Editor's Note: In this intensely polarized political environment, it is no surprise that nonprofits – particularly those operating in politically charged fields – would feel at risk. Traditionally that risk includes a lot of overheated rhetoric leading to vulnerability in both public policy decisions and public funding.
Unfortunately these risks are not new. But now those traditional lines of attack are being supplemented by the growing popularity of the video “sting.” Sometimes masquerading as journalism, these well-publicized stings are a penny ante theater in search of a venue. The plots are thinly constructed, and the precepts ridiculous, but somehow they are playing to full houses.
The scenario entails showing up at the organization in question (sometimes repeatedly, if they can’t at first find a patsy) and posing a situation that is unusual enough to throw the subject off base and then luring them into misbehavior. Granted, sometimes it does not take much. The misbehavior of the individual stung then becomes a proxy for the behavior of the whole organization – the small story becomes the bigger meaning and the die is cast.
The problem is that these kinds of stings have been infecting public policy conversations. The images and edited statements remain in people’s minds eyes, obscuring the real substance of the policy debates.
What’s a politically contentious nonprofit to do in the face of such stuff? Rick Cohen suggests that we scrutinize our own organizational cultures and practices to ensure as much integrity as possible. I agree with that, but it also behooves us to speak out against the absurdity of the tool being used to batter important organizations among us into a weakened state. We tend not to speak out on such stuff as a sector. When a “scandal” surfaces at a colleague nonprofit, many of us just keep our heads down, hoping we can stay out of the fray but what would happen if this sector took to loudly mocking the practice of the video sting – creating our own counter narrative about the practice?
Nonprofits need to take more control over the “story” we want heard by our public. Part of that is in loudly and often declaring these kinds of vacuous stings illegitimate and unworthy of the intelligence of the residents of this country.–Ruth McCambridge, Editor in Chief
On a recent late winter day, National Public Radio fundraising specialist Ron Schiller was having a great meal at the hip and expensive Milano’s in the posh Georgetown neighborhood in Washington D.C. He was meeting with representatives of the “Muslim Education Action Center,” interested in donating $5 million to NPR – or so he thought. Members of the group allegedly told Schiller that they were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Over the course of the meal, the conversation covered the Jewish control of the media and Zionist bias in news reporting and other topics of interest.
Schiller told the two men he was meeting with, "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." And later added, "Tea Party people" aren't "just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean basically they are, they believe in sort of white, middle-America gun-toting. I mean, it's scary. They're seriously racist, racist people."
It was only later that Schiller – and the rest of the world – learned that he’d been stung. Political activist James O’Keefe and his self-styled muckraking group, Project Veritas, had managed to get the whole thing on tape. Schiller, along with NPR CEO, Vivian Schiller (no relation), was fired.
And NPR is not alone. Other groups, many nonprofit, and many – but not all – considered liberal, have all been stung – and caught on tape. ACORN, Planned Parenthood, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, have all had embarrassing, incriminating, or inappropriate remarks made public.
Each has been stung by people masquerading as potential donors, clients – even as telephone repairmen – aiming at generating some embarrassing news revelations. Is this investigative journalism? Is the public being served? Or is this noise that distracts from important issues? We think it’s the latter. These stings sidetrack the public into focusing on the miscues of individual nonprofit and government officials and staff, and rarely the quality of public discourse.
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