By Len Lazarick
James O’Keefe and his surreptitious videos have helped bring down the ACORN community organization and the top executives at NPR, and he’s caused immense grief for the New Jersey teachers union and Planned Parenthood.
“There’s a debate about what to call me,” O’Keefe told a meeting of the Harbor League at a Timonium hotel Wednesday night. Sean Casey of WCBM suggested he was one of the “citizen journalists.” Jeff Ferguson, vice president of Harbor League, a conservative free-market organization, said he’s “an entrepreneur” and “investigative journalist.”
“I like to call myself a community organizer,” O’Keefe said to laughter, somewhat half jokingly referring to one of Barack Obama’s previous jobs. It also refers to the techniques he’s borrowed from Saul Alinsky, the late radical community organizer: “Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.”
But as O’Keefe described his tactics and strategy – leaving out a few crucial details such as what kind of hidden cameras he uses – it became clear that what he really is is an “anti-journalist,” not just a conservative activist trying to deflate the liberal establishment.
“There’s no such thing as journalism anymore,” O’Keefe, 26, said. “There’s no such thing as investigative journalism.” Journalists in general are “biased and corrupt,” and are not journalists at all. “They’re political operatives.”
He made his point strongly with a video PowerPoint that showed how the “mainstream media” mishandled the release of his clandestine videos.
O’Keefe broke into national news with his 2009 release of videos at the Baltimore ACORN office pretending to be a pimp, along with his provocatively clad sidekick Hannah Giles as a prostitute. At several ACORN offices around the country, they were offered advice on how to hide their income from prostitution and bring in underage Salvadorans for the sex trade.
He showed clips of how media at first dismissed his charges, until he released more of the tapes from other cities.
“I do not think my mission is a conservative one,” O’Keefe said. “Our mission is to be a muckraker,” associating himself with the long tradition of investigative journalists. He says the media has abandoned this mission. “You’re dealing with powers that want to suppress information.”
“I just show people the truth,” O’Keefe said.
As someone who had spent a lifetime in journalism, my problem isn’t just his blanket condemnation of a whole profession. It’s that every O’Keefe “scoop,” every one of the truly outrageous statements he is able to elicit, depends on deception of some sort. Phony pimps and prostitutes. Hidden mics or cameras. Phony Muslim donors to NPR. Phony underage pregnancies. Phony contributors to Planned Parenthood wanting to fund the abortion of black babies.
“It’s not really lying,” O’Keefe said. “It’s really truth seeking.”
In a conversation afterwards, O’Keefe placed himself in the grand tradition of other journalists such as Mike Wallace and Diane Sawyer, who won Emmy awards for stories that depended on deception. “Should they give back their Emmies?” he asked.
One of the key provisions of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists that we try to follow is:
“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”
O’Keefe says that his revelations wouldn’t be possible without underhanded methods that play on the weaknesses of the organizations he tries to undermine. He also concedes that the more open methods usually employed by journalists who identify themselves as such are likely to produce more guarded responses, not the juicy clips he publicizes.
Another advantage O’Keefe exploits is the use of volunteers who are not known to the subjects of his stings. Reporters like me, who have been covering state politics for years and are often wearing media badges, are treated warily by even people with little contact with journalists.
O’Keefe denies he’s funded with big bucks, and his Project Veritas just got his 501(c)(3) determination letter from the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit. (MarylandReporter.com has the same status.) “My budget last year was $10,000,” O’Keefe said. “We’re running on fumes.”
He said his organization is recruiting and training citizen journalists. “I’ve got thousands of tips,” he said. “It’s all about finding people” who can execute those stories.
“The job of the media is to scrutinize people,” O’Keefe said. “We’re shaming the media.”
“I will go after Republicans. I will go after Wall Street,” O’Keefe claimed.
His next release will be “very soon,” he said, “an ACORN style investigation nationwide.”
His website says, “this new evidence will expose the biggest fraud we’ve seen yet. When we go public, our footage is going to blow the lid off of a nationwide scandal worth more than $1.2 trillion a year.
“The establishment is terrified about the next sting video,” he said Wednesday night.
And O’Keefe is also slightly worried that Baltimore prosecutors will seek to nab him for the 2009 video, since Maryland is one of the “dual consent” states where both parties to a recording must agree to it. He is already on federal probation for posing as a telephone repairman in the New Orleans office of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
In the 1970s, The Chicago Sun-Times bought a tavern to see how much graft and corruption there was in the City of Chicago. They published a 25-part series and were awarded a Pulitzer Prize (until Ben Bradlee made the Pulitzer committee take it back). It was hailed as a great achievement, and it used hidden cameras, and deception, for months at a time.
Paul, interesting that you raise Stossel as an example. His name was brought up Wednesday night by one person (not O’Keefe), and I said there were people who question his ethics. And they were a bit surprised. Let’s see if O’Keefe does actually go after Republicans and Wall Street.
Should the yardstick simply be whether his “reporting” or products are true and factual? Both sides raise very good points here, but in my thinking, if he does look at all sides and many issues and tries to expose things in need of exposing from both left and right, Democrat and Republican, it would make him more legitimate. If not, then he truly is just grinding a political axe with a slant to everything. So-called journalist John Stossel has been doing this more or less for many years. Any other thoughts?
Also, Muckracking is actually a legitimate practice, but not to be associated with sting operations.
Sting operations were never a
part of my training/schooling as a journalist at University of Baltimore or University of Maryland. Journalists operating undercover to bait people into wrong doing is
not investigative journalism. Okeefe’s quest is merely to support his own political narratives — through trickery and deception. His escapades are battles in a larger ideological war, and he is clearly a partisan.
To associate the word “journalism” with his name and avocation is highly insulting to those of us who adhere to a code of ethics and practice due diligence in our reporting.
Going undercover to observe and report is sometimes used by
news organizations when there is a compelling public interest and all avenues
to report the story upfront have been exhausted. But it should be obvious that enticing people to commit crimes is not the calling of any journalist.