Tuned In

The Twisty, Bent Truth of the NPR-Sting Video

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James O’Keefe, the controversial conservative activist and undercover-video maker, brought down NPR’s CEO this week after releasing a “sting” video of an NPR fundraiser meeting with fake Muslim “donors.” Now a video editor, having reviewed the full, two-hour film that O’Keefe also posted online, has done a close analysis showing that several key scenes were edited misleadingly, and quotes taken out of context, in the more-publicized short form of the video. Interestingly, the critique came from The Blaze—an online outlet from none other than conservative host Glenn Beck.

The close-up look doesn’t let the executive, Ron Schiller, off the hook. But it shows O’Keefe edited the short version of his video to fit his anti-NPR agenda. Explaining why both things can be true at once requires, well, a lot of context.

Blaze video editor Pam Key (the writeup is credited to The Blaze’s Scott Baker) said that several of the most embarrassing moments were cobbled together or left out context, apparently in order to make Schiller look as bad as possible. You can read the full post, with video clips, at The Blaze, but the highlights include:

* A quote in which Schiller seems to respond amusedly to a reference on the fake group’s website to promoting Sharia law–“Really? That’s what they said?”–is lifted from an entirely unrelated part of the lunch

* The edited video includes Schiller saying that liberals “might be more educated, fair and balanced” than conservatives; but it omits his saying that he used to be a Republican–and is proud of it–and a fellow NPR fundraiser defending conservatives, saying that she knows and went to school with highly educated conservatives

* A one-minute stretch where the audio goes into a loop while the video keeps playing unaltered may be intentional, perhaps to omit dialogue; says Blaze, it “could be an actual glitch, though not one I’ve seen like this in 25 years of working with video editing”

* The edited video quotes Schiller saying that the Republican party has been “hijacked” by Tea Party conservatives, who he seems to describe as “racist”; the full video shows that–at least at the beginning of his quote–he is explicitly describing the views of wealthy Republican friends who voted for Obama

I want to look at that last scene, because it was the most incendiary, so I went back to the full video. Does it let Schiller off the hook? Not in my viewing, but it does change his comments, introduces room for interpretation–and suggests that O’Keefe left the context out so as to make the quote sound as bad as possible.

For context, let’s add even more context from the full video. I apologize; this is going to be long, and not cut-and-dried, and you may not want to read it all. The lesson of this whole incident is that the truth is long, not cut-and-dried, and people often don’t want to read it all.

Around the 29-minute mark, one of the faux Muslim donors asks Schiller about the Republican “fight” against NPR. (As you’ll see–as was pretty clear to begin with–the lunch was set up to lead Schiller into as many traps as possible.)

Schiller stresses that he’s speaking personally, not for NPR. (That’s also on the edited tape.) He believes that there is “a significant anti-intellectual move” on part of the GOP. (That’s on the edited tape.) “It’s not all Republicans. In fact, I grew up a Republican and am proud of that, even though I’ve voted mostly Democratic lately,” and he likes the GOP for its fiscal conservatism and for the old-school conservative principle of staying out of people’s lives. (Not on the edited video.) “The current Republican party, particularly the Tea Party, is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian, I wouldn’t even call it Christian, it’s this weird Evangelical kind of move.”

That last part is on the tape, and no one made Schiller say it. Whether you agree with it or believe he’s lumping economic, small-government Tea Partiers with Evangelical Christians, the fact that he’s offering this political speech while representing NPR would probably be enough to get him in hot water.

But the “donors” want to get more. One asks a question (also not on the edited tape): “As a black Muslim, I am truly and highly offended by the racism and the bigotry and the Islamophobia that is coming out of the Tea Party or the teabaggers or whatever you call them. What is NPR doing, and what can we do to help make sure that this kind of situation can be curtailed and stopped?”

Please! Tell us you will slant your reporting to promote our Muslim agenda if we give you $5 million! And feel free to use the word “teabaggers” if you like! That would be helpful!

Instead, Schiller says, “NPR’s duty always is to be the independent voice of reason and to report news fairly and so on.” He says that he’s proud of how NPR handled Juan Williams (whom it fired for saying, on Fox News, that traditionally dressed Muslims on planes make him nervous). “Educated people,” he says, “understand that what Fox is doing on one side, and frankly what MSNBC is doing a lot of on the other side is opinion that is very skewed to a political point of view.”

One of the donors asks–I think, because there’s some cross-talk–if there are educated people watching Fox News. “It depends what you define as educated,” he says. It comes off (to my ear) as condescending as it reads, and that’s where his colleague interjects to argue that she knows educated Fox viewers.

