As a liberal, I’m glad to see Sacha Baron Cohen expose the corruption, hatred, craziness, and racism of many conservative NRA loving politicians and people. For example, Cohen enticed a Republican Georgia state representative, Jason Spencer, to yell the full N-word and pull down his pants to expose his naked butt to try to repel a hypothetical Muslim terrorist. Spencer eventually resigned due to the incident.
At first, I was really excited about the show and urged my fellow liberal friends to watch Cohen’s Showtime program “Who is America?” I thought it was really funny and it showed how dumb, gullible, and scary these conservatives were.
While Cohen’s exposing these true feelings are valuable, his undercover and deceptive techniques are disturbing. Basically, he is engaging in entrapping people to participate in idiotic made up situations and conversations that make them look bad. This is nothing new for Cohen, who has used his various characters, including Borat, Bruno, and Ali G to embarrass and expose people. In his current show, he has duped, among others, Dick Cheney, who gleefully signed a waterboarding kit, several Republican politicians who were duped into talking positively about a made up proposal to arm kindergartners with guns to defend against school shootings, Roy Moore, who tested positive to Cohen’s fake pedophile detector, and several dozen citizens at a town meeting in Kingman, Arizona, who responded to a fake proposed giant mosque in town with angry bigoted responses. While Cohen does target all types of people, his main focus has been on Republicans and conservatives.
There is a long history of using undercover techniques in entertainment, journalism, and advocacy. Past television shows using these techniques include Candid Camera, Undercover Boss, To Catch a Predator, Mystery Diners, Celebrity Undercover, Cheaters, Impractical Jokers, Punk’d, The Real Wedding Crashers, and What Would You Do?
Undercover journalism has a long history. Nellie Bly exposed the horrors of mental hospital institutions in the late 19th century by posing as an insane inmate in an asylum. Many local televisions stations use undercover reporters to expose corruption by government officials and others. This technique can be used as a tool to expose societal ills, but it should be used rarely and carefully. For instance, there was a chilling effect on this type of journalism after the Food Lion v. ABC case, which found ABC liable for trespass and breach of loyalty for having its producers lie on job applications to expose unhealthy practices.
Conservatives have used this technique as well. The most famous incident was when two conservative activists, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and a prostitute to entice ACORN employees to give them illegal tax advice for their made up business of smuggling young women into the United States to work as prostitutes. Their work was published by Breitbart and they became conservative icons to their supporters for exposing a liberal organization, but to their detractors, they brought down an important and valuable organization that engaged in community organizing and voter registration. In subsequent years, O’Keefe tried to engage in sting operations against the Washington Post, a George Soros backed group, CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau, and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu.
A few years ago, two pro-life activists, David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, released undercover videos accusing Planned Parenthood doctors of selling aborted fetal tissue. The heavily edited videos caused national outrage and led to threats against abortion providers. They filmed 14 people without their consent at meetings with women’s healthcare providers in four cities and published the videos on the website for the Center for Medical Progress. In 2017, they were charged with 15 felonies by California prosecutors.
These undercover sting videos are often cleverly edited in a deceptive manner and don’t show the entire context of what took place.
My own hunch is that people like to see undercover journalism, entertainment, and activism if it confirms their own beliefs and values and exposes others that they dislike or disagree with. They don’t like it and label it as “Gotcha” techniques if it exposes and embarrasses people and organizations that they like. One group’s muckraker or hero can be seen by others as a hack and a charlatan.
Liberals like me were critical of the ACORN sting and other similar deceptive incidents that attacked liberal institutions. While it’s tempting to revel in Sacha Baron Cohen’s exposure of the dark side of conservatives, we shouldn’t encourage the deceptive techniques that he used to get his information, results, and behavior. What goes around comes around. In the future, we’re likely to see more conservative citizen journalists/advocates/provocateurs like James O’Keefe who will set out to entrap and embarrass liberal democrats and organizations through deceptive measures. Will we embrace these undercover efforts as much as we do Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who is America? Probably not.
Larry Atkins is the author of Skewed: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Media Bias (Prometheus Books). He teaches Journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. Twitter: @larryatkins4