Commentary by Len Lazarick, Len@MarylandReporter.com
James OKeefe and his surreptitious videos have helped bring down the ACORN community organization and the top executives at NPR, and hes caused immense grief for the New Jersey teachers union and Planned Parenthood.
Theres a debate about what to call me, OKeefe told a meeting of the Harbor League at a Timonium hotel Wednesday night. Sean Casey of WCBM suggested he was one of the citizen journalists. Jeff Ferguson, vice president of Harbor League, a conservative free-market organization, said hes an entrepreneur and investigative journalist.
I like to call myself a community organizer, OKeefe said to laughter, somewhat half jokingly referring to one of Barack Obamas previous jobs. It also refers to the techniques hes borrowed from Saul Alinsky, the late radical community organizer: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules.
But as OKeefe described his tactics and strategy leaving out a few crucial details such as what kind of hidden cameras he uses it became clear that what he really is is an anti-journalist, not just a conservative activist trying to deflate the liberal establishment.
Theres no such thing as journalism anymore, OKeefe, 26, said. Theres no such thing as investigative journalism. Journalists in general are biased and corrupt, and are not journalists at all. Theyre political operatives.
He made his point strongly with a video PowerPoint that showed how the mainstream media mishandled the release of his clandestine videos.
OKeefe broke into national news with his 2009 release of videos at the Baltimore ACORN office pretending to be a pimp, along with his provocatively clad sidekick Hannah Giles as a prostitute. At several ACORN offices around the country, they were offered advice on how to hide their income from prostitution and bring in underage Salvadorans for the sex trade.
He showed clips of how media at first dismissed his charges, until he released more of the tapes from other cities.
I do not think my mission is a conservative one, OKeefe said. Our mission is to be a muckraker, associating himself with the long tradition of investigative journalists. He says the media has abandoned this mission. Youre dealing with powers that want to suppress information.
I just show people the truth, OKeefe said.
As someone who had spent a lifetime in journalism, my problem isnt just his blanket condemnation of a whole profession. Its that every OKeefe scoop, every one of the truly outrageous statements he is able to elicit, depends on deception of some sort. Phony pimps and prostitutes. Hidden mics or cameras. Phony Muslim donors to NPR. Phony underage pregnancies. Phony contributors to Planned Parenthood wanting to fund the abortion of black babies.
Its not really lying, OKeefe said. Its really truth seeking.
In a conversation afterwards, OKeefe placed himself in the grand tradition of other journalists such as Mike Wallace and Diane Sawyer, who won Emmy awards for stories that depended on deception. Should they give back their Emmies? he asked.
One of the key provisions of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists that we try to follow is:
Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.
OKeefe says that his revelations wouldnt be possible without underhanded methods that play on the weaknesses of the organizations he tries to undermine. He also concedes that the more open methods usually employed by journalists who identify themselves as such are likely to produce more guarded responses, not the juicy clips he publicizes.
Another advantage OKeefe exploits is the use of volunteers who are not known to the subjects of his stings. Reporters like me, who have been covering state politics for years and are often wearing media badges, are treated warily by even people with little contact with journalists.
OKeefe denies hes funded with big bucks, and his Project Veritas (Latin for truth) just got his 501(c)(3) determination letter from the Internal Revenue Service as a nonprofit. (MarylandReporter.com has the same status.) My budget last year was $10,000, OKeefe said. Were running on fumes.
He said his organization is recruiting and training citizen journalists. Ive got thousands of tips, he said. Its all about finding people who can execute those stories.
The job of the media is to scrutinize people, OKeefe said. Were shaming the media.
I will go after Republicans. I will go after Wall Street, OKeefe claimed.
His next release will be very soon, he said, an ACORN style investigation nationwide.
His website says, this new evidence will expose the biggest fraud weve seen yet. When we go public, our footage is going to blow the lid off of a nationwide scandal worth more than $1.2 trillion a year.
The establishment is terrified about the next sting video, he said Wednesday night.
And OKeefe is also slightly worried that Baltimore prosecutors will seek to nab him for the 2009 video, since Maryland is one of the dual consent states where both parties to a recording must agree to it. He is already on federal probation for posing as a telephone repairman in the New Orleans office of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu.
Wikipedia page on James O'Keefe
James O'Keefe's Project Veritas Web site