Breitbart and O'Keefe: Guilty of being boring

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

If shoulder shrugs and eye rolls were audible, that's the cacophony of sound you would have heard bouncing across the political blogosphere on Tuesday and Wednesday after James O'Keefe and his online mentor, Andrew Breitbart, launched their latest, and wildly hyped, undercover video gotcha campaign. O'Keefe -- freshly minted as an admitted criminal in the great state of Louisiana -- along with Breitbart, seem to be trying desperately to prove they're not the Milli Vanilli of online journalism -- one-hit wonders who lucked into a big-media hit with their ACORN crusade eight months ago. (And yes, like the lip-syncing Milli Vanilli, it turned out O'Keefe and Breitbart's lone hit had been doctored in the studio.)

Partisan activists and dedicated right-wing fans alike seem especially focused on trying to salvage O'Keefe's reputation so that his future endeavors will be taken seriously by those outside the anti-Obama echo chamber. But that's not small task, considering O'Keefe was revealed as the perpetrator of the now-famous ACORN pimp hoax. In fact, according to Breitbart, it was O'Keefe who duped his mentor, causing Breitbart to later concede he had no idea what was on O'Keefe's ACORN tapes. (Ugh.)

In fact, no less than four independent reviews of the ACORN scheme concluded that the videos showed no criminality on the part of low-level ACORN workers, but the tapes did raise questions about the misleading way their were edited and presented. (i.e. Scenes were "taken out of context," and edited "substantially" in order to push an agenda.)

And it was O'Keefe the GOP prankster, along with his right-wing pals, who played dress-up in January and hatched the brilliant idea of entering a federal building under false pretenses in order to secretly videotape staffers in the office of the U.S. senator's office, and then request access to the office's central phone line. A Louisiana judge declared that the actions of O'Keefe and his cohorts were "unconscionable," "nefarious" and "potentially dangerous." For that adventure, O'Keefe was ordered to pay the state of Louisiana $1,500 and perform 100 hours of community service.

So, yes, O'Keefe's reputation is in desperate need of some repair. But judging from the nap-inducing undercover effort he put forward this week, that repair work may be beyond the likes of Breitbart and a handful of sycophantic bloggers.

And for now, it sure looks that one-hit-wonder tag is a keeper.

Let's be frank: O'Keefe and Breitbart's undercover sting on the Census Bureau, as a news story, is almost indescribably lame and awful and pointless and irrelevant. (Does that cover everything?) There's not a single serious, self-respecting journalist in this country who would attach his or her name to a so-called exposé as hollow and nonsensical as this. In truth, I'm not sure how the staff at The Onion, or the writers for Saturday Night Live, could concoct a more dead-on send-up of the pointless hidden-camera "journalism" that O'Keefe has convinced himself he's practicing.

I almost felt sorry watching the hidden-camera census clip. Not for the census workers who are captured surreptitiously; they come across as perfectly reasonable and sensible people. But I almost (almost) felt sorry for O'Keefe, who seems genuinely convinced, via the breathless voiceovers, that he's blowing the lid off the long-ignored national scandal that census workers may be taking 70-minute lunch breaks.

Noted Joe Conason at Salon:

Soon enough, O'Keefe will be on to his next target. Are you an Amtrak conductor who gave incorrect change? A sanitation worker who took a long coffee break? A schoolteacher who used too much chalk? Beware.

Like I said, the laugh lines pretty much write themselves.

The real problem for O'Keefe and Breitbart is that with their latest production, they've committed the crime of being boring and peddling an utterly vacuous product. Remember when O'Keefe announced that to forge a career in conservative journalism, "The more bold you are, the more opportunities will be open to you"? So now, going undercover for less than three days, sitting through a census training seminar, and then whining to your supervisor about minor discrepancies on your time card passes for "bold" action?

Oh, brother.

Perhaps burned by the ACORN pimp hoax as well as the New Orleans arrest, Breitbart and O'Keefe seemed to make a more conscious effort of just not making stuff up with regards to their census investigation. (And even then, they weren't entirely successful.) But what happens when Breitbart and friends try to practice 'serious' journalism, when they have to rely on actual facts, etc., is that they come up empty-handed. And that's why (and I'm not exaggerating here), viewing the undercover census investigation is like watching paint dry, albeit via a shaky hidden camera.

Meanwhile, Breitbart, starring in his role as the hapless conductor for the census roll-out, appears to have made a massive media miscalculation by snubbing Fox News, which practically co-sponsored the ACORN attack videos last fall. Instead, Breitbart opted to "launch" the census sting exclusively on ABC's Good Morning America. Writing at his site, Breitbart naively insisted that simply appearing on ABC would give the census (non-)story legs and legitimacy:

The beauty of Stephanopoulos's launching the Census story is that it now gives James O'Keefe a higher media profile. It will be harder and harder for his partisan peers to ignore him with subsequent videos -- all which show rampant corruption in the government.

That's right: Breitbart understands so little about American journalism that he assumed that because GMA hosted O'Keefe and let him talk about their census videos, that would automatically translate into other news outlets taking the story seriously. Well, sure -- if O'Keefe had given the other news outlets some actual news. But with no angles to peruse beyond extended lunch breaks for census workers, most of the press corps wisely took a pass.

And guess what? So did Fox News! On the day of the "launch," Fox News did not mention the census story. Ever. I mean, really ... if you're a high-profile, right-wing propagandist hatching an anti-government sting and you can't even get Fox News to bite, does the gotcha even exist? (Breitbart managed to sneak onto an overnight Fox News show the next day.)

As for the media sites that did weigh in, the reviews were not kind [emphasis added]:

  • "O'Keefe's new target is apparently the Census Bureau, thought honestly if he wanted to put himself to any real use one suspects he should direct his 'guerrilla' talents toward the BP workers that are reportedly limiting access to the spill site." [Mediaite]
  • "This video is a grave disappointment. Though asinine, O'Keefe's previous tomfoolery at least entertained us with funny pimp outfits, Gordon Gekko costumes, and federal crimes. This time around, he's as scintillating as a teenager filling out the paperwork for her after-school job at the mall food court. Are we supposed to believe he and Breitbart are so naive that lying on a timecard actually shocks them?" [Gawker]
  • "[I]f O'Keefe wants his movement to be taken seriously, he needs to draw a lesson from Investigative Journalism 101: when you're speaking truth to power, make sure what you're saying is actually true." [Newsweek]

Ever since O'Keefe's humiliating arrest in New Orleans in January, Breitbart had been promising that as soon as that legal matter was resolved, O'Keefe would return with more blockbuster, hidden camera investigations.

But oh man, if this week's census nonsense is the best they can do, I'm not sure that anything can save this Milli Vanilli duo from the cutout bin.

Census 2010
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