When Debunkers Need Debunking (4) : James O’Keefe

O'Keeffe

Standing onstage before the receptive audience at a gathering of the fanatically right-wing Family Research Council, the speaker announced that his next shocking expose conducted with the aid of a “whistle blower” would be against that favorite media bogeyman du jour, CNN. To emphasize this, he held the CNN logo aloft like the ears of a vanquished bull and strutted offstage to thunderous applause. A promotional clip announcing his new video even showed the CNN logo crashing and burning. This was going to be the end of that dastardly network once and for all!

Except that it, um, didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact, aside from his fellow right-wing fanatics, nobody found anything noteworthy about the “expose” at all. It mostly just featured some disjointed footage from a couple of CNN employees far down the food chain, as well as recordings of calls from network president Jeff Zucker urging his staff to focus on (shocker alert) the highly newsworthy impeachment investigation of the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant. In short, it was the “expose” itself that crashed and burned. It was just another in a long series of embarrassing implosions from self-important fraudster, would-be muckraker, self-styled “guerilla journalist” and petty criminal James O’keefe — who despite his fiascoes has built a huge fan base, solid support from the winger community, plenty of lionizing from the very media he excoriates, and a six-figure income.

A Lucky Charmed Beginning

O’Keefe began his shady and lucrative career while he was a student at Rutgers, and conceived a stunt intended to highlight the absurdity of “political correctness”. Meeting with the campus dining staff, he secretly recorded a conversation in which he complained that the leprechaun mascot on the Lucky Charms cereal being served was offensive to Irish-Americans. As one might expect, the officials listened to the bogus complaint with as much polite indulgence as they could muster — it’s probably far from being the most absurd thing they’d ever had to listen to. According to O’Keefe’s repeated claims, he actually succeeded in getting the cereal removed from the school menu. But –surprise — it’s a lie.

This caper, however, formed the blueprint for all of his subsequent “citizen journalist” projects. First, he obtains an interview under false pretexts with someone he wants to humiliate. Then he secretly records the meeting, in which he asks (mis)leading questions. Then he deceptively edits the footage to distort what the interviewees said. Then he makes false claims about what his video accomplishes. And then he presents the finished product to his gullible and gushing fans, and the money pours in. Lather, rinse, repeat.

From little ACORNs

Unfortunately for his ego, one of his early ventures was a smashing success. Not that it was actually a good video or an honest video, but it did have a tremendous impact. That was his “sting” against ACORN (Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now), heavily and deceptively edited footage that appeared to show the organization being complicit in illegal activities. The media sensation caused by these videos resulted in the withdrawal of funding from ACORN, after which it folded. Only after this did investigations reveal that ACORN in fact had done nothing wrong. O’Keefe and his accomplices, however, had to pay a settlement of $100,000 — and avoided criminal charges only by reluctantly releasing their unedited footage. He has resisted releasing raw footage more than once because he concedes that “It’d probably paint a diff picture!”

You don’t say.

In other words, the ACORN “sting” was a major scam, and it even got him into legal trouble; and yet it accomplished his mission big time. Furthermore, he had become the darling wunderkind of the right-wing punditocracy, and he was on his way.

It wasn’t the only time he’s run afoul of the law. He was arrested and charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purposes of committing a felony when he posed as a phone company repairman and wormed his way into the offices of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) in a plot to carry out another of his “stings”. He got off easy by pleading guilty to a lesser charge; but he failed to carry out his purported expose. And all he got out of it was a memorable mugshot, reproduced above. He seems to get rather annoyed when people publicize it, so whatever you do, don’t spread it around at every opportunity.

O'Keeffe

In defending this kind of tactic, he says, “We did not reject journalistic ethics. We simply had to create those ethics anew.”

You don’t say.

He has made other attempts to topple CNN with spitballs. At one point he cooked up a bizarre plot to seduce one of CNN’s female reporters (arrogantly assuming he’d be able to) on a boat and record her using a bunch of sex toys, and then release a video of it that would prove that… well, something or other. No, really, this was actually a planned project.

He’s also targeted other media outlets that he deems part of the big bad librulmedia cartel. Among them was NPR, on which he mounted an attempted “sting” by offering them a donation from a fake Muslim who made outlandishly radical utterances. Even the radical right-wing website The Blaze soundly condemned this video, denouncing it for

editing tactics that seem designed to intentionally lie or mislead about the material being presented.

You don’t say.

He also had The Washington Post in his crosshairs, and dispatched a female associate to approach a journalist from the venerated newspaper with a phony sexual assault story about reactionary Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was stacking up quite a record of sexual assault allegations — not to mention homophobia, Islamophobia and other flavors of bigotry. O’Keefe and company wanted to prove, however, that Moore was just an innocent victim of the nefarious librulmedia, and in his mind he could conclusive prove the liberal bias of the mainstream media once and for all by getting one newspaper to fall for a phony story that was actually quite similar to many other stories that were true — or at least entirely credible. Unfortunately for his delusions of grandeur, the Post actually did its job (Who would have thought it?) and thoroughly investigated the claim, finding that it didn’t hold up. Oh well, O’Keefe didn’t let failure deter him. He just declared the humiliating defeat a resounding triumph and vowed full speed ahead.

Predictable targets

Whatever one might say about O’Keefe’s ineptitude, he certainly knows his audience. He knows how to pick whipping boys that will get the reactionaries on board with gusto.  Inevitably and unavoidably, this would include Planned Parenthood, which O’Keefe tried to sting twice. On one occasion, he tried to get PP staff to agree to be complicit to statutory rape, and on another, he offered donations specifically for the purpose of aborting black babies (playing on the popular right-wing myth that Margaret Sanger, the organization’s founder, was racist and wanted to exterminate African-Americans). As often happens in these “stings” the workers they confronted were unprepared for the glaring curveballs, and awkwardly tried their best to be sympathetic. As a result, they appeared to be engaging in inappropriate conduct, resulting in suspension by Planned Parenthood (a fact O’Keefe and company underplay, to say the least). Thus, although there were no bombshells, anti-choice fanatics felt they had more ammunition to use in their fusillades.

