The Ethics of Deception: Lessons from Project Veritas

By John Zmirak Published on December 2, 2017

The Project Veritas attempt to catch The Washington Post in the act of printing flimsy rape accusations against Roy Moore backfired. It blew up, in fact, like the Griswolds’ holiday lights in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

The Washington Post saw through the sting. It published an end-zone dance about its journalistic integrity. And liberal venues like Politico took the opportunity to slam Project Veritas. That was likely in the hope of undermining its previous crucial work. This included exposes of

  • Corruption among “community organizers” at ACORN.
  • Eager collusion at Planned Parenthood at covering up statutory rape and sex trafficking.
  • Rampant partisan bias at federally funded National Public Radio.

Politico asked in a recent article, “Is It Ever OK for Journalists to Lie?” It admitted that mainstream, liberal journalists used “sting” tactics long before Project Veritas. But Politico called on that conservative group to change its approach. Politico said it should “surrender its hidden cameras, its disguises and other concealments and the aliases it gives some of its operatives.”

Christians have in the past questioned the rightness or wrongness of using deception to smoke out potential wrongdoers. For instance, when Lila Rose first aired the facts she turned up about Planned Parenthood. Then later when David Daleiden released his shocking videos.

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Should We Tell Nazis the Truth?

A few writers staked out the absolutist position taken by Augustine and Aquinas. We may never tell even a harmless falsehood. Not to the worst person on earth. Not even to save an innocent life immediately in danger. Hence the Christians hiding Anne Frank would have sinned if they deceived the Nazis who hunted Jews.

Our self-respect is not as important as the life or freedom of others.

The loudest among those “purist” writers? Ex-columnist for the National Catholic Register Mark Shea. He flippantly said in a podcast: “The issue is not and never has been figuring out how to lie well; the issue is figuring out how to hide your Jews well.” Shea condemned O’Keefe, Lila Rose, and David Daleiden who used sting tactics against Planned Parenthood, calling them “liars for Jesus.”

In response to the recent failed Project Veritas sting, Shea wrote that

conservative Christianity in the US, both Catholic and Protestant, has in large measure morphed into Christianism, a false gospel which uses the forms and images of Christian culture in the service of a cult of personality centered around the worship of Donald Trump and his cult of lies, money, ego, power, violence, misogyny, and racism.

In a sweet piece of irony, Shea lost his gig at The National Catholic Register shortly after this expose appeared at LifeSiteNews. It documented how willing Shea was to misrepresent about the political opinions of conservatives to “win” an argument on the Internet.

The Purists Are Wrong

I detest dishonesty. Not so much because it’s sinful as that it’s vulgar. The thought of deceiving someone for my own crass benefit makes my gorge rise up in my throat. But we can’t accept the absolutist position promoted by Shea — and, to be fair, some honest theologians. The rules change when an innocent third party’s basic rights are at stake. Our self-respect is not as important as the life or freedom of others.

The purists are wrong. They believe that it might be okay to kill the Nazi officer at the door to save Anne Frank. But not to deceive him. How is physical violence morally neutral, but verbal deception intrinsically evil? Are all undercover cops, spies infiltrating ISIS, and “underground” missionaries who use false names to survive, engaged in systematically sinful behavior?

The purists are wrong. They believe that it might be okay to kill the Nazi officer at the door to save Anne Frank. But not to deceive him. How is physical violence morally neutral, but verbal deception intrinsically evil?

Theologian Janet Smith wrote a persuasive piece at First Things that showed the inconsistencies in this position. She traced them to a flawed understanding of the implication’s of man’s Fall. In Eden, neither violence nor deception would be necessary, or permitted. In our fallen world, things are different. Verbal pacifism that abandons the innocent is no more defensible than the ordinary variety.

The Right to the Truth

Most pro-lifers and Christians who engaged in the debate took a more reasonable position. It appeared in the original edition of Catechism of the Catholic Church. (The passage was later stricken.) That argument says that it’s gravely wrong to tell an untruth to someone who has a right to the truth. That wouldn’t include a Nazi at your doorstep hunting Jews. It would include your boss, who wants the details of how you spent the company’s money.

