A Tale of Two Pranks

When the news broke yesterday morning about an NPR fund-raiser being caught on tape saying bad things about Republicans and the Tea Party, I immediately thought about how just last month, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had also been caught on tape saying bad things about Democrats. Walker had also been caught on tape possibly indicating he had considered disrupting peaceful protests with “troublemakers” but had decided against it not because of any legal or ethical concerns, but because it might backfire politically. Walker also appeared to indicate he was open to accepting a free trip to California from someone claiming to be a political donor.

I was puzzled at the time by the lack of coverage of the Walker incident by journalists. The New York Times, for example, focused on the fact that Walker had been tricked by a liberal blogger, referring frequently to the incident as a “prank.” The Times consistently downplayed the substance of Walker’s taped comments, beginning with the first piece on the subject, “Walker Receives Prank Call From Koch Impersonator,” which appeared in the Caucus Blog of the Times. The headline makes Walker passive, a victim, the direct object of the subject in this passive voice construction, “Koch Impersonator.” Thus, the focus of the story is the impersonator and not Walker. In fairness, the blog piece included most of the important substance of the call, but the “troublemakers” comment is not mentioned until the eighth paragraph. The story later made it out of the blog and into the U.S. section of the Times web site, but only as part of a larger wrap-up of the political conflict in Wisconsin, “Standoffs, Protests, and a Prank Call.” As the headline indicates, the piece dealt with Walker’s comments last (in the 17th paragraph), and then in the context of the governor as the victim of a hoax. And that was pretty much it. The Times seemed to have decided that the fact that Walker’s comments shouldn’t be taken seriously, even though he is an elected official saying things privately at odds with his public statements, because a) he was duped by a prankster into making the comments, and/or b) because they were inconsequential. Fair enough.

So I figured that the coverage of NPR “fund-raising executive” Ronald Schiller’s comments to people posing as Muslim donors but actually confederates of “Republican provocateur” James O’Keefe, would portray Schiller as the victim of a “prank.” Oddly, this is not the case. Instead, the headline to the first piece in the Times was “NPR Official is Taped Criticizing Republicans” (the original headline has been replaced in the article itself, but if you look at the headline at the top of your browser, this original remains). The passive voice is there, but the NPR official is all alone. He is the sole actor, and the action is his criticism of Republicans. No prank mentioned. This could be an oversight of the headline writer, however, as indicated by the soon changed headline, which as of this writing reads, “Facing Lawmakers’ Fire, NPR Sees New Setback.” The new headline only reaffirms the Times’ take: how the information got out doesn’t matter, what matters is the substance. Schiller said something politically offensive, regardless of how or under what circumstances he said what he said. A closer read of the Times article makes the point clear, as the first sentence in the piece asserts that “NPR was forced into damage control mode on Tuesday after the release of a video that showed one of its fund-raising executives repeatedly criticizing Republicans and Tea Party supporters.”

Why the difference? The episodes are about as similar as you can get, except that the NPR “official” (can you be official when you’re a private employee?) was on his way out the door and was a fund-raiser, and Scott Walker is the governor of a state and is charged with enforcing the law. Is it because the Times is defensively self-censoring to somehow refute right-wing critics like Bill O’Reilly, who calls the Times “about as über left as you can get?” Or do Times editors really see a journalistic reason to treat these two incidents so differently? I can’t find one.

    • loungecreature
    • March 10th, 2011

    Update: Today the NYT is characterizing O’Keefe as a “filmmaker.” Really? The guy who caught Walker is a prankster and O’Keefe, the guy who dressed up in a pimp costume, is a filmmaker. How do you get to that description? He doesn’t even use film. http://goo.gl/EbTCw

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