When Andrew Breitbart commandeered Anthony Weiner’s admission-of-digital-lecherousness press conference earlier this month, just seven minutes elapsed before he began to recount the tale of how America was first introduced to his strange media empire. In 2009, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles approached Breitbart with footage of low-level ACORN employees apparently offering to abet the proprietors of an illegal immigrant child prostitution ring. “To those who say your journalism here is suspect,” a reporter asked, “what do you tell those folks?” Breitbart snickered.
“'You're going to be held to a different standard,'" Breitbart said he told O’Keefe and Giles at the time. “But I said, what we're going to do is, we're going to put the full transcripts and the full audio of these visits, so nobody suspects that you cut these things up to put words into their mouths."
So they did publish the full transcripts and audio. But spliced into the edited version—the version that would be widely circulated—were montages of O’Keefe dressed as a pimp and assuredly strutting down city sidewalks. This gave the impression that he'd donned the outlandish getup while receiving tax advice from oblivious ACORN employees. The transcripts showed otherwise: O'Keefe described himself as a future law student, and he was wearing a shirt and tie.
That the episode diminished his credibility, O’Keefe maintains, is confirmation of what Breitbart warned him about two years ago: double-standards. Pervasive, deeply-entrenched, odious double-standards. The truncated video was only “selectively edited,” he told me recently, if traditional television stations can also be accused of “selectively editing” their content everyday. “I have to release the full unedited interview of all my stuff?” O'Keefe asked. “But the New York Times can talk to me for an hour-and-a-half and print two words? It's disgusting.”
O’Keefe seemed to anticipate that he’d be the object of unwarranted scorn. "It is time…" he wrote in 2009, "for conservative activists to 'create chaos for glory.'" If creating chaos was his goal, he must’ve also known that people don’t generally appreciate chaos.
"'Well James, you’re a political actor,'" O'Keefe went on, imitating a hypothetical detractor. “Yeah, I don’t get taxpayer money, and I actually release my full interviews with my subjects. So the whole thing is bullshit. And then they have the conceit, the conceit, to demand that I release my full unedited tapes? When the USA Today calls me for an hour, 70 minutes, and releases two sentences? They're hypocrites."
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James O'Keefe's operational philosophy doesn't distinguish between criticism of his tactics and criticism of his targets. To his mind, he is one of the few journalists whose wellspring of virtue has not yet been infected by leftist duplicity. O'Keefe feeds on the angered response—much like Breitbart, who was absolutely radiating with joy at the Weiner presser. The two are guided by the same motivation: Americans live in a state of perpetual warfare, whether they know it or not, and the onus to challenge Cultural Marxist orthodoxies falls on a select few. They are among the chosen.
O'Keefe's chaos has spawned Congressional investigations, forced the resignation of media executives, and is routinely referenced by national political figures—and he is just 27. Late last year, when O’Keefe released a series of videos from the New Jersey Teachers Union’s annual conference that documented attendees singing “Let's have a whiskey and get a little misty. Join me now and slander Chris Christie!,” the governor, within hours, praised O’Keefe’s work as evidence that organized labor was just as depraved as he’d always suggested.
“I can tell you the distinction between me and all those people,” O’Keefe said, referring to a nebulous elite-media class. “They consider themselves journalists, the public considers them journalists, sometimes they even get taxpayer money, i.e. NPR. They consider themselves journalists. I get no taxpayer money; I operate out of my parents' basement, on an iMac, with my credit card, and I am held to a higher standard than the New York Times. It's bullshit.”
Hyperbole aside, embedded in his rancor is a critique of the political and journalistic establishment worth taking seriously. (It's the attached histrionics that tend to do him in: he wrote in early 2010 that he revealed "the massive corruption and fraud" at ACORN. The Massachusetts and California Attorneys General, the Brooklyn District Attorney and the US GAO all found a lack of corruption and fraud. This, for him, merely reaffirmed the extent of the corruption and fraud.)
Because his targets are well-known and already objects of political skirmishing—Planned Parenthood, ACORN, National Public Radio—O'Keefe believes the malfeasance he exposes will always be reflexively dismissed. To him, this is an example of a fundamental unfairness: O'Keefe sees that the New York Times can publish documents the White House would prefer it not, and "60 Minutes" can surreptitiously record video, yet when he has associates pose as potential Muslim donors to elicit revealing answers from NPR executives, O’Keefe is somehow the one who has committed a uniquely egregious infraction.
So, on account of being surrounded by what he sees as cultural enemies—the media, academia, the entertainment industry—O’Keefe’s position is that unorthodox tactics are morally mandatory. This journalistic model can sometimes come precariously close to transgressing ethical norms, he himself will admit. But in O’Keefe’s view, the norms themselves are wielded as tools of oppression. People must be made uncomfortable to be made aware.
Given his predilection for the outlandish—galavanting around in a pimp costume to advertise the ACORN videos, for example—it's also easy to impugn the entire O’Keefe shtick as right-wing theater. “There’s very few journalists who really advance a certain truth, who push forward a new truth,” O'Keefe said. “It saddens me. Don’t say it’s my methodology. I mean, the 'Jersey Shore' and Jon Stewart and all these people are far more—when it comes right down to it—vulgar and silly than we will ever be. And they’re considered media darlings.”
