Written by Lee Schneider
I laughed when they were played on Nixon. I was disgusted to learn they were played on Senator Mary L. Landrieu. I didn’t laugh much when Sacha Baron Cohen used them in Borat. I’m talking about dirty tricks. In a citizen-journalist-famous-for-15-minutes way, dirty tricks are back. They’ve even been called a legitimate tool of “investigation.” (“Honey, I was using this nanny cam to investigate the babysitter and it caught you with the pool boy. Care to comment?”)
Quick review. When Richard Nixon made a speech one time in LA’s Chinatown, a prankster named Dick Tuck arranged for adorable children to hold up signs saying “Welcome” in Chinese. Only the signs really said, “What About the Hughes Loan?”, a reference to a controversial loan Howard Hughes made to Nixon’s brother. Nixon was furious and reportedly tore up one of the signs. More recently, James O’Keefe III, a 25-year-old guerrilla videographer, has been accused along with three other men of seeking to tamper with the office phones of Democratic Senator Mary L. Landrieu. Apparently, the four impersonated repairmen to gain entry to the office of the Louisiana senator.
O’Keefe called his deception an “investigation.” You might argue that impersonating repairmen was gonzo journalism, a courageous act of civil disobedience or a new way to dig for the truth. Digging for the truth – by lying about who you are. Give me a moment to think about that.
In this regard, I am not an angel. In Greece once, with one foot on the dock and another on a boat, I handed a police officer a dummy videotape so we could get the real one out of the country. When I worked for NBC and Fox I wore a wire a couple of times. I had people wearing hidden cameras for stories. When I wore a wire I made a point of saying that everything spoken was on the record. We conferred with network lawyers before we tried anything like that. We did those kinds of recordings in states where you didn’t need the consent of the other party, so it was legal. We also didn’t trespass where we didn’t belong. We followed the rules, and listened to the network lawyers, but we knew if we screwed up it would be our asses in a sling, not theirs.
Rougher game now. Fuzzier boundaries. You have Borat and O’Keefe. As a documentary guy I noticed a big change after Borat. People were suspicious about interviews. Was I going to hoax them like Borat, punk them like Ashton or trick them like Colbert? These days, people want to screen an interview before it airs. I feel that old slippery slope under my feet: If I show them the interview they will talk about their hair or why they hadn’t had that mole removed. Suddenly we’re not talking about the story, we’re talking about their performance. The interview becomes performance art.
Sacha Baron Cohen and James O’Keefe are all in the same entertainment game. In their brand of performance art you get to lie, impersonate people and wear funny outfits. I like entertainment, but if you’re wearing a funny outfit, the only people who consent to an interview with you are other entertainers with their own funny outfits. A closed-loop system. Get ready for Borat to anchor CNN. Maybe he already is.