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James O'Keefe, the Landrieu 'Sting' and the Truth About Conservative 'Journalism'

As the he antics of O'Keefe and company demonstrate, the right has failed to train many genuine journalists. So why do mainstream journalists swallow their line?

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In fact, the O'Keefe stunt that succeeded in entrapping those awful ACORN employees caught on tape was merely the tip of the iceberg of a concerted campaign by conservatives to define ACORN as an evil organization and try to tie it to President Barack Obama. Fox News has repeatedly attempted to paint Obama as a tool of the organization and to credit the organization with allegedly stealing the election for him. They succeeded to the point that George Stephanopoulos thought it worth asking the president about it during a short interview. (Obama, amazed, and moved on to discuss Afghanistan.)

But as Peter Dreier of Occidental College and Christopher Martin of the University of Northern Iowa demonstrated in a detailed study entitled " Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN was in the News and What the News Got Wrong,"this has long been an obsession of the right and they have succeeded in framing the issue for much if not all of the mainstream media.

The simple fact of this story is that O'Keefe and company were never doing real journalism. They were lying and dissembling in order to make the ideological points they believed to true, ignoring all the actual rules that professionals are proud to uphold. If you go over to Media Matters for America's Web site and type in the word " O'Keefe," you'll find hundreds of examples, the vast majority of which involved some type of dishonesty on the part of O'Keefe or one of his conservative defenders.

Here are just two:

  • O'Keefe's friend Liz Farkas said she "grew disillusioned" with his tactics after being asked to doctor a transcript of a past film for him. A September 18, 2009 New York Times article reported that Farkas, a college friend of O'Keefe's while at Rutgers University, said O'Keefe asked Farkas to help deceptively "edit the script" of a video involving a nurse at the University of California at Los Angeles.
  • O'Keefe falsely claimed an undercover video campaign was a "nationwide ACORN child prostitution investigation" that implicated many ACORN employees. In fact, the claim that videos show employees at many ACORN offices willing to aid child prostitution is false.Giles and O'Keefe released heavily edited videos of their encounters at eight ACORN or ACORN Housing offices. In at least six of those instances, the activists did not clearly tell the ACORN employees that they were planning to engage in child prostitution or the ACORN employees refused to help them, were deliberately misled, or contacted the police following their visit.

It is perhaps not so surprising that some on the right find this kind of behavior endearing. Ann Coulter called them "so magnificent." National Review editor Rich Lowry said they deserved "an award for impactful guerilla journalism." Glenn Beck called Giles "courageous." Bill O'Reilly thought they deserved "congressional medals." Sean Hannity thought they were "journalistic pioneers." Andrew Breitbart, for whom O'Keefe worked, insisted that they "deserve a Pulitzer Prize."

Perhaps O'Keefe will get what he apparently deserves, which is prison time. And by embracing these tactics, the apparatchiks at Fox News who pretend to play journalists on TV demonstrate how little they understand the true meanings of words like "fair" and "balanced." But what, other than pure panic, can explain the eagerness of the once-confident guardians of journalistic standards and integrity to embrace the same scoundrels and their willingness to ignore the rules of honest information gathering and reporting? At long last, have they no shame?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically on the CAP Web site, and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.