A slight tremor of regret is detectable in his voice for bothering with the whole pimp-costume gimmick. He can expect to see that photo of himself smiling mischievously from an oversized fur coat every time his name is attached to something newsworthy. But this ongoing campaign of what he sees as character assassination, he said, is not a surprise. It comes with the territory he's embraced ever since his days as an undergraduate at Rutgers University, when college administrators occupied the role of cultural enemy—well, where everything was an enemy, from the paper towel dispensers to the buses, as well as more traditional antagonists like politically correct language. That paper has since denounced him in its editorial pages. (O'Keefe, in his junior year, also did the impossible: he founded a campus publication, the exciting and sometimes enraging Rutgers Centurion, that energized the campus and was actually read.)
“If we were to go after targets like the National Rifle Association or the National Republican Committee or something like that, I think I'd be considered a hero at Rutgers,” O'Keefe said. “But because we go after the subjects we do go after, like Planned Parenthood and ACORN and NPR, they don't like me. Because a lot of these people—in the establishment, in the media, at universities—think these organizations do good work, and they're good organizations. Therefore, why would you dare investigate a 'good organization'? They even had someone at CNN say this to me a year or two ago, or three years ago. They said, 'Why would you investigate Planned Parenthood? Why would you do that?' My response is because they get taxpayer money. And they ought to be investigated like anything else that gets taxpayer money.”
If a fair-minded person of left-leaning tendencies, I responded, were shown evidence that employees of ACORN or Planned Parenthood had engaged in genuine wrongdoing, then I can't imagine those fair-minded people would have any reservations about responding accordingly. But given the way the videos are edited and framed, how should they react to these tainted narratives?
“So you’re telling me that these lefty people don’t like what we do for our methodology?” O'Keefe asked. “Since when do lefties care about methodology? Give me a break. These people are all about outcomes. Outcomes: that’s what they don’t like. And when we start growing and targeting other organizations, I think that they’ll become more warm to it."
(That made me wonder: if ethically dubious tactics were employed to bring about the resignation of, say, Donald Rumsfeld, or impelled Congress to investigate improprieties in the Chamber of Commerce, could we expect the same outcry that arose over ACORN?)
“I think all journalists have prejudice in their hearts,” O'Keefe said. “And bias. I think that the media is no longer really showing bias—they're actually in the news suppression business. In other words, they go so far as to protect organizations that they like in their hearts.”
“And they're political operatives, OK?” he said. “Which is funny, because that's what they accuse of me of being. It's really funny. Just like they accuse me of editing, when they edit everything they do. In fact, they get away with their narratives because they edit out things they don’t want people to see about organizations they like. And we show those things. So it’s one big testament—the whole truth behind what we do is, we’re compensating for what they haven’t done, and they don’t like that. Because they’ve intentionally not done it, OK? I’ve said this before, but all media consists basically either of pundits, that is people who express their opinion—Fox News is certainly made up of mostly pundits—and then there’s the stenographers, those people who write down what people tell them to publish.”
In comparison with journalists who insist that they are agenda-free—who insist their hearts have no role to play—O'Keefe views himself as a paragon of purity.
“I’m seeing an increase in these publications doing damage control for organizations that they like,” he said. “Let’s assume that there are a hundred James O’Keefes. The entire job of these organizations would be to highlight the pimp costume, scrutinize my editorial decisions, and so forth. They would cease to do journalism, because they’ve become consumed with criticizing me. And I don’t criticize other people. I just merely muckrake. I don’t criticize the editorial decisions of Mother Jones. I think it’s good when Rolling Stone magazine publishes a dossier on Goldman Sachs. God bless them; they’re doing good work. But I think it’s unethical, and I think it’s not journalism, to be focusing so much on us. What would you say to that?”
In this proposed new journalistic paradigm, I respond, if everyone is operating from the prejudices that they harbor deep in their hearts, then it really is about taking sides in a grander battle. If these publications are defending organizations that they “like,” that’s simply a function of their editorial outlook. And if you’re perceived as a political actor, then it makes perfect sense for them to attack you or to defend the organizations you target. Wouldn't you embrace that?
“If I’m characterized as a political actor, it makes perfect sense for them to attack me?” O'Keefe asked.
“Just take a look,” he said. “All these organizations do—when I was arrested my emails were leaked, assumedly by the government. And Mother Jones magazine teamed up with the government to leak my emails. I mean, it’s sick.”
(Such a claim deserves a response, so here's Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery: “We’ve written many stories about James O’Keefe, including some following his arrest for attempting to tamper with the phones of a US Senator, and several critical of the media passing along his 'stings' without vetting them, but none of our stories mentioned or were in any way based on his emails, which we have no access to. (In fact a search of our archives only reveal one story in which 'James O’Keefe' and 'email' appear, 'The Age of the Policial Sting,' by Kevin Drum. However the emails mentioned in that piece were the so-called Climategate emails, and to our knowledge O’Keefe had no role in their leakage.) Nor have we ever 'teamed up' with the US government in pursuit of a story. Anyone who was an actual journalist would know how preposterous a claim that is.")
