What James O’Keefe knows about media (and you should too)

It's a credit to James O'Keefe that amid the diverse vocabulary in the English language, so many terms inadequately describe him and what he does.

Is he a provocateur, a prankster, an activist, a muckraker, a citizen journalist, an investigative journalist? Do we call these shaky videos undercover stings, gonzo journalism, political theater, political art? Does he take after Matt Drudge? Michael Moore? Julian Assange?


As a nod to O'Keefe, I will call this “entrapment journalism” because it’s provocative, it could help this post go viral, and it has a kernel of truth.

Legally, entrapment occurs when you entice another person -- who would not otherwise break the law -- into committing a crime. It's not entrapment, however, if you simply present a criminal opportunity to someone with criminal intent.

That's why police stings are legal. That's what O'Keefe says he does. He lays the trap and waits for people to walk into it.

“While manipulation or entrapment occurs when people are encouraged to do things they otherwise wouldn’t, the pre-set trap is their own,” he wrote in describing his ACORN videos on Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com.

O'Keefe has a point.

Whatever we call this surreptitiously recorded audio and video, we’re going to see more of it. We shouldn’t merely focus on the scandalous words uttered by an NPR executive or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. We should think about what this work is, where it fits in the media landscape, and why it gets attention.

The attention is as important as the images. If no one paid attention to O’Keefe’s videos, ACORN would still be registering voters and Vivian Schiller would still be handing out those distinctive, narrow NPR business cards.

James O'Keefe understands the role of supply and demand in the media marketplace.

Right now there's an oversupply of certain kinds of media, particularly opinionating and aggregation. Investigative journalism, however, is relatively scarce; journalists complain that it's even harder to go deep in the always-on, instant-reaction environment of the Web.

On O'Keefe's website, Project Veritas (tagline: “promoting modern-day muckrakers”), he seeks donations to train a corps of citizen journalists:

“With the pool of journalists decreasing each year -- and truly independent investigative journalism all but abandoned by the mainstream media -- James O’Keefe and Project Veritas represent one of the last remaining commitments to exposing unethical practices and behavior through unique investigation.”

On the demand side, some conservatives -- not all -- are tired of having a few liberal media outlets drive coverage. They want media that reflects their beliefs.

“The left no longer controls the flow of information and therefore no longer can control the narrative,” wrote L. Brent Bozell III, founder of the Media Research Center and CNSNews.com.

Like Matt Drudge, O'Keefe has news judgment: He knows what his audience wants and he tries to deliver it.

Reductio ad absurdum logic is dramatic.

If you want to show that someone’s argument is false, a standard debate tactic is to follow it until you arrive at an absurd, yet logical conclusion.

O'Keefe started doing this when he was a student at Rutgers University. In 2004, he and some other students posed as members of an Irish heritage group and complained to a school official that they were offended by seeing Lucky Charms served in the dining hall. O'Keefe, wearing a flat cap, said the leprechaun on the box is “portrayed as a little green-cladded gnome. As you can see, we're not all short -- we have our differences in height. We think this is stereotypical of all Irish-Americans.”

“It’s a no-win situation for them,” O’Keefe said in a 2009 New York Times story about the predicament he placed school officials in. “If they say yes, then they’re ridiculous -- they’ve gone off the deep end. And if they say no, then they’re being racist, they’re hurting Irish-Americans.”

Same thing with Mary Landrieu, who was quoted in a news story saying that the reason constituents couldn't reach her regarding the health care bill debate in 2009 was that her phones had been jammed for weeks.

So O'Keefe and his partners decided to go into Landrieu's office in New Orleans, posing as telephone repairmen responding to a complaint that the phones weren't working. If people couldn't reach Landrieu, her phones must be broken. If they work, she must have been avoiding those calls. Get it?

That dichotomy is unlikely to win a college debate, but it thrives on the Internet. And it could have made for some entertaining, embarrassing visuals, which is one of the points of such videos, as Adam Hochberg noted in his recent story about “undercover activists.”

Which brings us to Ron Schiller's lunch with two members of a purported Muslim group that wanted to donate to NPR. He and his colleague Betsy Liley were in a no-win situation. Either NPR would be willing to take $5 million from a Muslim Brotherhood front group that advocates for “the establishment of Sharia worldwide.” Or its leaders would refuse the money, revealing themselves as hypocrites who are just as prejudiced against Muslims as Juan Williams.

It was Williams' firing, according to Howard Kurtz, that inspired O'Keefe to create a website for the fake Muslim Education Action Center. "Since NPR executives dropped Williams for his remarks about Muslims, 'I’m merely putting their beliefs to the test.' "

In this way, O'Keefe is a lot like Michael Moore, who gets in his best digs by forcing executives and government officials to defend the absurd extremes of their policies.

The soundbite makes the story.

Well before you saw the Ron Schiller video, you knew what he said. The key to these recordings is the shocking soundbites, often highlighted at the beginning of each video and repeated throughout:

These soundbites enable O’Keefe to create simple, core narratives:

  • Planned Parenthood wants to abort black babies.
  • Planned Parenthood covers up crimes in order to provide abortions to minors.
  • ACORN works with criminals to defraud the federal government.

