James O’Keefe versus the Cardinal Rule of “Gotcha” Journalism

Stock Photo — MaxPixel

James O’Keefe is famous — or at least notorious — for running sting operations in which he uses actors to trick organizations he opposes into behaving badly on (hidden) camera. The Washington Post didn’t fall for his latest ringer, a woman falsely claiming that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore got her pregnant, then procured an abortion for her, when she was a teenager.

Writing at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf takes O’Keefe and his Project Veritas conservative media operation to task for “bad faith” in the dust-up. Instead of admitting that the Post‘s reporters exercised great care in investigating Jaime T. Phillips’s claims, and declined to publish allegations their research couldn’t substantiate, O’Keefe went on the offensive, posturing as the victim of an “ambush” by the Post and raising funds to “finish this investigation.”

“O’Keefe’s team seems less interested in what’s true than in making the media look bad,” writes Friedersdorf. The indictment is harsh but it seems to be true. And that’s a problem.

Investigative journalism, including the “sting” variety of which O’Keefe has made himself one of the 21st century’s acknowledged masters, plays an important role in informing the public. Real stories are broken. Real corruption is revealed. Real institutional flaws are outed.

But “gotcha” journalism of the Project Veritas type must, if its practitioners want to remain trusted and relevant, hold itself to even higher standards of truth and disclosure than might be expected in “straight news” coverage.

If a regular reporter gets someone’s birth date wrong, a one-sentence correction on page B-38 is reasonable.

If an investigative sting results in the discovery that the target didn’t fail in the expected way, page B-38 isn’t going to work. The truth of the matter needs to be put right out front. Not just to give the targets their due, but to protect the reputations of the investigators. The claims of an investigator who won’t admit error and exonerate the innocent in the present can’t be trusted in the future.

The mission of Project Veritas (“Veritas” is Latin for “Truth”) is to “[i]nvestigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.”

Ethics and transparency require a clear admission from O’Keefe that his Washington Post sting didn’t reveal the misconduct he expected to find. His reputation, such as it is, requires that as well.

Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.

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Also published on Medium.

  • David Stocker

    Dear Thomas, Thank you for your many stories in CP. The national anthem has always troubled me…kind of like Trump selecting as the White House site to receive the elder Native Code Talkers in front of a portrait of Andrew Jackson- Indian hunter!!!

    Is it just possible that the “master’ful O’Keefe intended for this to fall out just as it has. That is- he knew the falsity of his ‘victim’s’ allegations and in the unraveling the public focus shifts away from Moore’s misdeeds, with the new keyword being ‘false accusations’. The act of Moore’s exoneration from false accusations becomes the prominent story. O’Keefe is a sideshow magician, sleight of hand and “presto!…fake left go right.

    I am reminded of William Stafford’s Poem
    A Ritual to Read to Each Other
    Last stanza goes…

    For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
    the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep

    David
    Rockford, IL

    • David,

      I think you’re right on several levels.

      O’Keefe “wins” by getting attention on what he’s doing rather than on anything else. He’s definitely of the “there’s no such thing as bad press” school of thought.

      And having things turn out this way DOES distract attention from Moore, and plant the “false accusations” seed.

      But my guess is that his IDEAL outcome would have been for the Post to take the bait so as to cast maximum doubt on the other accusations.

  • JdL

    I have mixed feelings about the morality of sending someone like Jaime T. Phillips in with a fake “news” story. The WaPo spent quite a few person-hours investigating her claim, only to determine it was bogus. Is it fair that they’re stuck with the cost? Even setting that issue aside, it’s presenting them with a temptation which is the equivalent of entrapment in a criminal case.

    To be sure, if they had taken the bait, that would be newsworthy. And likely the existence of O’Keefe and others like him helps keep entities like WaPo from taking irresponsible shortcuts in their reporting. I wish, though, that there were a way to accomplish this goal without being dishonest.

    • That is indeed an interesting condundrum. My knee-jerk reaction to it:

      1) It’s fraud, aka theft by deception. They’re trying to get a valuable consideration (a news story that they can leverage to harm their opponent) by lying. BUT …

      2) Newspapers who took legal action — sued for restitution or damages every time someone pulled that kind of shit on them — would probably quickly run out of people willing to talk to their reporters. “Hey, let me ask you a few questions, but then maybe I’ll sue you if the story goes south” isn’t a very workable writing plan.

      3) That bind benefits a third party — us, the readers. The stings help keep the papers honest, and the papers put up with them because they perceive not putting up with them as the more damaging choice.

      But that’s just my 6:15am blurry-eyed first pass at an interesting question. I could be very wrong.

      • JdL

        It definitely benefits us, the readers. But I feel almost as if I were hiring a bodyguard and required all the applicants to fight to the death so I could end up with the most able one. OK, silly exaggeration, but I don’t want something for my benefit to come at an unfair cost to someone else.

        Your point 2 is interesting but I think usually there’s a bright line between fake tales and true ones, so that truth-tellers wouldn’t tend to worry much if people like JTP were pursued for damages. On the other hand, the cost of such pursuit would likely outweigh damages incurred, and O’Keefe and friends would get free publicity.

        I’m no friend of the WaPo but I feel for them in this instance. Of course, they’ve bragged to no end about their brilliance in uncovering the deception, which apparently wasn’t all THAT hard to do, so I suppose that about cancels out my sympathy.