What the Media Can Learn from James O'Keefe

Friday, March 18, 2011


James O'Keefe's undercover sting videos resulted in the resignations of two NPR executives last week. But what is O'Keefe, anyway? A prankster, an activist, a muckraker, a citizen journalist? None of the above? Poynter's Steve Myers helps Brooke try to label this new phenomenon, and suggests what the media can learn from him.

Comments [27]

Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

The night of Harvey Alter's 1st necrophilic murder, I ran into the deeply distraut girlfriend of his 1st victim at Emerson College's theater & went searching for him with her, unsuccessfully. Figured out during his trial that that was the night. Saw the Dateline story on him which aired the night Jane Pauley ran her fraudulent story on exploding trucks & lost her that gig. Saw this when researching him for Libby Casey.

Mar. 25 2013 12:01 PM

I loved this interview. O'Keefe is a strange, vile man, and I have to say I was thrilled with the tone of Bob's questions.

Mar. 26 2011 05:03 PM
Chris Gray from New Haven, CT

Another thing about that exploding truck segment, it permanently derailed Jane Pauley’s career as a reputable journalist and turned Dateline from NBC’s answer to 60 Minutes and Nightline into another 48 Hours Mystery, then Predator Gotcha. Meanwhile, the same program contained a truly important segment on Harvey Alter, a convicted murderer who practiced necrophilia on his victim, who later became a psychiatrist and director on NYC’s largest criminal half-way house and was convicted, then, of bumping off his clients. There was no mention of how he treated those corpses that I recall. I did notice that segment since he murdered his first victim while I feverishly helped the victim’s girlfriend search for him.

Now, when O’Keefe mixes his muck raking with stories worth our notice, I might cut him some slack, not before.

Mar. 24 2011 03:33 PM
KadeKo from suburban New England

I confirm nothing about O'Keefe's standards v. any left-winger, and that also goes for Breitbart and Lila Rose.

They are hacks who made up lovely horse-sh!t about ACORN and Planned Parenthood and then got a propaganda network to flog it endlessly until the weak-willed mainstream media had to cover it because "it's out there".

They are hacks who failed at bugging, how many, two Democrats' offices? Isn't O'Keefe is on probation for one of these jaunts?

He has spent so long bathing in the cozy womb of the right-wing ignorance-reinforcing media that he got totally schooled by someone who doesn't have to cut off his mic or lie about him after the end of a conversation.

NBC's gas tanks scandal was an embarrassment, but unlike Breitbart &co I don't remember the part where that network was on record as wanting to destroy GM. And the facts of the Food Lion meat case were debunked? I hope you went out to buy plenty of Food Lion meat after that.

Mar. 22 2011 03:01 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

. . . and to Kadeko, I don't know which world you live in, but in the one I inhabit, the left-wing equivalents of O'Keefe win an Academy Award for Best Documentary about once a year, become rich and famous like Michael Moore, and have their stuff regularly shown not only on the Sundance Channel, but also on more commercial channels like HBO. You yourself confirm that the huffiness about O'Keefe is about political ideology, not journalistic standards - none of the O'Keefe-haters on this thread have the guts to admit that his methods were patented by liberal/mainstream news and documentary producers. Liberals weren't getting their knickers in a twist when the networks were airing fake footage of SUVs rolling over and exploding, or hiring Ralph Nader munchkins get jobs at Food Lion for some 'expose' (the outtakes on that one convinced a jury to find against ABC), or doing the kind of hidden-camera and ambush-interview stuff that was a hallmark of '60 Minutes'. Now the chickens have come home to roost, and liberals have discovered that they can dish it out, but not take it.

Mar. 22 2011 01:10 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

To Holly, there's a new rule informally going around in political debate which says, roughly, 'First person to compare his/her opponent to Hitler or the Nazi Party loses.'

