At various points throughout Breakthrough, the new memoir/manifesto by conservative “sting” video auteur James O'Keefe, the reader is informed that O'Keefe's mission is to “save democracy,” “save the 2012 election,” “revive investigative journalism,” and, most ambitiously, “change the world.” It's an outsized view of what one can accomplish with some silly costumes and cameras concealed in neckties. And by O'Keefe's account, he's been just about flawless in exposing the most sinister and corrupt establishments of the American political system.
Then there's the reality of what O'Keefe has actually accomplished. He has more than a few scalps -- an executive at NPR, the field director of Rep. Jim Moran's (D-VA) 2012 campaign, ACORN. He's been on TV quite a lot, he was honored by the House of Representatives, and New Hampshire passed a restrictive voter ID law as a consequence of his work. His penchant for trimming otherwise damning videos of exculpatory material has brought down scathing condemnations from journalists across the ideological spectrum.
Can any of this really be considered saving democracy? Did he save the 2012 election? Has he changed the world?
Unless, of course, you view the world as James O'Keefe does. In this terrifying alternate reality, ACORN “help[ed] bring the economy to its knees” in 2008 and was the “General Motors” of the “election fraud business.” It's a world in which voter fraud is so rampant that Sen. Al Franken stole his 2008 election with the help of “more than a thousand ineligible felons” who “voted illegally.” O'Keefe's existence is filled with “totalitarians” and “anti-journalists” who oppose him -- from President Obama to Media Matters to the administrative staff of Rutgers University -- and his only friend is the little voice that says: “All roads lead to truth. All roads lead to Breitbart. Go there.”
Reading through our advance copy of Breakthrough was an intriguing experience. The ins-and-outs of O'Keefe's guerilla operation are laid bare as he goes through the “Veritas Rules” one by one, instructing a new generation of conservative hacks in the ways of flashy, dishonest filmmaking. He also goes into the details of his 2010 arrest in Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-LA) New Orleans office which, if O'Keefe's account can be believed, resulted in some undignified treatment at the hands of federal authorities.
It is fascinating to see O'Keefe explain his ethos when it comes to his gonzo form of pseudo-journalism. “If my targets seem to skew 'left,' it is for a reason,” he writes on page 96. “The left makes huge claims about government and its capabilities. [...] Our target has never been the people who consume the benefits, whether they be unwed mothers or crony capitalists. Our target is the system that provides the benefits.” O'Keefe sums it up thusly: “We plant moral trees in an amoral universe and turn the cameras on.”
This is nonsense. A number of O'Keefe's targets have been organizations outside the government (ACORN, NPR, journalism professors, etc.) that receive limited amounts of federal money or none at all. His recent body of work has been almost exclusively focused on “voter fraud,” which falls well outside the realm of government benefits. His one real attempt at taking on the welfare state was a series of 2011 videos filmed at Medicaid offices that he wrongly claimed revealed widespread fraud.
The more likely explanation for O'Keefe's choice of targets is his keenly developed sense of what the conservative audience wants. “Exposés” of ACORN, voter fraud, NPR and the “liberal media” -- all right-wing bugbears -- have easy appeal to savvy communicators and opportunists like Matt Drudge and the late Andrew Breitbart (two people O'Keefe identifies very strongly with) who had little difficulty spinning the videos into attention-grabbing headlines and narratives. O'Keefe clearly takes great enjoyment in the showmanship of his work and knows how to market it.
The flipside to O'Keefe's hard-charging moral rectitude is his determined unwillingness to admit an error. Other than his arrest in New Orleans, O'Keefe's most famous flop was the attempted “fake seduction” of CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau, and his retelling of the incident is by turns self-serving and paranoid.
Upon receiving Boudreau's request for an interview, O'Keefe writes, he immediately “presumed her goal was to bait me into saying something that offended the CNN gods of race, gender, and/or orientation.” Instead of simply declining the interview, O'Keefe and an associate “schemed of ways to turn the tables on CNN,” and their “goofy creative process” led them to “stage a fake, over-the-top seduction scenario with Boudreau.” They wanted to “send a message to the corporate media.”
Remember: all Boudreau had done was request an interview.
When Boudreau arrived for that interview, a colleague of O'Keefe's, Izzy Santa, tipped off Boudreau and warned her of the plot O'Keefe had sketched out. At this point, O'Keefe starts worming his way out from underneath this horrible, misogynistic fiasco:
I respect Izzy for warning Boudreau. She showed good judgment, better than mine, and proved willing to act on it. What I do not quite understand is why Izzy then shared with CNN the caper document and a rash of emails between me and her and other people, including CNN. She must not have understood, for instance, that my proposed intro line to the would-be video, “We got the bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five,” was straight out of a Don Henley song. She must have believed that I was actually planning to seduce Boudreau.
O'Keefe then launches into a lengthy denunciation of CNN for its “hit piece” on his failed attempt to embarrass a CNN reporter. He notes that Breitbart, of all people, chastised him for the stunt: “She wasn't out to get you.” But even that wasn't enough to convince James O'Keefe that he might have been wrong. “Andrew knew his stuff,” O'Keefe counters, “but his conclusions were not always right.”
That pretty well captures the tenor of Breakthrough. In the end, James O'Keefe can do no wrong, because he's on a morally righteous crusade to save journalism and America and the world from J-school professors, public radio, and Medicaid.