Washington Post’s double standard on hidden video

Jeff Poor Media Reporter
Font Size:

The Washington Post is giving very different coverage to a possibly illegal recording of a Sen. Mitch McConnell re-election campaign strategy meeting than the paper gave to hidden-camera reporting by undercover reporter James O’Keefe.

The recent recording of the Kentucky Republican’s strategy session about potential foe Ashley Judd was published by the liberal magazine Mother Jones, and the question now centers on whether the recording was made by someone in the meeting or someone outside the meeting, and what legal and ethical issues apply to the San Francisco magazine’s publication of the recording.

According to a report from NPR-affiliate WFPL, two members of the group Progress Kentucky were behind the recording — a potential felony, if true. “Kentucky law says it is a felony ‘to overhear, record amplify or transmit any part of a wire or oral communication of others without the consent of at least one party thereto by means of any electric, mechanical or other device,’” the WFPL reports.

But despite the possibility that a crime may have been committed in the making of the recording, Thursday’s Washington Post described the recording itself as “audio gold” on the front page of its website, and Post media reporter Paul Farhi gave a glowing account of Mother Jones’ work in publishing this recording and an earlier secret video recording of former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Perhaps the most vigorous defense of the recording came from Post media “opinion” blogger and Media Matters sweetheart Erik Wemple.

In a Tuesday post, Wemple concluded that Mother Jones is in the clear: “The translation of all this legalese is that the United States is an excellent place to practice journalism,” Wemple wrote. “Yes, reporters, you may accept clandestine recordings from law-breaking scumbags. Just don’t help them do their work.”

But Wemple hasn’t always been so agreeable about recordings obtained by questionable means. In 2011, Wemple railed against Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe for publishing what he called an “execrable video.”

That video showed New York university journalism professors Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky discussing a strategy “to legitimize Obama, help Occupy Wall Street” and defeat then-Republican presidential hopefuls Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Wemple, husband of Mother Jones reporter Stephanie Mencimer (who was once jailed for throwing dog feces at the proprietor of a Washington, D.C. pet spa), wrote of the Rosen/Shirky recording, “It’s not clear just what part of the video conveys some public scandal worthy of a surreptitious recording, so perhaps you could explain that part. What is clear is that the video has gotten quite a bit of attention.”

In even sharper contrast with the Post’s current, largely positive report on the McConnell recording, a January 2010 Post story on O’Keefe’s brush with the law over a recording included allegations was less generous: Initially, the reporters Carol D. Leonnig and Garance Franke-Ruta incorrectly wrote that O’Keefe had attempted to bug Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office. They later had to issue a correction.

The Post was dogged in its coverage of the O’Keefe-Landrieu debacle, reaching out to an old enemy of O’Keefe’s, then-ACORN President Bertha Lewis, to condemn his tactics.

“From the day that O’Keefe’s undercover ‘sting’ videos came out, ACORN leadership pledged accountability for its own staff while pointing out that the videos had been shot illegally and edited deceptively in order to undermine the work of an organization that has empowered working families for four decades,” Lewis told the Post. “Unfortunately, during the rush to judge ACORN, both the media and Congress failed to question the methods, intent and accuracy of Mr. O’Keefe’s videos.”

Follow Jeff on Twitter