But first, here is the product of that sting, a real culture war artifact: To Catch a Journalist: New York Times, Jay Rosen, Clay Shirky.
It started with a request from a staff person at NYU to allow a prospective graduate student named “Lucas” to sit in on my class on October 17. This is something that happens 8-10 times a semester. Students want to know what they can expect if they come to study at NYU. I said yes because I always say yes. The class he wanted to observe is called “Digital Thinking.” That day I had scheduled a guest speaker: my colleague Clay Shirky. The students had read all of Shirky’s major writings about the transformation of journalism in the digital age and they were eager to ask him questions.
When I got to class, Lucas was already there. I welcomed him, introduced him to the class, and asked my students to be nice to him because he was thinking of coming to study at NYU. About 30 minutes later Clay showed up and we did what college professors do thousands of times a day at universities everywhere. We tell stories with ideas inside them and share how we think. We answer students’ questions and get them to share how they think. We try to complicate their picture of the world and inspire them to inquire further. This is the work of education. And this is what Clay and I did.
The next day I got a note from “Lucas.” It said:
Dear Professor Rosen,
Thank you very much for the opportunity to sit in on your class. It was a treat to learn from Clay Shirky. I am leaving town on Friday. I was wondering if we could meet this week to discuss NYU, concentrations and a piece I am working on about Occupy Wall Street. Let me know what days and times work for you. I am pretty flexible.
I met with him two days later in my office. I will tell you what happened there in a moment.
Six days after that, on Oct. 26, the phone rang in my office. It was James O’Keefe. He said he wanted me to comment on something or other. I said there must be a context to this call, so what’s the context? And he began to read me quotes from the class session with Clay Shirky. It took me a few minutes to recognize that, yes, these were things that were said in class, so he obviously had a recording. Once I realized what he was up to I laughed at the absurdity of it and told him, “James, do whatever you want to do.”
At first I was confused about how the tape got made. I asked each of my students if he or she had taped the class. They each said no. I believed them. Then one student remembered we had a guest that day and it all fell into place.
“Lucas” had taped us, surreptitiously. Then he asked to meet with me. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was part of the sting. He said he wanted to become a political journalist: did I have any advice? I gave him several career paths he could follow. He asked me if being a politics major and a journalism minor would be a handicap. I said no. Then he let me in on something.
He said he had a tape of a Tea Party gathering in which some ugly and extreme (the implication was racist) things were said. He said it was gruesome stuff. He wanted to know how he could get it to the media. To the New York Times. I said the New York Times wouldn’t be interested in something like that, and that he might try to contact Max Blumenthal of the Nation. He asked if I had any other advice for him. I said find a niche and start a blog. I gave him the examples of Ezra Klein, Dave Weigel and Nate Silver to show him that it was possible. I was trying to inspire him! “Lucas” thanked me and left. He had a strange smile on his face.
I now realize he was scamming me and almost certainly taping me. The intended story line, worked out in advance, was lefty journalism professor jumps at the chance to assist with the discrediting of the Tea Party by passing along sensational footage to his buddies at the Times. “Lucas” was there to get me to say the words that, when diced and spliced, would sound like that. But it didn’t work. I told him the Times wouldn’t be interested. So no portion of that tape appears in O’Keefe’s video.
You can see the similarity between this plot and the sting O’Keefe ran on NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller. Schiller was invited to compare notes with O’Keefe’s seemingly sympathetic operatives on how racist the Tea Party was.
About the tape O’Keefe mashed together from Clay Shirky’s words, and a few of my own, there’s not much to say because it’s so incoherent, context-less and, frankly, boring. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post put it: “Just a couple of professors prattling on in not-so-fascinating ways about media and politics.” (For a different view, see Human Events: “exactly the sort of conversation that the most aggressive conservative critics of liberal media bias have nightmares about.”)
A student asked Shirky why the early coverage of Occupy Wall Street was meager and condescending. His answer was to the student and in a way to the protestors themselves: “If you want Occupy Wall Street to succeed, you want them not to get press coverage in the beginning.” O’Keefe turns that into Shirky revealing “the New York Times‘ strategy to support Occupy Wall Street.” The way the tape is edited, the “you” in “you want them” sounds like it refers to Times journalists, and so not covering Occupy Wall Street is really a secret plan at the Times to support the protests.
When Shirky says “we are the most elite…” and I follow it up with “we’re the one percent!” the discussion was about news consumption: journalism professors and students are at the extreme end in attention to news and willingness to pay for it. But you can feel O’Keefe salivating over those words as he splices them in. The implication he wants: we are your overlords!
Those are two examples, but why go on? If you see some scandal in the tape… good luck to you. What reasonable people will see is a lurid mess, which has meaning only within the taken-for-granted world of right wing culture war.
Occasionally I will hear someone exasperated at his tactics describe O’Keefe as a kind of terrorist. This is not wise and it’s not true. He doesn’t use violence; he’s an “entrapment journalist,” as Steve Myers of Poynter put it. But having been targeted, I can see one thing in his methods that is akin to terrorism.
As I said, when someone asks to sit it on my class, I say “come on in.” But my students are now shocked and angry that their learning environment has been invaded by a trickster like O’Keefe. I need to prevent that from happening again. But the only way I can do so is by closing my classroom to all outsiders, or by looking into the background, motivations and character of potential visitors, which is creepy and offensive. O’Keefe has struck at a pedagogical strength–the openness of my classroom–and changed it into a weakness. In that precise sense, and no other, he is like a terrorist.
You want to know what goes on in my classroom? Meet the real Clay Shirky. The one I had my students read. Here was their assignment.
We do not have class October 10. It’s a holiday: Columbus Day. It is alleged that he discovered America. Our next meeting will therefore be October 17. This I have designated Shirky Day. You are to absorb what Clay Shirky has to teach journalism and journalists. And so the readings are…Keynote speech: A Group is its Own Worst Enemy (2003)Blog post: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable: (2009)Blog post: Rescuing the Reporters: (2009)Blog post: Why Small Payments Won’t Save Publishers (2009)Essay: Not an upgrade, an upheaval (2009)Talk at Nieman Foundation: (watch the video, please.) (2009)Blog post: The Collapse of Complex Business Models (2010)Blog Post: Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic (2011)YouTube: Interview with Jay Rosen (2009)Ted Talk: The Cognitive Surplus (2010)
Post-script, Dec, 2011:
Actual hate mail, one of hundreds I have received in the same vein, showing the effects of the video’s editing to produce fake outrage.
John Hazelwood, firstname.lastname@example.org
to: [me] date: Mon, Dec 19, 2011 at 1:09 AM
I’ve just listened to a recording of you as an elitist journalist, a one percent-er if you will. What you are Rosen, is a poor excuse of a journalist and a prime example of why journalism has sunk to the pit most of you now occupy. Your comments on the tape remind me of a “jerk” who has no good explanation for themselves and can only rely on “smart ass” remarks.
Oh for the days of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite. You know, those journalist who the American people could trust. Not some snotty nose little boy who is just too full of himself.
Oh, and, Merry Christmas!!