But what about all those cases in between? That’s where our consciences have to do some heavy lifting. Where the governing virtue of Prudence reigns. And that’s where O’Keefe seems to have made his blunder. The standard we can use should start with the Common Law. Then with the statutes our society developed from it. We let police impersonate drug dealers and try to make deals with members of the public. But not just any citizen on the street. A cop may not join an innocent bowling league or church group, then once he’s made friends, use hard-sell tactics to get people using drugs, so he can bust them.

A brave cop can and should infiltrate known or strongly-suspected criminal gangs. Where they’ve shown a history of drug use or sales, he can offer to accommodate them.

Probable Cause

The difference is clear: We don’t want the government trying to corrupt people who have shown no inclination to crime. The standard for journalists ought to be similar. People whom you have strong reason to believe are habitual criminals (or terrorists, or spies) don’t have the same right to the truth as Joe or Jane Taxpayer.

Anecdotes of Planned Parenthood facilitating abortions to cover up statutory rape were well-known in pro-life circles for years. Likewise, scattered reports that its abortion clinics were selling baby organs for profit. In neither case could pro-lifers get public authorities interested. So they volunteered for the effort, at great personal cost. (David Daleiden and his partner Sandra Merrit still face the prospect of prison in California.)

As I wrote a few days ago:      

The question that faces O’Keefe, which he should be asking himself: Was I letting my political anger at The Washington Post drive me to prejudge its reporters unjustly? Did I really have reason to believe that The Washington Post habitually libels people? That its reporters write and editor print false stories based on flimsy evidence, just to gut conservatives?

I suspect the answer to the last question is“No.” Certainly, the lesson of Project Veritas’ recent effort is that the Post is not nearly as bad as he feared. And that’s the only good news we can pull out of the wreckage.

We can also remind ourselves that Prudence lies in the Golden Mean. At one extreme is crass pragmatism and tribalism. At the other is preening, self-righteous purism. The “sweet spot” can be hard to find. But it’s our solemn task to seek it.  

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  • tether

    I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that sometimes it is ok to lie.

    • grapplinpt

      Go on….

  • Howard Rosenbaum

    There would be no basis for a “moral authority” were God not a Moral God.
    A redundant statement, perhaps ? God by definition must be beyond reproach.
    As far as the east is from the west is the distance between the immorality of one fallen from grace & the absolute standard of morality of a moral God.
    Consequently those standards by which one discerns the immoral from the moral can only be affirmed by an affirmation of how God would call it. When it comes to motives, intentions & behavior , you know the criteria to which the “moral code” is applied , It is the heart of man that God appraises.
    Seems to me man cannot be an amoral being, one having no affiliation w/right or wrong.
    We are ill-equipped to create a world absent of truth & consequences. In other words a being w/out the ability to be that which seems to be the cornerstone of humanity. Volition. Freedom to choose between “right” & “wrong”. Kind of what the redemptive work of a Savior is all about. Both objectively ( Redemptive grace / His part ) & subjectively.
    ( redemptive faith / our part )
    When it comes to deception , is it not incumbent upon God to judge the behavior ( the act of deceiving ) in light of the motives ? You know, that heart of man kind of thing which God looks upon above all else ? Journalistic espionage ? Well that may be a “horse of a different color & this isn’t the Land of Oz – or is it …?!
    So while there are consequences under the law of the land that govern these things , they are temporal. The consequences before a God who judges righteously ( theres that heart thing again ) are of a more significant nature . At least to the one whose motives are the pursuit of a “higher standard” than that which may be perceived as questionable in the affairs of men ….

  • Shawn Blinke

    I can think of only one instance in The Holy Bible when it is ok to tell a lie. That is when it advances The Lord’s plan or agenda. When Joshua’s spies were in Jericho, Rahab hid them and LIED to the king’s guards, who were looking for them so as to capture and kill them. That is the ONLY circumstance or time that I can think of.

  • Chip Crawford

    One upside is that The Washington Post passed the test. I wonder if The NY Times would have been as true to standards … or a bit slower to react.

  • stumpc

    Could it also be possible that the reason the Washington Post passed the test was they were aware that someday there would be a test? Just like a free press is charged with holding elected officials accountable, the public is charged with holding the free press accountable. Sometimes that might involve a test of their integrity.

    • Chip Crawford

      Are you condoning the “testing” means employed in this instance?

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