O'Keefe's arrest took place in January, 2010, at a federal building in New Orleans.
“How do you think it feels to be charged with a felony?” O’Keefe asked. “And framed by the media as being guilty, and having every exculpatory bit of evidence edited out of every article ever written about you? They edit out the fact that I showed my driver's license at the door of the federal building in Louisiana. They edit out that the judge destroyed the videotape, so no context could be given as to my innocence. They edit that all out, because it doesn't fit their predetermined narrative, while they accuse me of editing after I release my full tape. It's totally bullshit. And I live with it everyday.”
His contention that mainstream news outlets could easily publish their primary sources on the Internet with greater frequency is a sensible one! This is something the New York Times has done in some cases, but still not so often.
“It’s the biggest sham in the world,” O'Keefe said. “Because it’s about how we get our information. It’s about how we get our information. Information that we make decisions about. Informed decisions. How can we make informed decisions when they edit out everything they don’t want us to see? People make informed decisions about James O’Keefe. 'Oh, he’s a federal criminal, he’s a liar, he’s a dildo boat sex fiend.' Well, they edit out the fact that I was cleared of a felony. And journalists to this day, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see all of these journalists getting it wrong. Why? Because they read Wikipedia. They read Wikipedia, edited by George Soros, who edits out my innocence pertaining to the felony.”
(Soros may not appear in the Wikipedia edits trail, that we know of, but earlier this month, Jimmy Wales himself made a small reversion of edits to O’Keefe’s Wikipedia page.)
“So you talk to me,” O’Keefe said, “and get to know me, and you’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know this James. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that. Well now you know. Now you know that there are things about the world that they don’t want you to see. And it’s not about conservative, it’s not about liberal. It’s not about 'Oh, your right wing agenda.' If you get to know me, you’ll find I’m pretty neutral. I’m pretty neutral about how I view things. I’m pretty common sense. But we have to compensate. When the president of the free world is tied to [ACORN] and they refuse to investigate it, we have to investigate it. We’re called to investigate it. And things will balance out in the end. They always do. In terms of the press and the their credibility and our credibility. I think it’ll all work itself out.”
How can he fault the media for reporting the fact that he pled guilty to committing a crime on federal property?
“Entry by false pretenses,” he said. “Entering a federal office under false pretenses. I didn’t enter the building under false pretenses, because I showed my driver’s license at the door. So they charged me with this ridiculous statute, it’s called entry by false pretenses. Politicians and lobbyists enter their office under false pretenses everyday and get away with it. Think about that.”
But whatever the veracity of the charge, I ask, you still ended up pleading guilty to it. Correct?
“Yeah,” he says. “You’d plead guilty too, because you don’t have $500,000 to contest it.”
Can you fault the media for reporting the fact that you were convicted of that crime?
“For putting my mugshot on the front page of the New York Times within a few hours of me being arrested? And not covering the ACORN story at all? How am I more famous than ACORN if I’m famous for exposing ACORN? It doesn’t make any sense. Think about that. The New York Times did not assign a reporter to the ACORN story until after Congress and the senate voted to defund ACORN. Think about that for a second. The Congress of the United States voted on, and the president signed the bill into law, to defund ACORN prior to the New York Times assigning a reporter to the story. But I’m arrested and my mugshot makes the front page of the New York Times. Why?”
Because, I said, at the New York Times, as everywhere else, their ideas about news value stem from the deep human prejudices in their hearts, and they exercise a moral calculus in determining what the editorial—
“Now you understand,” he said, interrupting me. “As long as you admit that there is a deep-rooted prejudice in their hearts,” he said.
Of course, I said. That applies to everyone. More people should just admit it.
O'Keefe now oversees Project Veritas—a 501(c)3 under his tutelage that I’d describe as a Plastic Ono Band for young conservative activist-journalist provocateurs. They present themselves as the tragic few with enough temerity to challenge this giant web of deceit. They are determined to expose the web's deep corruption, its disempowerment of average citizens, its shielding of powerful elites. As part of their practice, O'Keefe has offered himself up as the object of these elites’ contempt. It's a narrative that would be similarly resonant on the populist left, if not for O'Keefe's kowtowing to conservative dogmas. Which is odd—because O'Keefe isn't the type of person who seems like he could get especially exercised over debt-ceilings or entitlement payouts. He is, however, aware that he has the potential for crossover appeal.
“Why is it that the people on the right ignore Wall Street, ignore the banks?” O'Keefe asked. “Why is it that people on the left ignore government?”
So why focus your ire on working-class Planned Parenthood employees, when defense contractors and corporate executives are the ones really swindling taxpayers by the billions?
“So again, ‘What about corporations?’” he said. “I’m just getting started, OK? We’ll get there. But I think that generally speaking, am I going to expose a Wall Street banker who sleeps with hookers? Eh, it depends how much TARP money he got.”
Michael Tracey writes for myriad publications, typically on matters of spiritual significance.