When The Daily Caller released tapes last week showing NPR executive Ron Schiller calling the Tea Party "racist," he quickly resigned; NPR's CEO was ousted soon after. But the 11-minute snippet of Schiller footage, released by serial prankster James O'Keefe, was clipped from a two-hour conversation. And when editors at Glenn Beck's conservative website The Blaze — an unlikely NPR ally — looked at the tape's full context, they found Schiller's remarks, while still objectionable, less inflamatory than once thought. Did O'Keefe use deceptive cutting to make Schiller seem extra-extreme?
The context was left on the cutting room floor: Even if you approve of undercover reporting, says Scott Baker at The Blaze, "editing tactics that seem designed to intentionally lie or mislead" cross the line. For instance, when Schiller labels Tea Partiers "seriously racist people" — one of the tape's most publicized statements — it sounds as if he's voicing his own opinion. But, as the raw footage reveals, "he is largely recounting the views expressed to him by two top Republicans." This doesn't excuse Schiller, but it sheds more light on the situation.
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And O'Keefe cut potentially exonerating material: Not only were "many of Ron Schiller's most provocative remarks... presented in a misleading way," says David Folkenflik at NPR, but statements that would have made him look better were conveniently missing from the version O'Keefe released. For instance, although Schiller's repeated assertion that money could not buy news coverage would have made him look more responsible, it didn't make the cut.
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There really was no need for deceptive editing: Schiller said "some legitimately bad stuff," says James Poniewozik at Time. His comments would "have lit up the blogosphere and started the chain of sacrifices at beleaguered NPR regardless." But O'Keefe went for "maximum partisan advantage," and tried to make "NPR look as unambiguously bad as possible." Sadly, that fits with the state of debate today. "Political dialogue online is a binary world," a place in which "either the story is 100 percent true or an absolute lie." In reality, though, things are usually more complicated.
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