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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?

While we may never find out just who plotted the break-in by James O'Keefe and his comrades of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans district office or why, we may be certain it was no accident or "misunderstanding." It was the culmination of a long-term investment strategy by conservatives to rewrite the rules of professional journalism. Organizations like The Leadership Institute, the Collegiate Network, and the National Journalism Center -- an arm of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth organization -- have been funneling millions of dollars into college newspapers and training programs designed to overturn what they believe to be a liberal bias on the part of the mainstream media. In doing so, they are also working to subvert the media's professional standards.

As TPM Muckracker notes, The Leadership Institute, where James O'Keefe was employed to train young activist/journalists -- and where he met Ben Wetmore, who put up the alleged criminals in Louisiana -- claims on its Web site to "prepare conservatives for success in politics, government, and the news media." So far, the organization boasts, it has trained more than 79,000 students since its inception in 1979. It claims assets of $11.8 million and a staff of 58.

And as Dave Wiegel reported in The Washington Independent , O'Keefe and his accomplices, Stan Dai and Joseph Basel, worked as undergraduates at newspapers funded and founded by funds from the Collegiate Network. The Collegiate Network's parent organization, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, enjoyed $8.3 million in contributions in 2009. Hannah Giles, O'Keefe's partner in the ACORN scam, enjoyed an internship at Young Americans for Freedom's National Journalism Center.

In one respect, this money has been almost entirely wasted. As the antics of O'Keefe and company conclusively demonstrate, the right has failed to train or inspire many genuine journalists. (In addition to his infamous pimp performance in Washington's ACORN office and his TV repairman gig in Louisiana, O'Keefe and Wetmore also tried to travel the country to stage a series of phony gay marriages in order to claim benefits.)

But while the conservative investment has not paid off in terms of actually training journalists, it has reaped dividends in its ability to undermine the standards of mainstream media organizations and their willingness to swallow the conservative line. In a previous column, I looked at the manner in which mainstream media organizations fell over themselves to credit the "reporting" of O'Keefe and company regarding ACORN.

Considerable credence was given, for instance, by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, when he spoke to Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander in September 2009. Rosenstiel said that the ACORN story demonstrated the liberal bias on the part of journalists that the right-wingers are always professing to detect. "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by nonideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms," he said.

Alexander himself, who had been planning to write about the conflicts of interest of The Post's conservative media critic Howard Kurtz that week, switched gears at the last minute to address this issue in his own voice, adding, "traditional news outlets like The Post simply don't pay enough attention to conservative media or viewpoints." The view received additional support from Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, who worried, "We are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It's particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."

And New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson complained, in the wake of the ACORN scandal, that the paper of record was showing "insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio." I am saddened to say that even the great Jon Stewart joined in this orgy of self-flagellation, wondering, "Where were the real reporters on this story?"