The Overwhelming Dishonesty of Investigative Journalist James O’Keefe
James O’Keefe wants you to think that he’s a journalist. That the undercover videos shot for his Project Veritas are all that keep rampant liberalism from running roughshod over the republic. Freedom has manifold enemies, from National Public Radio to Planned Parenthood, and the only way to hold them in check is to secretly record members of these flagrantly liberal organizations, then edit the videos in such a way as to make it seem that those organizations sell baby organs, celebrate prostitution and send conservatives unwanted subscriptions to The Nation.
The final step is to promulgate these videos to right-wing organizations like Breitbart and Fox News, where the editors believe exactly what O’Keefe does about the Clintons and CNN and are therefore not going to be bothered by an organization that, while it claims to be journalistic in nature, is a fairly accurate approximation of Soviet propaganda. (I grew up in the Soviet Union, so this is not an exaggeration.)
Speaking of our comrades in the Kremlin: O’Keefe’s latest investigation is called “American Pravda, ” and it purports to show the rampant bias of The New York Times, which hates President Donald Trump so much it invited him to an editorial meeting shortly after his electoral victory. He, in turn, despises the Times, even if he does seem to talk to White House reporter Maggie Haberman more often than I talk to my mom.
O’Keefe opens the first video with himself standing in front of a background that shows the paper’s Times Square headquarters. "Fake news," those are the first two words O’Keefe says in his narration, in the same sanctimonious tone that informs all of his work. He then declares that he has evidence that the Times, which claims to be “completely objective” — does it, though? does any outlet? —is, in fact, rife with political bias.
What follows is astonishing stuff: executive editor Dean Baquet taking dictation on a frontpage story from Hillary Clinton; national editor Marc Lacey telling a reporter to “stuff more fake news” into an investigation into the finances of Trump. The final video, and the most shocking of all, has liberal financier George Soros in the newsroom all alone, putting together the Sunday paper.
Sorry. Had to do that. O’Keefe’s videos contain nothing remotely that flagrant. The crux of this undercooked nothingburger of an exposÃ© involves a tedious series of conversations —covertly filmed, per Project Veritas scruples— between a female “journalist” and Nicholas Dudich, a junior video editor at the Times. Dudich seems to have as much sway with the paper’s editors as I do with the front office of the Knicks.
O’Keefe lucked out in that Dudich is self-important and dishonest, claiming that former FBI Director James B. Comey is his godfather and intimating that he may have worked for the FBI. He also calls himself a “gatekeeper” at the newspaper. O’Keefe wants to paint him as a liberal ideologue, but Dudich comes across as a doofus.
Dudich is identified in the video as an “audience strategy editor.” That suggests a concentration on engagement with readers on social media platforms, though he intimates that he has something to do with video, too. Whatever the case, he is not dictating news coverage, pulling reporters off the business desk and commissioning Trump hatchet jobs. There are 3,700 employees at the Times. That one of them would designate himself the paper’s “gatekeeper” is a pretty good indication of his self-importance and cluelessness.
If O’Keefe had any intellectual dignity, he would be honest about the above. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t because he has none.
Instead, O’Keefe hypes up Dudich’s claims, only because they are a convenient weapon with which to bludgeon the Times. “Does the Times lack journalistic integrity altogether?" O’Keefe wonders, in a question all the more ironic because of the self-importance with which it is posed.
The acute irony of O’Keefe’s defense of journalistic standards via the violation of every single one of them comes at the beginning of the third video (Dudich gets two videos to himself). There, two Project Veritas “reporters” accost Times homepage editor Desiree Shoe at a bar in London, where she works.
“I am speaking off the record," Shoe says at the beginning of the recording. She doesn’t know she is being filmed, of course, but she is savvy enough to indicate that she is now an ordinary person, a woman having a drink at a bar, not an emissary of the New York Times. "Off the record" are sacred words in journalism, and that O’Keefe would violate them —and then brag about it by replaying that statement throughout the clip— should tell you everything you need to know about what he’s after.