That’s why the video of Ron Schiller is so damaging to NPR’s reputation. It appears, notes Tucker Carlson, to confirm the worst stereotype of public radio officials -- that they're elitist, liberally biased and have nothing but contempt for people with legitimate, opposing political beliefs like members of the tea party.

They said it. We can hear them. We can see them. What else do we need to know?

If it’s raw, it must be real.

Aside from extreme cases in which going undercover is the only way to get a story, disclosing your identity is a key part of ethical journalism.

This creates the journalistic equivalent of the “observer effect” in quantum mechanics: By disclosing that you’re a journalist, you change the story to some extent. People act differently when you tell them you're a journalist. They choose their words carefully. They hold back.

O'Keefe opts for deception over disclosure. In a court filing for the Landreiu episode, his lawyers explained why:

"The group devised a plan involving disguises because they believed that if they simply entered Senator Landrieu’s office and identified themselves as journalists they would not likely receive truthful answers. They thought it likely that Senator Landrieu’s staff would be more candid with a repairman than a reporter."

It's easy to overlook this deception because the videos seem to be truth unto themselves. Rather than tainting the videos, the shakiness seems to authenticate what we see. “The hidden camera simply shows the truth,” said a friend of O'Keefe in a 2009 New York Times story.

And yet these videos are still crafted -- not polished like a newspaper story, but heavily edited to make key points. They showcase the soundbites.

Context complicates the story.

“Context is everything,” journalists say. But it’s missing from these videos.

“All journalism is edited,” O’Keefe told Kurtz last week. “You’re not going to print the transcript of your conversation with me.”

O’Keefe may not spend time explaining the original context of his videos, but others have used it to demonstrate how he works.

O'Keefe didn’t release the unedited versions of his ACORN videos (although full audio and transcripts were posted on BigGovernment.com), but the California attorney general reviewed a few as part of an investigation into possible wrongdoing by the community action group.

The review found some key differences between three videos depicting ACORN offices in California. At one office, an employee said ACORN would not help O’Keefe and his partner secure a housing loan for a prostitution business. Another time, an employee told police that O’Keefe and his partner had come to his office and talked about smuggling underage girls into the U.S for prostitution.

What about the most outrageous element of those ACORN videos: the pimp costume? The California attorney general's office determined that O’Keefe wore a shirt and tie in these visits, not the fur coat, hat and cane shown in other parts of the videos. Media Matters wrote about the misrepresentation, but that was six months later, long after the narrative of the pimp costume had been established.

The videos wouldn't have had quite the same punch with those complicating details and without the flourish of the fur coat. They would have obstructed the truth that O'Keefe seeks to expose. So he left it out.

O’Keefe did post the apparently unedited version of his initial NPR video. (It’s been viewed about 21,000 times, compared to nearly a million for the edited version on YouTube.) The Blaze did an excellent job of analyzing the unedited version and comparing it to the one that most of us saw:

"Do these areas reveal problematic editing choices? Are assertions made in the video misleading? Are the tactics used by the video producers unethical? … Perspective and context are essential elements in bringing truth to the forefront. To exclude or alter them can obscure truths rather than reveal them."

The Blaze story identifies several important differences that color viewers’ perception of what happened:

  • Connections to the Muslim Brotherhood are decidedly less prominent in the unedited version.
  • “In the raw video, Schiller also speaks positively about the GOP. He expresses pride in his own Republican heritage and his belief in fiscal conservatism.”
  • The description of members of the tea party as “xenophobic” and “seriously racist” isn’t Ron Schiller’s; he is recounting the opinions of two top Republicans, although Schiller did agree with it.
  • While the edited video indicates that Ron Schiller believes liberals are more educated than conservatives, in the raw video he "is hesitant to criticize the education of conservatives and the other executive, Betsy Liley, is outspoken in her defense of the intellects of Fox News viewers."
  • In the raw video, Ron Schiller “explains the risk to local stations in more detail and why NPR is doing ‘everything we can to advocate for federal funding.’ "

There's a difference -- though O'Keefe ignores it -- between "a truth" and "the truth."

All these surreptitiously recorded comments, whether uttered by a low-level office employee or a high-level executive, are portrayed as if they represent official policy of these organizations.

“We’ve just exposed the true hearts and minds of NPR and their executives,” O'Keefe's website generalizes in describing the video and asking for money to support similar efforts.

NPR has said that Ron Schiller’s comments don't reflect its policy and opinions. But after watching that edited video, whom will most people believe?

The best investigative journalists try to disprove their hypotheses. They try to verify and confirm, even when they're tempted by the sexy quote. They know that while journalism is iterative, the truth is rarely singular or simplistic. In the process of forming the whole picture, they make their stories stronger.

"The evidence illustrates," California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. said in a news release about the ACORN videos, "that things are not always as partisan zealots portray them through highly selective editing of reality. Sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor."

Tucker Carlson demurred on this point in Kurtz's story. “I may have aesthetic qualms about it, but the point of journalism is the story. … The main question you ask is, is it true?”

In O'Keefe's videos, not even the people who went undercover may know the answer.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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