The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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NPR video: So grainy, jumpy and heavily edited it must be true

March 16, 2011 |  4:53 pm

O'Keefe A lot has been written about how selective editing of a secret video helped maximize the damage to NPR and its chief fundraiser, Ron Schiller, who resigned last week after sharply criticizing conservatives.

A full viewing of the uncut video showed that Schiller said plenty of mitigating things: He was once a Republican himself, for instance, and admired the party’s fiscal restraint. He also repeatedly declined to be drawn in by the video makers' provocations that, for example, conservatives should be banned from the public radio network.

The discrepancies between the full and edited videos only came to light after Schiller had been forced out. NPR chief executive Vivian Schiller quickly followed him out the door, with the network under considerable stress as Congress considers killing its federal funding.

So why did tricked-out video—much like the secret audio of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talking to a fake supporter—pack such a wallop?

Kevin Maness, assistant professor of communication studies at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, said the crude, homemade quality of secret "sting" videos enhances their currency with the general public.

“When a media outlet plays audio so bad that it needs subtitles or grainy video at strange angles, I would speculate that this carries a considerable amount of authority—not to mention emotional impact—for viewers,” Maness wrote me in an e-mail. “To me, the bad production quality says that this is super-secret stuff that could never have been learned through conventional means.”

Maness said guerrilla video/audio work for media outlets because they carry the patina of authenticity and authority. (What feels more real than direct recordings?) Television, radio and Web outlets can simply replay the recordings and seek out reaction and, voila, a provocative story is born.

Once the video and audio have been picked up by mainstream news outlets, the authenticity of the recordings only expands. “Now I may convince even a moderately skeptical person that my campaign is based on ‘fact,’ " Maness said.

The video stings jump into our consciousness much like a Hollywood blockbuster, Maness argues. Even critically reviled stinkers can make big money and get some traction on opening weekend, before anyone starts talking about the films' quality.

“If and when there's any follow-up, it will invariably be less splashy than the original story,” Maness said. And some media will be particularly loath to revisit the matter, if follow-up will make it clear that the recordings didn't get enough scrutiny before their initial airing.

Maness said the press should have learned by now to treat such videos gingerly. And the targets of the stings should pause before jumping too hastily into corrective action that may not be necessary.

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: James O'Keefe, whose Project Veritas arranged the secret video recording of NPR fundraising chief Ron Schiller. Schiller resigned after the video showed him criticizing some Republicans. Credit: Bill Haber / Associated Press