< What the Media Can Learn from James O'Keefe


Friday, March 18, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Since conservative activist James O'Keefe first leaped into prominence with a series of videos that took down ACORN, he’s been a polarizing figure. With his recent sting of NPR, which resulted in the forced resignation of CEO Vivian Schiller, oceans of ink have been spilled over who O'Keefe is, how he does what he does and why. Steve Myers, managing editor of Poynter.org, says that like it or not, O'Keefe has a lot to teach us about an emerging form of – something the dictionary doesn't yet have a name for. Steve [LAUGHS], welcome.

STEVE MYERS: Hi there. Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that this is an emerging form of media, but there are precedents, right? I mean, O'Keefe says he’s just continuing the muckraking tradition of investigative journalism.

STEVE MYERS: I think there are precedents. I think this is different in some ways. O'Keefe’s videos are made for the Internet and the Internet culture.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the significance of the Internet here?

STEVE MYERS: We are used to watching raw videos online. Even a professional news organization will put their raw video of some major news event online because people want to see the whole thing. It’s a move towards transparency in a lot of ways. But by presenting raw footage of an event that appears to be unmoderated in any way by a journalist, you think that you’re getting some insight into the truth when in fact it’s also an edited, crafted piece.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, let's talk about what makes James O'Keefe so special. You've mentioned that his stings are a kind of reductio ad absurdum. He takes a position and he follows it until he arrives at an absurd, you say, yet logical conclusion, and that he really pioneered this in his college dining hall.

STEVE MYERS: Yes, it’s a really interesting story at Rutgers University. The video’s still online in which he and a couple other students sit down and they explain to a college administrator that they are members of the Irish-American Heritage Association on campus.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a made-up group.

STEVE MYERS: Yeah, I think so. I looked for any evidence of it. I couldn't find any of it. So they explained to the administrator that they're offended at the sight of the Lucky Charms box in the dining hall.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] They bring a cereal box and O'Keefe explains that -


JAMES O'KEEFE: As you can see, we're not all short – I mean, we, we have our differences of height – and we think this is stereotypical.


STEVE MYERS: As he said in an interview, he put them in an impossible situation. Either they're going to be insensitive to the feelings of a student group that believes in ethnic heritage or they're going to go along with this ridiculous conclusion that Lucky Charms can't be served in the dining hall. And he says either way they don't win.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] And either way he does. But what exactly is he winning?

STEVE MYERS: His goal is to show the absurdity of this political correctness in this case.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You suggested that there really isn't a dictionary term for what he’s doing, but what about “undercover activism?”

STEVE MYERS: I think that’s a good description. I also think that the word “provocateur” has some relevance here. What I don't want to do is to try to get too much into the debate about whether he’s a journalist or not because I think that we're going to learn more about this by just trying to identify what he does well and why it gets attention.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I get a sense that you have a kind of grudging admiration for this guy.

STEVE MYERS: I think he has come up with a very good way to make his point, and I think that people who understand characteristics of media and use them to their advantage, they should get credit for that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Four days after the release of the NPR sting tape, Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze reported that a lot of the quotes in the edited version of the tape were taken out of context, that some remarks praising Republicans were eliminated. [LAUGHS] Why do you think that the mainstream media were so slow in reporting on the raw version of the tape, and why do you think that it was left to Glenn Beck’s website, The Blaze?

STEVE MYERS: The reason it was left to The Blaze to do that work is that no one else had done it, and there was a need for that work. The reason that none of us looked at it is that we were responding to the official response by NPR, and we were chasing the news and the reaction of the moment rather than going back and trying to do a little bit more work in vetting and checking into the story.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You think this form that O'Keefe is perfecting will be used with increasing regularity in the future. For one thing, he’s training his own minions to do it. Do you think it'll ever become part of the mainstream reporter’s toolkit?

STEVE MYERS: I don't know that it matters whether mainstream journalists use it. People hear about news from third-party sources all the time now. Friends pass it along, you know, maybe they hear a radio report or they'll read about it on Twitter. I don't think that the public stops to think - what are the methods used to create this, and is this capital-J journalism? So, while I don't think that this is going to be used by mainstream media, I think that it will continue to have an impact. For Poynter’s Sense-Making Project we analyze how information goes from emerging media sources to traditional media sources and back and forth. This is a great example of how something starts in the emerging form of media, moves very quickly into traditional media and then more reporting is done that advances the story from a non-traditional source. And I think it’s fair to say that no one expected Glenn Beck’s site The Blaze to do this work.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve, thank you very much.

STEVE MYERS: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Steve Myers is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org.