One day in the summer of 2009, Hannah Giles, an American conservative activist, sent me a message telling me about an ACORN event with the idea to infiltrate it. We both had internships set up by the National Journalism Center, a conservative education and networking group, and we were both working on projects related to researching the community organizing group infamous in conservative circles for its voter registration efforts that Barack Obama helped represent in a voting rights lawsuit.
Later that summer, Giles mentioned she had something big coming out but couldn’t say any more. I, along with the rest of the country, found out soon enough. Suffice it to say, her project, in which she partnered with James O’Keefe to portray themselves visiting ACORN offices across the country to ask about tax avoidance strategies for a prostitution ring, is the one remembered today.
O’Keefe has since made a lucrative career out of using the same tactics to ambush all matter of liberal and liberal-associated groups, from unions, to Democratic senators, to political staffers, to media outlets which conservatives dislike (which is to say almost all of them).
With each passing video, however, there has been less impact and more scrutiny as the viewing public and his potential targets catch on to his tricks. His latest attempt at an expose — trying to get the Washington Post to print fabricated sexual assault claims about Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore — is a distillation of the sophistry that underpins the right-wing’s anti-journalism movement. Rather than exposing a vast left-wing conspiracy, O’Keefe, Breitbart, and their contemporaries have laid bare the anti-intellectualism of a generation of conservative media stars.
Ironic for someone who makes it his mission to undermine journalism, O’Keefe publicly presents himself as a truth-telling journalist. His Twitter profile describes himself as a “guerrilla journalist” and a “muckraker.”
In a debate with Chase Whiteside at Temple University in 2012, O’Keefe said, “I believe it’s ethical to expose misconduct, unethical behavior in society. I think that’s what the purpose of journalism is.” In 2016, he told the New Yorker’s Jane Meyer, “What I do is the truest form of journalism there is. We hit the record button and show people what we found.”
If that’s true, he wouldn’t have anything to worry about now. If he really is a journalist bent on seeking the truth, then his investigation into the Washington Post would have turned out just fine. He would have gone in with a question, and he would have found the answer.
Baselessly ascribing motive, defaming my intentions… Our undercover reporter sought to test the veracity of @washingtonpost's newsroom. Glad to see you're interested, don't miss our next video this week. https://t.co/lquvLlFzvN
— James O'Keefe (@JamesOKeefeIII) November 28, 2017
“…Our undercover reporter sought to test the veracity of @washingtonpost’s newsroom,” he tweeted.
But strangely enough, if you visit ProjectVeritas.com, you will find no mention of the results of the investigation. Instead what you find are a hodgepodge of disjointed attempted attacks on the press — mostly the Washington Post and the New York Times and defenses of Donald Trump. He has been madly defending himself on Twitter — as if he did something wrong or was disappointed with the results, rather not like the behavior of someone who launched an honest investigation with no predetermined conclusion.
After hitting the record button, O’Keefe hits the cut and delete buttons, in order to create seconds-long clips out-of-context, with many of the leading questions from anonymous activists that elicited those brief clips edited out. Analyzing his 2011 attack on NPR, Glenn Beck’s the Blaze published findings of 8 egregious distortions in the 11-and-a-half minute video, after comparing it to the longer 2 hour dump of footage.
One former employee of O’Keefe’s exposed a script showing how it’s done. O’Keefe directed Richard Valdes to attend a Black Lives Matter protest and express anger about alleged police brutality with the goal of baiting a random protester to laugh along with him:
“As a minority and a Muslim, I know what it’s like when the police treat me unfairly. They have even searched my little daughter’s body. Can you believe that? Do you know what it’s like to have your rights violated because of the color of your skin or because of your name? -PAUSE-
Sometimes, I wish I could just kill some of these cops. Don’t you just wish we could have one of the cops right here in the middle of our group? -PAUSE-
What would you do if we could get Officer Pantoleo (who killed Eric Garner) right here in this crowd? What would you do to him?”
Talk with enough protesters for long enough, and then you have six minutes of disjointed responses to string together for a YouTube video. O’ Keefe leaves any denials or clips that don’t suit his world view on the cutting room floor. An analysis of the NPR footage by Al Tompkins showed the NPR executive told O’Keefe’s activists six times that they couldn’t buy positive coverage with a donation. None of those statements were included in the final product.
O’Keefe has attempted to claim he has no political agenda, but he has a tendency to put his thumb on the political scale. In 2010, his crew attempted to access Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s phone system at the height of the legislative debate over Obamacare, an act that led to O’Keefe being sentenced to three years probation. In 2014, he targeted Battleground Texas, a Democratic political action committee, and included imagery of then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis in an attempt to link her.
