Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Yellow Journalism Today

James OKeefe

There is currently unfolding a scandal perpetrated by an individual whose rather dubious history for gotcha journalism ought to cast a large shadow over the veracity of his characterizations and heighten suspicion over the quality of his work. James O’Keefe is best known for his efforts to discredit ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an organization devoted to promoting better housing, schools, neighborhood safety, health care, job conditions, and voter registration for poor communities. In fact, largely because of his efforts federal funding for this organization was discontinued.

With the stated intention of luring documentary filmmakers and environmentally-conscious celebrities into discussions over funding for a documentary aimed at exposing the dangers of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, O’Keefe and his minions set out to dangle the prospect of funding from Middle Eastern clients with oil interests to prove the hypocrisy of those within the environmental community. Let it be made clear, the idea of accepting money from oil interests for the purposes of exposing those very same interests’ complicity in worsening climate change is not only counterintuitive but patently absurd and simply makes no sense. Individuals who are aware of this and ignore the obvious red flags are not exercising sound judgment. But this is where the proverbial plot thickens.

When documentary filmmaker Josh Fox, whose credits include the anti-fracking documentaries Gasland (Academy Award finalist for best documentary in 2010) and Gasland, Part II, was approached by individuals claiming to represent these very same interests he was not only curious but suspicious. When he pushed them to identify their clients and found them to be purposely vague Fox’s suspicions grew. The current state of documentary filmmaking and funding highlights the dilemma that faces many whose convictions and dedication to the importance of societal issues: On the one hand funding is tough to come by; on the other hand one cannot be blinded by the obvious contradictions and conflicts of interest that situations can present them with.

Based on his suspicions and convictions Fox decided that he would protect himself and recorded his conversations with these seemingly nefarious individuals on the other end of the phone line. And it is a good thing he did. The recorded conversations clearly show Fox’s determination to question where the money was coming from and his unequivocal refusal to entertain further discussions given the suspicious and secretive nature of the potential suitors.

Attempts by O’Keefe and his cohorts to skew the nature of the conversations via selective editing are preempted by the fact that the entire conversation was captured by Fox as a defensive effort to protect his integrity. In this case, the punkers were punk’d. Now it is sad that we have to go to these lengths to protect ourselves from such unscrupulous operators but that is the nature of the current news environment and its reliance upon sensationalistic entertainment.

There is an inextricable link that binds individuals in the public eye, a certain vulnerability that is always present and seemingly just a breath away from exposure that haunts celebrities and politicians alike and it is the danger of being caught saying something that is bound to incite scandal. People who thrive in the public sphere experience the highs of adulation and the lows of humiliation. A heightened sense of caution is a prerequisite in a 24-hour news cycle society that is as politically polarized and issue-divided as we are today.

While no tears are shed for those who make conscious decisions to perform in this arena there are always boundaries that need to define fair play. It is one thing to be held to the standard that you are responsible for your actions, words, and expressed thoughts. That is fair. There can be a fair amount of debate over what exactly constitutes entrapment in an effort to expose hypocrisy and the bounds of propriety that are strained prove such but that should be left for another discussion. Then you have the darkest corners of purposeful deceit, that area where there are no boundaries, no rules, no integrity, and no propriety just plain deceit.

The entertainment industry has long experienced the excesses of the paparazzi while politicians have long experienced the ravages of yellow press. The proliferation of sensational journalism and the virtual disappearance of investigative journalism have resulted in a carnival-like atmosphere where questionable journalistic practices have become more the norm than the exception. This development has encouraged a gotcha mentality where the product is more important than the process and it diminishes the quality of what passes for news.

I have spent nearly 40 years in the arenas of politics and for a short time was involved in the entertainment industry. The point where entertainment and politics intersect is in the public forum. Celebrities and politicians enjoy enormous public appeal and when public policy and/or political issues are showcased into the world of entertainment, particularly in the sphere of documentary filmmaking, the bar for accuracy is set very high indeed.

For purposes of full disclosure I worked closely with Josh Fox in the preparation of Gasland, Part II and appear in the film. Through my years of association with him I have come to know him as a man of integrity and devotion to factual detail. This attempt to smear him can and should focus on the integrity of the opposition, those forces of powerful interests dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of a profit-driven fossil fuel industry that holds little or no regard for the inevitably disastrous consequences they will visit upon both current and future generations.

lance-simmens-200The despicable lengths to which the opposition will go to shame, discredit, smear, and destroy those who wish only a public discussion and dialogue of both the short- and long-term consequences of a scientifically documented phenomenon that could threaten the survival of the species is not only dangerous but unacceptable in a society and a world dedicated to compassionate coexistence. And let this sorry episode be a stark reminder to all those wishing to effectuate positive changes in all spheres of public policy to be diligent in their pursuits and ensure that their integrity and conscience not be hijacked by the lure of money or power.

Lance Simmens

Reposted from Huffington Post with the author’s permission.

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