Another very popular right-wing myth he predictably exploited was the claim of widespread voter fraud launched every time Republicans lose an election — if not every time they fail to win by a sufficient margin. In an attempt to “prove” there is rampant voter fraud, O’Keefe and his accomplices… actually committed voter fraud! By obtaining the ballot of a deceased person in New Hampshire. But there is a difference between obtaining such a ballot and casting such a ballot. And one person does not equal massive election fraud. The only thing O’Keefe and company proved is that they are clueless enough to risk imprisonment for their stunts.

Nonetheless, Republicans ramped up their efforts to pursue the chimera of voter fraud, just as they ramped up their pursuit of the chimera of malfeasance at Planned Parenthood. O’Keefe is fortunate because he has an eager mob of sneezers to help spread his virus. This is, after all, the same Republican party that spent countless hours and taxpayer dollars investigating Benghazi and Fast and Furious and Benghazi and “IRS targeting conservatives” and Benghazi and Hillary’s emails and Benghazi. It’s the same party that never met a loony conspiracy theory they didn’t like, whether it’s birtherism or climategate or the “deep state”, or “Clinton body count”.  It’s a party that believes the Russia probe that has netted numerous indictments and several prison sentences is a “hoax”, but Hillary Clinton operated a pedophile ring in the basement of a pizza parlor that has no basement. So when a grifter like O’Keefe throws them a bone, you can bet they’ll pounce on it.

All you really need to know about this “journalist” is the kind of company he keeps.  Namely, among others, Fox “News”, Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, the Koch Brothers (from whom he’s received funding) and the Forty-Fifth White House Occupant — whom he praises, and from whom he’s received a hefty check.

A beacon of truthiness

O’Keefe’s main obsession has always been the mainstream media — which he really, really wants to prove is hopelessly slanted to the left, and therefore you shouldn’t trust anyone except… well, him. To help drive this home, he has written a bestselling (because right-wing organizations purchase thousands and thousands of copies of such tomes to drive up their ratings even though a lot of them just get dumped unread) book called American Pravda. To get an idea just how absurd and laughable this book is, all you have to do is note the subtitle: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News. At least he’s consistent; just as he proved it’s possible to commit voter fraud by committing voter fraud himself, he proves the existence of fake news by creating fake news himself.

In introducing his lofty opus, he makes the jaw-dropping declaration:

This is not inherently a political mission…We do not put words in our subjects’ mouths. …Not inherently “right wing” or “left wing,” we work the opportunities the major media choose to ignore.

Sure, and Jack the Ripper was just a guy who liked to go on blind dates.

In further setting up his pretentious thesis, he boasts about and greatly distorts and exaggerates his achievements. He mentions that he helped eliminate funding for ACORN while neglecting to mention that he did so in a fraudulent manner; that subsequent investigation revealed it was he, and not ACORN, who was guilty of wrongdoing, and that he even had to pay a hefty fine. He crows that a White House spokesperson urged everyone to watch his attempted takedown of CNN, without mentioning that such an exhortation came from the most corrupt and dishonest administration in history; and that the official in question (herself a shameless and vicious liar) urged people to watch “whether it’s accurate or not”. Such high praise.

There are a couple of glaring ironies about O’Keefe’s choice of title. The Russian publication Pravda has a long history of being the official mouthpiece of the ruling government — which is probably never a good idea. But the librulmedia outlets to which he applies the name are, at present, more likely to be critical of government policy and officials. In fact, only one major media source comes to mind that comes close to being the official propaganda organ of the current administration: Fox “News”. There has been a freely operating revolving door between Fox and the White House not only for personnel but for policies; what begins as a nutty conspiracy theory aired by Fox will quickly and brainlessly be parroted on Twitter and in presidential speeches, and will become an official presidential stance. Curiously, however, the fairandbalanced O’Keefe doesn’t particularly seem to object to Fox’s mendacity, or denounce it as “fake news”.

He also seems to be suggesting that Pravda is an ironic name for the Russian journal, since the word means “truth”, and it hasn’t always exactly told the whole truth — and therefore, in his head, it’s appropriate to liken Pravda to the American librulmedia, because they also pretend to tell the truth but really don’t. In general, it is indeed a good idea to be suspicious of any media organ that proclaims itself to be The Truth. But none of the outlets he attacks actually does this.  In fact, only one American media organization comes to mind that co-opts the word truth in any language. That would be Project Veritas — the organization founded and operated by O’Keefe himself.

And a further irony is that O’Keefe seems to have stolen the title for his book from a November 2016 article in The Week , which warned (quite prophetically) that the freshly elected 45 could establish a cozy relationship with right-wing media to maintain a totalitarian flow of (mis)information to the public.

Emboldened by his financial and ideological success with Project Veritas, O’Keefe is urging other citizens to get in on the fun. He’s even offered to fund and “protect” would-be whistleblowers inside some organization that he thinks worthy of subjecting to a smear campaign. So hey, if you’d like to get your hands on some of his ample cash, why not beat him at his own game? Set up a sting of a sting — pretend you have some dirt on an organization, then deliver something bogus. After all, that’s generally what he does himself.

He does have a valid point about one thing: there are serious problems with the mainstream media in America. Trouble is, the people who make a frequent point of trying to convince you there are serious problems with mainstream media in America are generally the ones who want to replace it with something far worse. And few people exemplify this better than James O’Keefe.

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