Self-described “guerilla journalist” James O’Keefe has spent months hyping his plans to take on mainstream media. Today, his launch of a laughably underwhelming “CNN Leaks” project shows that O’Keefe was so eager to validate President Donald Trump’s war on the mainstream media that he hyped a blockbuster revelation before he actually discovered one.
O’Keefe, a partisan activist who styles himself as a “citizen journalist,” purports to “investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions” through his nonprofit, Project Veritas. Under the guise of this mission, O’Keefe has spent years hyping and releasing secretly recorded and heavily edited videos aimed to discredit and attack almost exclusively progressive organizers, leaders, and government officials.
O’Keefe’s videos often fall flat and rarely match their billings. He has had to issue public apologies, been arrested for trespassing, and foiled his own plots, yet his videos have been promoted by the president. O’Keefe also regularly incites his loyal internet followers to practice their own brand of “investigative journalism.”
Since the election, O’Keefe has expanded his sights beyond progressive targets to “main stream media” and issued categorical threats of surveillance aimed at CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, among other figures. “The media is a huge target of mine right now,” O’Keefe told CNN’s Brian Stelter as he previewed his new “CNN Leaks” project earlier this week. O’Keefe also hyped “CNN Leaks” in a radio appearance with Fox’s Sean Hannity and in social media posts. The Associated Press also wrote about the anticipated release -- not to mention the numerous conservative blogs that breathlessly follow O’Keefe’s so-called investigations. Politico’s Hadas Gold wrote, “Some staffers at CNN were legitimately alarmed that O'Keefe would be releasing tapes that could be embarrassing for the network.”
And then the release happened.
What The “CNN Leaks” Don’t Show
On Thursday morning, Project Veritas released 119 hours of raw audio recordings from inside CNN’s headquarters (with “more than 100 hours” yet to be released). The recordings were taken in 2009, and given to Project Veritas by an anonymous source. O’Keefe said his group has not had the time to review and transcribe all of the recordings, instead telling his supporters to listen, transcribe, and send tips about the hours of footage to him. These full audio recordings were not available until the late afternoon due to issues with Project Veritas’ website.
O’Keefe did post a nearly eight-minute video on YouTube explaining the project and highlighting a few excerpts from the tapes that he claims show “profound liberal bias” and “CNN's misrepresentation of polling data.” As Politico explained, these assertions “fall flat.”
O’Keefe’s press release led with two segments from the recordings that he suggests “show CNN's misrepresentation of polling data.” As Gold points out, the first section actually depicts “two producers talking about the use of certain polls and why then-CNN polling director (now NH1 News political director and anchor) Paul Steinhauser declined to use a poll by Rasmussen, a group whose polling methods are still not widely accepted.” The recordings did not, by any stretch, confirm Trump’s claim that CNN polls are “fake news,” as O’Keefe suggested.
That issue, climate change, I mean science is pretty much on board and there are a few dissenters. There's no debate. It's like you know, born-agains saying there's a debate over, you know creationism, and all that stuff. There is no debate.
Speaking of bias, while this CNN editor was correctly describing the consensus on human-caused climate change in 2009, a Fox News executive was instructing staff to undermine that consensus on air.
Among the supposedly incriminating statements O’Keefe singled out for the “CNN Leaks” press release was this from CNN’s Richard Griffiths, now a vice president and senior editorial director at the network (from Project Veritas transcript):
If we are journalists, what is our role as a journalist? What is the fundamental role as a journalist, for us to do? Tell a story. Tell what's going on. There's a secondary corollary to that, right? Aid the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. To a degree, right? Is that not part of the traditional role of a journalist. It's actually one of the things I can be most proud of as a journalist. You know we try to show the ugly side of humanity so we can do something about it. It's hard, very hard.
Trump, O’Keefe, And “Fake News”
As Gold points out, it’s certainly possible something embarrassing from the network will be uncovered in the hours of footage. But right now, there’s no there there. The real story of the “CNN Leaks” -- at least in terms of what O’Keefe deemed newsworthy in his press release -- is how explicitly the "overrated" release seems aimed to confirm Trump’s anti-CNN assertions.
On the campaign trail, Trump specifically cited distortions from O’Keefe’s videos, and his charitable foundation gave thousands to Project Veritas in 2015. Trump also personally validated and encouraged “new media” (as O’Keefe likely imagines himself to be) to combat “the total dishonesty of the press” during a Reddit discussion. The similarities between Trump’s attacks on the media (and CNN, specifically) and O’Keefe’s distortions of the concept of journalism are striking, and seemingly create an anti-fact echo chamber among the internet masses, O’Keefe, and the White House. The purposeful twisting of the term “fake news” is the latest iteration.
O’Keefe’s video release for the “CNN Leaks” began with a clip of his announcement, made at the Deploraball Inauguration event, that he would “investigate and expose the media -- particularly the mainstream media." Before O’Keefe showed any excerpts from the 2009 audio recordings, he rehashed clips of Trump calling CNN and mainstream media “fake news.” After playing Griffiths’ quote about journalists’ duty to “aid the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” O’Keefe questioned whether the statement “now applies to President Trump.”
The potentially ongoing anti-media mindmeld between Trump, O’Keefe, and other self-styled citizen journalists who follow them now includes O’Keefe’s newest offering (or, as the Drudge Report gleefully calls it, a "bounty"): a “citizen journalist” award of $10,000 to “anyone who comes forward with legally obtained materials exposing media malfeasance.” There are hours of years-old CNN recordings that have yet to be reviewed by his followers, but based on the highlights, Trump is sure to love whatever they decide is there.
In fact, O’Keefe says the president already thinks the project is “so cool.”