Mar. 21 2011 12:49 PM
KadeKo from suburban Northeast

---there have been plenty, though they don't receive the kind of scrutiny afforded to him---

Maybe they don't get scrutinized because left-wing poseurs on the order of O'Keefe don't have an entire half of the commercial media sitting there waiting to flog his crap rather than "scrutinize" it.

And I'd care more about that if the "mainstream" media weren't so feckless and dedicated to "on the one hand/on the other hand" crap.

After Andrew Breitbart said "I want to bring down the liberal (sic) media", any mainstream commercial media org who is stupid enough to take O'Keefe at face value deserves whatever's at the bottom of the cliff they're impotent to keep from jumping over.

Mar. 21 2011 11:53 AM
Tom from American Desert

"Nothing" is the answer to this piece's Headline question.

O'Keefe is NOT a "journalist" by any stretch of the imagination. O'Keefe is typical of a Jr Hi S A who has never grown up. However, beyond that, he is a criminal who have violated several laws using the misnomer of "higher good" as his legal justification.

Instead of being interviewed, he needs to be prosecuted, sued, or better yet, tarred and feathered and run out of the Country on a rail.

More Republican crooks we do not need.

Mar. 20 2011 08:51 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

All the mainstream media huffiness about O'Keefe is going to hurt it in the long run, because it introduces 'metrics' by which the MSM itself can be judged. ABC has been sending actors around trying to provoke NASCAR race attendees into making 'racist' statements, and into diners attempting to sniff out homophobia. I'd like to see their out-takes, too. NPR itself sent a female journalist in a headscarf across the US-Canada border, though the journalist was not Muslim, to try to entrap border agents into displaying bias.

The biggest effect of Fox News has been to introduce some measures by which 'bias' can be evaluated. By these measures, quite a lot of mainstream outlets, including NPR, have been caught out displaying the opinions of their own editors and reporters. This is the subtext of this entire discussion. Neither O'Keefe, nor Fox in its straight news reporting, does much of anything that is a deviaton from the norm established by the MSM, or Sundance-style documentarians.

C'mon, people. You know this is about politics to you yourselves, as much as to the Republicans and their supporters. If O'Keefe were a left-wing guerrilla video artist - there have been plenty, though they don't receive the kind of scrutiny afforded to him - would you really, tell me honestly, be so upset about 'standards'? The uproar only occurs when the Left gets burned.

Mar. 20 2011 08:02 PM
Nancy from New Hampshire

Mr. O'Keefe's parents must be so proud of young Jim. I can just imagine their Christmas letter to friends explaining all his fun exploits in the world of journalism.

Mar. 20 2011 07:28 PM
bill costley from Santa Clara CA

James O'Keefe is a bratoidal Wm F Buckley (Jr.) flipping the bird at anyone who fears to nail him. Fortunately, On the Media, did. I expect he'll now scamper to FOX for a program, & Manhattan Instiutute for funding.

[PS Hi to Brooke; I moved from Welleslley to Santa Clara CA in 2003; I now appear in the Citizen Blog section of The [S.F.] Bay Citizen www.baycitizen.com
My own blog is: www.costleybill7@blogspot.com

Mar. 20 2011 06:21 PM
Martha Catt from Charlotte, NC

James O'Keefe operates Project Veritas although he would not know the truth if it dropped down dead in front of him wearing a name tag. Every time this man attempts to reveal what he calls "the truth," the actual truth dies. At some point one would think that anything this man produces would be suspect, that those who are being manipulated by his brand of "gotcha editing" would learn not to trust any content he produces.

I propose that a new verb be added to the English lexicon. An O'Keefe would describe a malicious attack employing misleadingly edited video clips that successfully torpedo a worthwhile organization due to the lack of critical thinking on the part of the viewers.

At what point does O'Keefe become the boy who cried wolf? Shame on those who are fooled again and again.

Mar. 20 2011 05:17 PM
jack from mesa arizona, the land of legislative fruits and nuts

This type of 'undercover' gotcha journalism by Mr. Okeefe can only be circulated in an UNEDITED version on the internet.
Unless of course it is picked-up by the mainstream media UNEDITED and disseminated. Where are the editors and fact checkers that we know and love? Any moron can post something...with all its inaccuracies on the 'Net. It's a clear and present danger. When the media reinforces the efforts of the partisan poster...well therein lies the problem.
Editors of the world, Unite.

