The so-called “Obama phone” has caught the ire of American conservatives for quite some time (after all, who could forget the infamous Obama phone lady?). And now, an explosive, new undercover video is set to reinvigorate debate, as it shows alleged corporate distributors of free cell phones giving the units out to people who pledge to sell them for drug money, to pay their bills — or simply to bring in some extra dough.
As the Daily Mail reports, the Federal Communications Commission’s “Lifeline” program is responsible for these distributions of phones to low-income Americans. According to the FCC’s web site, the program is “a government benefit program that provides discounts on monthly telephone service for eligible low-income consumers to help ensure they have the opportunities and security that telephone service affords, including being able to connect to jobs, family, and 911 services.”
The government’s intention in providing these services is that people with low resources will have access to 911, while also having a phone to communicate on necessary fronts, including for job interviews and other related needs.
But James O’Keefe, a conservative activist who has produced a plethora of controversial, undercover videos, decided to put these stated goals to the test to see how companies would respond to other intents for using these phones.
So he hired an actor and sent the individual down to a Stand Up Wireless store to try and get one of these phones. The faux Lifeline seeker is seen asking the cell phone company if he owns the phone once it is given to him.
“I can, like, sell it and stuff?,” he asks, with the worker responding that he can do “whatever” he wants with it.
“So I’m [going to] get some money for heroin,” the actor said.
“Hey, I don’t judge,” the employee responded.
This wasn’t the only instance of this happening, though. Rather than complying with the program as it is intended for those receiving the phones, actors — who went to both Stand Up Wireless and another company called TerraCom wireless — made it clear that they would immediately sell the phones for profit.
And the salespeople, it seems, were willing to hand the units over, despite knowing how they would be used. In the short, five-minute video, a number of employees tell male and female actors to simply keep their intent with the phones to themselves.
One woman does, indeed, tell an actress that her intent to sell the unit is illegal, but, according to the footage, no refusal to provide service occurs. In another scenario, the store worker tells the actor that he could “go to any pawn shop” if he wants to find out the exact value of the phone.
“Okay, so I could get the phone and then sell it?,” the actor asked.
“Yeah, I don’t care what you do with it,” she responded.
Watch the five minute compilation, below (warning: language):
And here’s a longer version of the raw footage (warning: language):
As the Daily Mail notes, while these phones are free for low-income Americans, it is the general public that ends up footing the bill. In all 50 states and in the District of Columbia, a Federal Universal Service Charge is included on all phones bills, both cellular and land line (a portion pays for the program).
Many conservatives have decried the program as a money waster. The Daily Mail continues:
Like industry leader TracFone, which has received more than $1.5 billion – including $440 million in 2012 alone – to provide phones to 3.9 million recipients, StandUp and Terracom behave more like corporate titans than good Samaritans. [...]
Stand Up Wireless’s parent company, Global Connection Inc. of America, has collected more than $38 million for its subsidized phones. The company itself is owned by Milestone Partners, a venture capital firm based in Radnor, Pennsylvania.
The Oklahoma-based TerraCom Wireless has harvested a total of $168 million for its participation across 23 states. Its self-described ‘sister company,’ YourTel America, Inc., has reaped nearly another $103 million.
So Lifeline has been lucrative and beneficial for both the companies and the recipients, alike. After speaking with the outlet, a TerraCom spokesperson said that those staffers seen in the video will likely be terminated if the accusations check out (the representative hadn’t yet viewed the video).
These so-called Obama phones are certainly controversial, but while the president’s administration does, indeed, support them, this program is nothing new. Lifeline has been around since 1984, although cell phones weren’t added until 2008. It is this latter inclusion that Democrats have defended as a viable means for the poor to communicate; some conservatives, though, believe that the program has grown out of control.
Read the entire Daily Mail piece to learn more about Lifeline and O’Keefe’s latest video.
In the past, TheBlaze has explored the journalistic standards and ethics surrounding undercover videos. The central question is: Is it ever permissible to lie to get the truth? While some would quickly answer affirmatively, it’s a challenging dynamic — and one that deserves scrutiny.
Experts have a variety of opinions, but the general consensus is that, unless deceit is the only option to retrieving information of monumental importance to the public, lying to obtain it is not ethical journalistic practice. There are, of course, differing ideas on how this dynamic unfolds. In 2011, Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard told TheBlaze that these rules do not apply to those outside of media.
“It’s dishonest for anyone in journalism to pretend to be someone they’re not. This rule doesn’t apply to folks outside the profession,” he said at the time.
But not everyone agrees with this assessment. Poynter has developed a list of standards for when it is — and is not — appropriate to use undercover tactics. And read more about TheBlaze’s exploration of undercover journalistic standards here.
(H/T: Daily Mail)
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