The strange ‘journalism’ of James O’Keefe
When conservative activist James O’Keefe was arrested on January 25 for attempting to interfere with the phone lines of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu from Louisiana (Washington Examiner, 1/26/10), outrage in the media was hard to come by.
O’Keefe secretly filmed two accomplices as they impersonated telephone company employees in the senator’s office; he claimed he had “decided to investigate” why constituents couldn’t get through to the senator’s office (Big Journalism, 1/29/09) after the senator said in December that her phone lines had been “jammed for weeks” with calls about healthcare reform (Advocate, 12/23/09).
After O’Keefe’s arrest, commentators cautiously distanced themselves from his newest scheme, framing it as the misguided efforts of a well-intended young “journalist.” Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin (1/26/10) advised: “For now, let it be a lesson to aspiring young conservatives interested in investigative journalism: Know your limits. Know the law. Don’t get carried away. And don’t become what you are targeting.”
But it would have been difficult for pundits to be too hard on O’Keefe—without some embarrassing backpedaling from the media’s earlier praise for the provocateur. Last fall, O’Keefe was widely lauded for a string of undercover videos he and colleague Hannah Giles produced that allegedly exposed lax ethical standards at the community-organizing group ACORN. “You guys ought to be getting, you know, a journalism award for this,” Fox News’ Sean Hannity (9/20/09) told the duo.
This celebration of O’Keefe’s earlier video activism required pundits—on both the right and center—to withhold even the most casual scrutiny of O’Keefe’s peculiarities. The ACORN videos promoted the false premise that he and Giles had entered those offices posing as a pimp and prostitute and gotten advice on how to conceal their illegal activities. O’Keefe appeared on Fox & Friends (9/7/09; Media Matters, 2/17/10) in what the host described as “exactly in the same outfit that he wore to these ACORN offices”—a ridiculous costume reminiscent of ’70s blaxploitation films, complete with giant sunglasses, cane and a chinchilla coat incongruously draped over an otherwise demure blazer and khakis.
Countless outlets made the same assumption about O’Keefe’s get-up. “Mr. O’Keefe…was dressed so outlandishly that he might have been playing in a risque high school play,” wrote Scott Shane in the New York Times (9/16/09). A Dallas Morning News editorial (9/17/09) reported that O’Keefe “dressed up as a cartoon version of a pimp. Hannah Giles, 20, barely dressed as a stereotypical hooker….They stashed their camera and walked into ACORN offices from coast to coast.”
Yet the videos O’Keefe and Giles released never actually show him dressed as a pimp inside ACORN offices, and ACORN employees contended he entered in business casual attire. Despite repeated claims to the contrary by both O’Keefe and Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media producer whose Big Government website featured the videos (Stage Right Show, 2/16/10; Washington Times, 9/21/09), Giles herself admitted (Washington Independent, 2/19/10) that footage of O’Keefe in pimp costume was “purely B-roll,” and disingenuously asserted that “we never claimed that he went in with a pimp costume.”
An ACORN-commissioned review of the incident by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger (Independent Governance Assessment of ACORN, 12/7/09) had much earlier found that not only did O’Keefe enter ACORN offices dressed as “a college student,” but actually introduced himself as a student trying to help Giles escape an abusive pimp. But corporate media continued to push the pimp angle (AP, 1/26/10, 1/27/10; New York Times, 1/27/10, 3/2/10). After one of blogger Brad Friedman’s readers asked New York Times senior editor for standards Greg Brock for a correction of the erroneous claims, Brock responded (Brad Blog, 2/8/10):
In other words, the New York Times position is, “Fox reports—you decide.”
Mainstream media further reported (e.g., CNN, 9/11/09; L.A. Times, 9/23/09) that videos caught “low-level employees in five cities sounding eager to assist with tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution” (New York Times, 9/19/09). Yet corporate media never saw the full tapes nor demanded their release, despite profound discrepancies between the filmmakers’ transcripts and videos—and O’Keefe’s having been accused of selective editing in the past (New York Times, 9/19/09).
In his report, Harshbarger, who was himself denied full viewing of the tapes, concluded:
The videos that have been released appear to have been edited, in some cases substantially, including the insertion of a substitute voiceover for significant portions of Mr. O’Keefe’s and Ms. Giles’s comments, which makes it difficult to determine the questions to which ACORN employees are responding. A comparison of the publicly available transcripts to the released videos confirms that large portions of the original video have been omitted from the released versions.
The Washington Post (9/18/09) failed to muster any skepticism, though, when it reported that O’Keefe “dismissed” allegations that the videos were doctored, failing to point out editing tricks that are obvious in even a quick viewing of the released portions of the tapes. CNN’s Bill Tucker (Lou Dobbs Tonight, 9/11/09) qualified his report by explaining that the video in question was in part blacked out, yet reported the video exactly as O’Keefe presented it.