Then Schiller goes into the spiel from which the “racist” Tea Party money quote comes. He mentions that he lives in Aspen, and that some of his rich Republican neighbors–the Goldwater conservatives above–felt alienated from the right wing of the GOP even before the Tea Party came together in 2009:

I won’t break a confidence, but a person who was an ambassador — so, a very highly placed Republican — another person, who was one of the top donors to the Republican party, they both told me they voted for Obama, which they never believed they could ever do in their lives. That they could ever vote for a Democrat, ever. And they did, because they [none of the preceding is on the edited tape] think the current Republican party is not really the Republican Party. It’s been hijacked by this group that…

[Fake donor:] The radical, racist, Islamophobic, Tea Party people?

Exactly. And not just Islamophobic, but really xenophobic. Basically, they believe in white, middle America, gun-toting — I mean, it’s pretty scary. They’re seriously racist, racist people.

So: does Schiller believe Tea Partiers are xenophobic racist gun toters? Watching the full video, it sounds to me–from his tone and body language–that he’s switching over to give his opinion. (I invite you to listen yourself–the whole shebang starts about 33 minutes in on the full tape–but he’s not saying, for instance, “my friends believe they’re seriously racist.”)

But I also have to admit I don’t know. I’m not a mind-reader. There is room for argument. And O’Keefe edited the clip to remove that room for argument as much as possible.

Does that mean Schiller was framed-up by the editing alone? No. What he said in context–the “evangelical” comment, the “educated” discussion (bolstered by his approbation of wealthy non-TP conservatives in Aspen), the Tea Party comments in total–would, I suspect, have lit up the blogosphere and started the chain of sacrifices at beleaguered NPR regardless. If I try to imagine myself in the place of a Tea Party activist watching the full footage, I’m still hearing an NPR executive who looks down on me. (That says nothing about NPR’s actual editorial staff, but then again neither does the edited tape.)

But O’Keefe then edited his tape for maximum partisan advantage, to push hot buttons as as hard as he could and make Schiller and NPR look as unambiguously bad as possible.

Political dialogue online is a binary world. It drives us to believe there must be a totally right and a totally wrong party here. Either Schiller is utterly exonerated or utterly guilty; either O’Keefe is a hero or a fraud; either the story is 100% true or an absolute lie.

Reality is messier than that. Reality is a place where, say, a cop can plant evidence on a guilty perp as insurance the case will stick. The suspect’s guilt doesn’t justify the cop’s corruption; the cop’s corruption doesn’t justify the suspect’s crime. (It might lose the court case, of course; all analogies break down somewhere.) The point is, in the real world–as opposed to partisan warfare world–you can have two parties in the wrong. By my viewing, Schiller said some legitimately bad stuff, and O’Keefe edited it, like a bad reality-TV show, to look even worse.

But wait! O’Keefe did post the full video online, didn’t he? Nobody forced him to! Why would he put it up if he had something to hide?

For starters, he was already suspect for having selectively edited his famous ACORN expose videos, not to mention planning a “sting” that would have involved sexually humiliating a CNN reporter. And while it wasn’t his, the deceptively edited Andrew Breitbart tape of Shirley Sherrod is still in people’s minds. If O’Keefe hadn’t posted the source video, it would have invited suspicion.

Instead he posted it and took the chance that most people would watch the edited video (or just clips from it on the news); that reporters, pressed for time with a stack of other assignments, would cover the edited video; that blogs (including, I will admit, this one) would link to those reports; and that by the time anyone took the time to go over the full video, the narrative would be established, the quotes stuck in people’s minds and the ideological battle won.

I mean, Jesus, look how long this post is already–and I’ve only covered a few minutes of a two-hour tape of four people eating lunch. It took me a few hours to watch–transcribing, finding sections, re-watching scenes–analyze and write up.

As of this paragraph, I’m at about 1650 words—thank you if you’ve stuck it out this far!—and I’ve left plenty out, partly because, frankly, I have other stuff to do. I’m thinking about writing my TIME column about this subject this week. I get about 700 words for that, I can’t embed explanatory video, and I’ll need to include much more background about NPR, O’Keefe and the week’s controversy than I did here. Good luck!

That’s the dilemma of any journalist, as well as, well, whatever O’Keefe is: reality takes forever. You condense, you edit, you quote; you try to get a full sense of the actual story and relate it as best you can in the space you have available–whether limited by actual word count, minutes on air, or your audience’s attention span. You cut a lot of nuances and hope for the best.

You can do that with a mind toward presenting the fullest, fairest picture you can and earning your readers’ trust on the rest. (And you don’t have to be a nonideological, MSM outlet to do it—kudos to Beck’s The Blaze for calling O’Keefe out.)

Or you can, like O’Keefe, do it with a mind toward making sure your side wins and you present the worst possible picture of your adversaries. You can trust that unpacking all of your slanting will take too long to matter, that the casual news audience will remember your version and that your fans won’t believe your critics anyway.

That trust may well be rewarded. The biggest advantage that a video propagandist has is that reality, as they say in the blog comments, is tl; dr. Too long; didn’t read.