  O’Keefe They said offensive things at lunch, as did Schiller, and O’Keefe got it all on video.*  Smelling a big donation, Schiller (who had nothing to do with programming) worked to win the confidence of the faux donor.  I’d guess this is at least close to standard practice for people who have the job of cultivating large donors.  (See Jack Shafer at Slate.)

James O'Keefe in pimp outfit

O’Keefe has used this approach to go after what he views as liberal orthodoxy for years now, usually targeting lower-level staff, who are more accessible and perhaps more prone to error than corporate vice presidents.  He makes outrageous claims (e.g., Lucky Charms cereal offends Irish Americans, and should be banned from the school’s dining hall), and sometimes generates sympathetic (and horrific) responses.  Along with sometime ally, anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, he’s gone after Planned Parenthood.  Dressed as a 1970s vision of a pimp, he helped take down ACORN.  Dressed as a telephone repairman, he attempted to tap Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s phones, and was sentenced to small fine and three years of probation.

Seeking stupidity and hypocrisy is terribly easy.  You can shoot hundreds of hours of tape, and leave everything other than that on the cutting room floor, broadcasting the most offensive moments.  And conservatives have no monopoly on the tactic, or on using subterfuge to get opponents to behave foolishly.  Just recently, Ian Murphy, of The Beast, posed as billionaire David Koch in a prank phone call to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.  Walker was sufficiently solicitous of the faux conservative donor to provide ample material for a damaging tape (transcript here).

Even easier, interview activists at a demonstration on camera, and edit down to the foolish, misinformed, or sarcastic.

But, activists have always worked to document and expose the evils of their opponents.  In the very long campaign for abolition, the narratives of former slaves were a powerful asset for people who wanted to end slavery.  Their experience belied whatever claims supporters of slavery made about their beneficence.  Sojourner Truth’s testimony made it harder for people to ignore slavery.

For more than a hundred years, at least, journalists and writers have lived lives on the edge to document injustice.  George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London) and Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) are among the better writers who went undercover to live–and write about–the difficulties of those on the bottom of our social ladder.

Fiction may be even more powerful in spreading ideas and insurgency.  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (about slavery) and Upton Sinclair’s expose of meat-packing in Chicago, The Jungle, reached far larger audiences than any actual story.  The tortured prose of libertarian novelist, Ayn Rand, continues to attract readers–presumably on the appeal of her ideas.  Conservative activists have just recently produced a film of the first half of her novel, Atlas Shrugged.

The technological development of small recorders and cameras has made the expose more accessible.  It’s been a favorite tactic of environmentalists and animal rights activists, documenting whaling, animal experimentation, or slaughterhouses (Sinclair’s subject), and producing images far more accessible to a contemporary broad audience than even a well-written novel.  The web transmits the images quickly and indiscriminately.  (PETA.tv is a good place to see a samples.)

The prevalence of cheap video cameras–on almost every cell phone–means that it’s no longer paranoid to think that you might be on camera, and to worry that a moment’s comment might be broadcast globally and stored forever on the web.  I’m not sure this will help make the world more just–or more pleasant.

And, as audiences–and citizens–we’re left with the task of judging the integrity of the videographer, and whether the practice on camera is exceptional or business-as-usual–and which is worse.

* O’Keefe himself was not present at the lunch.  Corrected March 10, 2011.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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