The Buffalo Beast's Ian Murphy gained national attention, hero status among liberals, and the ire of the
Society of Professional Journalists
when he called Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and pretended to be David Koch. Walker chatted with "Koch" for 20 minutes, riffing on his plans for defeating the Democrats in the budget standoff, on discarded ideas for discrediting the protesters. As far as he's considered, the sting carried out by Shaughn Adeleye and Simon Templar, volunteers in James O'Keefe's Project Veritas, was a solid effort.
"If it just raw footage," said Murphy, "and he pretended to be some dude from the Muslim Brotherhood in order to say stupid things and hear them say stupid things, I have no problem with that. I thought the whole ACORN thing was complete bullshit, because James O'Keefe didn't actually dress like a pimp in those offices, and the video made it seem like he did. But it's cool to be a pranky guy, even if you're a right-wing lunatic."
Was it any different than what he did to Walker? No. Was the motivation and scoop different? Murphy thinks so, because he caught a politician plotting his next moves.
"I don't think it's in the same ballpark," Murphy said. "You can't talk about political strategy with a donor in the governor's building. That's illegal. He was talking about planting troublemakers, and he didn't think of that as wrong -- he was workshopping it with me. He said he'd love to go to California after I suggested it!"
I asked Murphy if the lesson of this situation was that NPR should free itself from government funding.
"I think they should get a shit-ton more," he said. "It's a good public service. They do it in Britain, and the BBC is a great product, a great public service. And what does NPR get? It's something staggeringly low compared to some bloated, useless military program that no one wants to cut. Can we take away the funding for one fighter jet then have more journalism? I'd take that trade. This whole outrage about misusing taxpayer money, it hardly ever extends to the military."
Murphy was curious -- not really bitter, but curious -- about why the Society of Professional Journalists had condemned his prank and told reporters not to repeat it, but hadn't commented on this sting.
"I tell you, it raised concerns for me," said Kevin Smith, SPJ's former president and current ethics committee chairman. "But SPJ is not in a position to judge what activists do. The difference is that at the Buffalo Beast they're pretending to be journalists, although it depends on what day you ask them.
"My worry is that following on the heels of what happened with the Buffalo Beast, it's going to be increasingly more difficult for people to even have conversations with people, for fear that they're being taped. It's one thing to make comments and have to pay for your comments, but it's another when people are duping you. As I understand it, these people showed up in full Muslim garb -- that's my understanding -- and were setting this up to solicit the kind of comments they were looking for, which was criticism of Republicans and the Tea Party. And that's no different than what Ian Murphy did at the Buffalo Beast. My feeling is that he lives by whatever rules he wants to live by at the time. He doesn't understand how journalism works, or what journalistic ethics are."
I pointed out to Smith that James O'Keefe does describe himself as a journalist. (I agree with O'Keefe that he is.) SPJ doesn't consider O'Keefe a journalist, said Smith, although he acknowledged that the definition of journalism is changing fast.
"If I call myself a journalist, does that make me a journalist?" he asked. "If I balance my checkbook once a month, does that make me a banker?'