He planned major efforts opposing the Democrats in the 2016 election, which culminated with hit pieces on Democratic campaign released one in October. In one, a Field Organizer for the Florida Democratic Party of no notoriety joked while at a restaurant about how hard it is to get fired (“I would have to sexually assault someone”).
O’Keefe’s express motivation was to defend Donald Trump from his own personal claims of having sexually assaulted women. “Let’s get this straight,” he said when he released the video. “Trump’s ‘grab them by the’ [self-censored pause] generated wall-to-wall TV coverage and generated the narrative that this is his true character and how he acts with women. Therefore, because of the precedent set by the mainstream media, I expect wall-to-wall-coverage of this Hillary staffer bragging about the ease that you can commit sexual harassment inside Hillary’s campaign and not get fired.” In the lead-up to Election Day, O’Keefe even filed FEC claims against the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
When journalists at the Washington Post called him on his bullshit earlier this year, he reacted with feigned outrage: “For them to call me a propagandist is beyond fake news, it is some kind of twisted, perverted, devious deceit.”
There is nothing more “perverted” than to run an interference campaign for a deranged child molester on the basis of his extreme politics, while simultaneously claiming the moral high ground.
At it’s heart, the alt-right and right-wing has a misconception about the nature and purpose of news. O’Keefe in 2012 tried to defend himself by mischaracterizing the liberal critique of his form of disinformation. “So, under your definition of a journalist, one ought not go after liberal organizations, otherwise you’re a conservative?” he rhetorically asked.
A modern right-winger would have to answer yes to the inverse. For if a newspaper reports a true fact that reflects poorly on, say, Donald Trump or Roy Moore, the right automatically labels them “liberal media.”
The liberal media, however, will report sexual assault allegations against Democratic fundraisers like Harvey Weinstein just as easily as they would report them about Moore or Trump. It was the New York Times, after all, who opened the floodgates that brought the Hollywood legend down. Guess who first reported the settlement the longest serving member of Congress, Democrat John Conyers, paid out over sexual harassment allegations? The alt-right’s hated BuzzFeed News! The Huffington Post added two exclusive claims of Democratic Senator Al Franken grabbing women’s asses while taking photos.
Variety and the New York Times have even done more than O’Keefe to bring down corrupt journalists, each outlet having broken stories on Matt Lauer’s sexual improprieties.
Yet for all the right says they completely distrust the “fake news media,” they express little skepticism when the target of an expose happens to be a Democrat. So there is the strange phenomenon of Breitbart attempting to smear some (of the nine) accusers of Moore and publishing his campaign press releases while going all-in against Al Franken. (Evoking all the flourish of a graduate of Moscow State University’s school of journalism, Matt Boyle transcribed a Moore speech and added, “The crowd broke into another standing ovation for the Judge.”)
The right views media only as a means to attack their opponents. They don’t go out to find the news, they react to the news. Like O’Keefe, Breitbart, the Daily Caller, Fox News’ prime time shows, and their contemporaries approach any media story with an eye for how to use it against liberals and the left. Yet most of their source material comes from the mainstream media itself.
The right-wing produces very little original material. Instead they rely on scoops about Democratic scandals from the objective media and nitpicking stories about Republicans. Even when Boyle accused the Associated Press of running an inaccurate analysis piece about Steve Bannon, Boyle relied heavily on reporting by CNN in his opening sentence.
When Andrew Breitbart founded his outlet in 2007, he conceived of it as an unapologetically ideological site reacting to his concerns about liberalism. He wanted to wage a “war.” Right-wing columnists and self-styled journalists at all kinds of outlets adopted the philosophy. Breitbart’s boss and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon personally directed his staff to report on the Alabama Senate race at the same time he took the stage to campaingn for Moore. What may have once been one of a range of commentary sources read by conservatives is now a main source of news for many on the right and a defining attitude that shapes many right-wing writers generally.
Brian Michael Goss, a professor of media studies and journalism, calls Project Veritas a “veritable flak mill.”
“[A]s a form of political harassment, the purpose of flak is to keep the heat on political opponents, regardless of whether any claims are true and irrespective of whether better governance is a likely outcome.”
Any bullshit will do if it distracts the public and creates an air of uncertainty. It doesn’t even have to be derived from an actual event. “[A]ny pretext will do,” Goss wrote, “including no pretext at all. Thus Trump was able to create a months long bullshit cycle out of fabricating claims that Obama wiretapped him.”
By waging war against the entities that bring to the public the facts of events that shape our daily lives, the right-wing anti-journalism movement isn’t just attacking journalism. It is attacking the very basis of truth and reality. If they succeed, they will themselves have nowhere to find out about Democratic scandals.