To many in the corporate media, O’Keefe simply wasn’t to be questioned: In an NBC report (9/23/09), host Mara Schiavocampo left unchallenged O’Keefe’s false assertions that he was never rebuffed by an ACORN office and that he was an “absolutely independent” journalist, despite being on Breitbart’s payroll (Hugh Hewitt, 1/26/10).
L.A. Times media critic James Rainey (9/23/09) chided Fox for offering “little context and less proportion in recycling the ACORN story” and called on media to subject the activists’ material to “serious scrutiny,” but continued: “No mitigating factors can explain away the behavior of pathetically accommodating ACORN workers…. Here’s how to conceal your prostitution income!… Not pretty”—parroting O’Keefe and Giles’ false claim that ACORN employees advised them how to evade taxes, a claim later discredited by the filmmakers’ own transcripts.
The Washington Post’s media critic, Howard Kurtz, similarly called for “skepticism” (9/25/09) over O’Keefe and Giles’ “ideologically driven reporting,” while in the same paragraph lambasting ACORN employees’ “nutty” behavior: “Who offers advice about pimping out 13-year-old girls? What planet were these people living on?” Kurtz, too, overlooked the filmmakers’ transcripts, which showed ACORN workers advising Giles on how to protect 13-year-old girls from an allegedly abusive pimp.
Even as evidence poured in that the right’s newest criticisms of ACORN were unfounded, corporate media continued to look the other way. The New York Times failed to once mention Harshbarger’s report, although when the Congressional Research Service (12/22/09) released a report that similarly found ACORN innocent of any legal wrongdoing, the paper did cover it—in a 434-word story on page A15 of Christmas Eve’s late edition.
A Nexis search found only five other mentions of the CRS report in major news papers (Boston Globe, 12/24/09; Detroit Free Press, 12/27/09; Kansas City Star, 12/27/09; L.A. Times, 1/13/10; USA Today, 12/24/09). As recently as January 27, the New York Times, reporting O’Keefe’s recent arrest, stated, “Mr. O’Keefe’s ACORN videos won credit from several quarters for drawing attention to long-held conservative suspicions about the group,” while quoting two conservative thinkers and no progressives other than ACORN’s Bertha Lewis—and never mentioning that ACORN had been cleared of any criminal activity or that the videos were found to have been substantially doctored.
Hardball’s Chris Matthews (MSNBC, 9/17/09), while not prepared to absolve ACORN for its alleged illicit behavior, rightly called out the network of conservative activists and media that initially created the story, lamenting, “The right wing and its allies on talk radio and on Fox TV have claimed another victim.”
Yet many media critics gave Fox News credit with breaking a legitimate story that other media were slow to pick up on, suggesting that the news channel should be taken still more seriously. “ACORN got caught on candid camera, and they got caught good,” declared the Columbia Journalism Review (9/18/09). New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt (9/27/09), stating that “a video sting had caught ACORN workers counseling a bogus prostitute and pimp on how to set up a brothel staffed by underage girls,” called it an “intriguing story” of the sort that “a newspaper like the Times needs to be alert to…or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.” Slate media critic Jack Shafer (9/23/09) asserted that even “critics of Breitbart and the filmmakers don’t really dispute the basic information unearthed by the videos.”
Meanwhile, Howard Kurtz (Washington Post, 10/7/09) used it all to defend the “influence wielded by Beck and Hannity and Limbaugh (or by liberal commentators on the other side),” claiming that “if they peddle misinformation and exaggerations, that can be neutralized by others in the media marketplace.” In the next breath, Kurtz pronounced that “the ACORN videos [Beck] and Hannity trumpeted on Fox proved to be a legitimate story.” When the media marketplace is policed by these kinds of critics, misinformation and exaggeration have little to fear.
Veronica Cassidy is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.
ACORN in the Crosshairs
The right wing has long targeted ACORN for its work registering voters in low-income communities where Democrats predominate, and corporate media have seemed happy to serve as their handmaidens. During the 2008 presidential campaign, journalists often repeated conservative attacks on ACORN for supposed voter fraud (e.g., CNN, 9/16/09) after 11 of its employees were arrested for registering false voters—although ACORN itself turned in those employees (Extra! Update, 12/08).
As a result of the media blitz, the Justice Department removed ACORN from its work on the 2010 Census, and Congress voted to defund ACORN, which had received $53 million since 1994 (Washington Examiner, 5/5/09). Following ACORN’s lawsuit against the government, however, a U.S. district judge ruled (12/11/09) that the vote was likely an unconstitutional bill of attainder, in which the legislature punishes an individual or organization without trial, and barred the government from enforcing the congressional vote while the lawsuit works its way through the courts.