In the end, what he gets is not much. Shoe acknowledges that it is difficult to write about a president who is “apologetic toward white supremacists” in an objective manner. And yet, she might have noted the Times did exactly that in its news coverage. It was Trump who called the neo-Nazis “very fine people,” not the Times. You’ve got to wonder: By "bias," does O’Keefe simply mean coverage that is unflattering to Trump? If so, then censorship is what he’s truly after.
Shoe does call Trump an “oblivious idiot.” How does this enter into everyday work at the Times? Considering that Shoe is an obviously thoughtful young woman who has made clear she is speaking only for herself, I am guessing that she, like most Times journalists, can keep her opinions at bay unless they are, for some reason, asked for. Anyone intelligent enough to write for the national paper of record is going to have bias, which is to say thoughts. The question isn’t whether journalists have bias but whether they also have restraint. I don’t, clearly, but that’s only because I’ve spent the evening watching James O’Keefe videos.
Remember that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Trump a “f**king moron.” The veracity of that assertion aside, I wonder if that makes the former Exxon chief from Texas a member of the clueless liberal elite. Or if he, like everyone else, is doing the best he can, trying to be a human and a professional in a bewildering world that offers little respite. We can’t all be the paragons of virtue that is James O’Keefe.
The fourth O’Keefe video is the most preposterous of all. The subject is Todd Gordon, an information technology consultant who has apparently done work for the Times for 17 years (he owns his own company, suggesting that the work is contractual.) Having appointed himself the paper’s ombudsman, he offers profound insight into how the hundreds of journalists at the Times all see Trump: “They hate him like the plague, dude.”
It is unclear how Gordon knows this. Project Veritas doesn’t bother asking. Like a Stalinist show trial, this was an investigation whose conclusions were never in doubt.
The goal of all O’Keefe’s fundraising, not truth-telling. Conservative funders (including the Trump Organization) have allowed O’Keefe to prosper. In return, he must tell these funders what they want to hear. And no sound is sweeter to their ears than liberal bias coming from the New York Times newsroom.
But what is bias, anyway? O’Keefe hasn’t anywhere near the intellectual curiosity to ask that question. For all his certainty about the newspaper’s liberal skew, he doesn’t dissect a single Times story to lay bare its anti-Trump bias. Are there questions to be asked about coverage of this administration? Absolutely. It’s a shame that O’Keefe doesn’t ask a single one.
O’Keefe probably knows, and probably doesn’t care, that he is doing an enormous disservice to the American public. It is no accident that polls show an erosion of trust in journalists in the last several years. That’s largely the result of attacks by Trump and his abettors in the right-wing media, especially Fox News and Breitbart, both of which have eagerly promulgated O’Keefe’s shoddy, unethical investigations.
Distrust in the media is necessary to the far right because journalists are charged with telling the truth. Sometimes we fail, just as doctors sometimes have patients die on the operating table. And there are fundamentally unscrupulous journalists. But like fundamentally unscrupulous doctors, they are pretty darn rare. Most journalists I now wake up wanting to tell the truth. Maybe about Ariana Grande, maybe about the economy of Argentina. As long as the words are set down with dignity, it does not matter.
Truth is only a problem if your agenda is untruth: about climate change, crime in the inner cities, taxes, health care, equal pay, contraception. In that case, you need to malign the truth-tellers, to make them seem like sniveling liars. That way, nobody will believe them. That’s the ultimate irony about O’Keefe’s “American Pravda” series, which borrows its name from the dogged Kremlin mouthpiece of Soviet times. He is the one who can tolerate no dissent from the official line, who treats any criticism of the president as an unforgivable offense. His fealty, like that of Stalin’s enablers in the press, has nothing to do with conviction. It is self-interest laced with just enough outrage to make it seem genuine.
"Honestly, it's worrying," O’Keefe says.
It honestly is.