Is James O'Keefe Tarnishing The Name of Undercover Reporting?

Either way, why Is Jack Shafer too?


I have mixed views about James O’Keefe because even though he misled with his long-ago sting on ACORN, it certainly seemed that that now defunct group had become corrupt. (I defended O’Keefe at the time.) And I like what he said about, “Being hated is a sign of respect.”

Also, I’m not, to put in mildly, a fan of the Bezos & Post, previously known as the Washington Post. But O’Keefe’s apparently botched sting of the Post has generated support for the newspaper, and that’s unfortunate.

If you haven’t heard about the story here is a recent excerpt — but keep in mind it’s a Post story so it, be definition, is less than fully accurate:

James O’Keefe, the self-described “guerrilla journalist” who runs Project Veritas, spoke to students at Southern Methodist University here on Wednesday night, highlighting his organization’s undercover efforts to expose what it says is liberal bias in the media and defending the deceptive tactics that are its trademark.

O’Keefe spoke just days after it was revealed that one of his organization’s undercover operatives was attempting to plant a fake story with The Washington Post, and he made mention of the sting operation just briefly, portraying himself as a David battling the Goliath of the mainstream media and vowing to push ahead with his efforts. In that case, a woman named Jaime Phillips claimed to have had a sexual relationship with U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore when she was a teenager and tried to lure reporters into covering the false story; The Post instead revealed the ploy.

O’Keefe has been said to have political motives and ties to the White House. I asked him for comment and this is what he had to say:

The undercover alias is used as a ruse, a premise, to elicit/extract truth or comments in a meeting. The notion that we were trying to plant a fake story in the newspaper is preposterous, akin to saying I wanted to actually import underage hookers when I said I was a pimp [in the ACORN sting]. It’s part of going “undercover.” So many people are assigning fake motives.

I had no political motives and I have no connection to the Trump White House. Trump gave us $20,000 in 2015 and our total budget last year was about $4.6 million. We are crowdsource funded and completely independent. There are no quid pro quos. Trump gave money to the Clinton Foundation too.

(That’s true, as I reported in VICE. The Trump Foundation contributed to the Clinton Foundation twice, donating $100,000 in 2009, and $10,000 in 2010, according to the its tax filings.)

Meanwhile, my friend Jack Shafer wrote an entire column about O’Keefe yesterday that criticized all undercover reporting and mentioned me in passing in a negative fashion. As I tweeted yesterday to Jack, I don’t want to be mentioned in passing; I want a whole column devoted to me with my name in the headlines. I also asked him to take me out to lunch.

Anyway, here’s a link to Jack’s column, which notes that about a decade ago I employed undercover tactics to dupe, and expose, top DC lobbying firms’s willingness to shill for the dictatorial regime of Turkmeniscam. Hold it, that’s the name of my low-selling book, the country is called Turkmenistan, and it’s led by this shit head pictured below.

Dictator with shitty fashion sense.

Here’s an excerpt from Jack’s story, in which he discloses that we are friends:

While outrageous, the depth of Veritas’ undercover deceptions is not unprecedented, even in contemporary journalistic circles. In 2007, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein went undercover for Harper’s magazine as a business executive who intended to hire lobbyists to skirt the law in helping him reform Turkmenistan’s poor international image. In 1992, ABC News producers told Food Lion a passel of lies to secure jobs at the supermarket so they could film a story about the chain’s substandard health practices. In 1963, Gloria Steinem submitted a fake name and Social Security number to get a job as a Playboy bunny for her exposé in Show magazine.

In the Silverstein [case a journalist] created opportunities for unethical and criminal behavior that might not otherwise exist. A less morally compromised version of the Mirage story would have had the Sun-Times detecting the same crimes but with bars not owned by the paper. Proponents of aggressive undercover reporting justify their methods by insisting that some kinds of investigative work can’t be done unless reporters insert themselves as fake players in the process.

They’re probably right. It’s difficult to report on how sleazy lobbying and influence-peddling can be unless you insert yourself in the story. But if the press starts sanctioning the telling of lies and staging scenarios to get stories, what’s the next step? Wiretapping? Break-ins? Extortion? The employment of call girls? Other assorted dirty tricks? All of these methods would reap rich results, but at a cost that’s morally prohibitive. 

But enough about Jack. I disagree with him, and here’s what I wrote in the Los Angeles Times, way back in 2007, in defending myself and undercover journalism:

Earlier this year, I put on a brand-new tailored suit, picked up a sleek leather briefcase and headed to downtown Washington for meetings with some of the city’s most prominent lobbyists. I had contacted their firms several weeks earlier, pretending to be the representative of a London-based energy company with business interests in Turkmenistan. I told them I wanted to hire the services of a firm to burnish that country’s image.

I didn’t mention that Turkmenistan is run by an ugly, neo-Stalinist regime. They surely knew that, and besides, they didn’t care. As I explained in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, the lobbyists I met at Cassidy & Associates and APCO were more than eager to help out. In exchange for fees of up to $1.5 million a year, they offered to send congressional delegations to Turkmenistan and write and plant opinion pieces in newspapers under the names of academics and think-tank experts they would recruit. They even offered to set up supposedly “independent” media events in Washington that would promote Turkmenistan (the agenda and speakers would actually be determined by the lobbyists).

All this, Cassidy and APCO promised, could be done quietly and unobtrusively, because the law that regulates foreign lobbyists is so flimsy that the firms would be required to reveal little information in their public disclosure forms.

Now, in a fabulous bit of irony, my article about the unethical behavior of lobbying firms has become, for some in the media, a story about my ethics in reporting the story. The lobbyists have attacked the story and me personally, saying that it was unethical of me to misrepresent myself when I went to speak to them.

Anyway, you can decide for yourself. Here’s what Charles Glasser, media lawyer and adjunct professor at NYU’s School of Journalism, has to say:

“Undercover work by journalists should be a last resort, when there is no other way to get a story with a genuine public interest,” says . “The current problem with undercover videos has been that the media likes them when they reveal wrongdoing about people they don’t like, but ignore the dangerous precedent they set when they complain about undercover videos exposing causes with which they agree. The Planned Parenthood/fetus parts for sale episode in San Francisco is a good example of a media militating against a technique that they themselves use frequently.”


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