Mar. 20 2011 05:17 PM
Rudolf from Boston

The hostility of the interviewer is obvious and the false editing of the interview at the end is an example of gratatious bias he claims to despise. More an example of QED.

Mar. 20 2011 03:16 PM
Holly from Rhode Island

James O'Keefe is not a journalist. He is not an activist. He is not a comedian.

What he does is create PROPAGANDA to support his particular point of view. That makes him a propagandist of the same degree as Alfred Rosenberg, who distorted facts to underscore a very specific political agenda. O'Keefe's claim that the edited version of the interview with Ron Schiller was "factual" and fairly represented material in the raw footage analyzed by Glenn Beck's Blaze project is about as accurate as the claim that the film "The Fuhrer Gives the Jews a City" presents a "factual" view of the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Mar. 20 2011 12:50 PM
Erastus Chuff from MA

I'm surprised that Michael Moore's name did not get mentioned. His TV Nation did exactly the sort of thing that O'Keefe does. I enjoyed TV Nation, because Moore would confront people at Klan rallies or neo-Nazi retreats, or CEO's of businesses like Muzak. I'm not absolutely sure, but I don't think Moore ever represented himself as anyone but himself. Some people represent themselves as someone they aren't, but it's so obvious no one with any common sense thinks they're for real: Stephen Colbert. Then there's Sacha Cohen and O'Keefe, who present themselves as something they aren't, and then edit the film to present an event in a way that is different than what actually occurred. Somewhere there's a line between sensationalizing an event and actually misrepresenting it as something it wasn't. That final segment of Myer's story beautifully illustrated the point.

Mar. 20 2011 12:13 PM
John Ranta from New Hampshire

This was a valuable and brilliant interview. Kudos to Bob for hanging in there, pushing back, and exposing O'Keefe for what he is. I loved the end bit, where you turned the editing tables on O'Keefe...

Mar. 20 2011 11:00 AM
falk burger from tucson AZ

I don't know how the word "sting" found its way into the discourse, but it does not belong. " Sting" is what cops do to criminals. O'Keefe is not a law enforcement professional though I'm sure he'd like to be, and NPR is not criminal, or is it? That don't make me a liberal, does it?

Mar. 20 2011 10:11 AM
Dave Costello from NH

Calling O'Keeffe a journalist or what he does journalism or reporting of any sort is ridiculous. What he does is create lies. Period. He puts his subjects in situations that AREN'T REAL and then takes all that video footage and 'creatively' edits it to say whatever he wants. What I find hard to believe is that ANYONE gives him ANY credibility after he's been proven a liar over and over again. The ACORN video - lies, Sherrod - lies, Planned Parenthood - lies, and NPR - lies.

To Mass Joe, Do you really believe that O'Keeffe is a journalist? That he really does favor or gives credit to the right and their positions? I think he denigrates the right by using lies and subterfuge to support the positions of the right. If the positions were valid, they should stand on their own and not need the lies and falsification that O'Keeffe provides.

Mar. 19 2011 03:56 PM
Massachusetts Joe from 02144

Bob, Bob, Bob I have to give you a big fail... your bias shines forth and is representative of the ongoing debate about NPR and public radio's liberal bias.

You cannot have it both ways. To compete with the larger media outlets, NPR compairs themselves with the larger and traditional media outlets. The difference being is that you must work harder to keep your personal views, emotion and incredulousness off the air. Your approach throughout the entire interview is filled with disdain and contempt toward O'Keeffe. The report is not balanced and it is not under the neutral/balanced banner that NPR claims to profess - even within this episode.

You use of edits and editorial privilege - as you admit used in this interview with O'Keeffe - only further clouds the message of the arrogance of NPR that you represent.

It does not matter if the information from NPR is meaningful. The truly open-minded and intelligent person will consider even seek meaning from all other media outlets - fox included. Dismissing right wing reporters, outlets and/or information proiders is not an open mind. You and you're program have a liberal bias and thus, public funding needs to be dropped.

So what you need to worry about is the perception of the listener. and the perception is - to this listener - that your interview with O'Keeffe brough forth the NPR bias against anything conservative or even middle of the road.

Mar. 19 2011 02:17 PM
Anonymous from Washington, DC

Really? Did the interviewee just blame the public for assuming the truth of O'Keefe's videos?? Especially when NPR didn't have the gumption to second-guess it. And they're a news organization!

What's sad is that now I think NPR should be defunded, because they don't do enough basic investigation to defend themselves and instead blame the public. Maybe James O'Keefe will do a better job replacing them.

Mar. 19 2011 10:06 AM
jennifer tobias from nyc

an excellent analysis of O'Keefe's work, imho, whether one supports it or not.

i was particularly impressed by the extended full disclosure at the end and the in-kind example of in-kind editing.

Mar. 19 2011 08:38 AM
ToddBeckett from Washington DC

Brilliant. I always knew that O'Keefe had a bias against vampires.

Mar. 19 2011 07:07 AM
Chris from Chicago

Let's see how emerging these antics are when O' Keefe goes too far and winds up in jail. I'm surprised he wasn't done in by the Sherrod fiasco, the wirteapping of a senator, or that bizarre incident where he tried to lure a CNN reporter onto the boat filled with cameras and sex toys. He's on probation and after a few of those instances, even sympathetic O' Keefe fans in the right wing media sphere threw him under the bus. And how long can people keep falling for this?

I hope this Myers fellow is wrong, but I fear O' Keefe has found success combining politics with Jackass. The problem is the Jackass guys only hurt themselves. O' Keefe only hurts successful public programs and organizations that help the poor.

Mar. 19 2011 02:34 AM

One thing that I think got missed in the talk of "lying" versus "undercover reporting" is the way the latter is usually done. The reporters O'Keefe likens himself to tend to do "undercover reporting" by trying to be "typical," the idea being to capture the way their subjects handle business as usual. For example, a consumer news program may attempt to deal with a questionable mechanic under the pretense of an ordinary customer with a common (and simple) car problem, with the implication being that the resulting footage can be taken as typical for how the mechanic deals with customers.

O'Keefe, on the other hand, strives to be as atypical as can be, and essentially catching people floundering as they try to wrap their heads around bizarre situations outside their norm.

But it's not just filming "Candid Camera" and calling it journalism, the subtle implication of O'Keefe's scenarios is that they are supposedly common for his targets to be in. Even without dubious editing, what's left unquestioned is how often NPR executives are presented blank checks to push a political message, how often Acorn had to deal with unabashed illegal activity, or the frequency or nature of requests for ethnic accommodation to university officials.

As for Glenn Beck being the one to expose the nature of this last video of his, "Only Nixon could go to China."

Mar. 19 2011 01:11 AM
Bob Gardner from Randolph, Mass.

Mr Myers conflates going under cover to get a story, with O'Keefe's real crime--which is his deceptive editing.
How O'Keefe got his film is beside the point--which is that he lied about what people said and did.
It's sad enough that the media took his work on ACORN at face value. But after his ACORN material was debunked, there should have been a lot of skepticism about his next video.

Mar. 18 2011 10:28 PM
Thomas Wynn from Ben Lomond, CA

How vile and dishonest would Mr. O'Keefe's video have to be before Mr. Myers became interested in the honesty or lack thereof of the content? I found Mr. Myers commentary almost more horrifying than the video itself. Why is lying being considered so soberly by Mr. Myers? Can't you find an ethical, hard working journalist to call out this type of propganda for what it is?

While I fight for NPR's funding I am constantly embarrassed for the timidity and lack of professionalism that is often displayed.

Mar. 18 2011 08:34 PM

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