The James O’Keefe cycle: After Sean Hannity’s eager promotion, another Project Veritas video falls apart

hannity project veritas

Citation Audrey Bowler / Media Matters 

Fox News star Sean Hannity hosted disgraced right-wing fabulist James O’Keefe last week to promote his latest video “sting,” which seeks to aid President Donald Trump’s reelection by undermining the credibility of U.S. elections. The video has since been discredited -- an incredibly predictable outcome for anyone remotely familiar with O’Keefe’s oeuvre -- but Hannity hasn’t bothered to let his audience know, because he’s a shill for the president.

Every news cycle about an O’Keefe “sting” video is the same (though every cycle about one of his efforts fizzling before launch is hilariously different). O’Keefe’s Project Veritas group targets a Democratic candidate, a progressive group, or a media outlet. His operatives use hidden cameras and leading questions to elicit responses from low-level participants that he can decontextualize and distort. His team edits together the footage into a video which he presents as damning evidence of widespread illegal or unethical behavior. The published result gets blasted through the right-wing infrastructure of social media storytellers, digital media outlets, and talk radio, moving up the food chain until it reaches Fox and the president. And then people take a closer look at the video and its participants and point out the particular ways in which O’Keefe has misled the public this time. 

O’Keefe’s latest target is U.S. elections. His latest video is a two-part Project Veritas investigation into a “Cash For Ballots Voter Fraud Scheme” in the Somali American community in Minneapolis. And his latest wild allegation is that his team has identified “the biggest systemic voter fraud smoking gun in American history.” 

There is no systemic voter fraud in the U.S. elections and mail-in voting is a secure way to cast ballots, despite the right-wing disinformation campaign to the contrary. And the videos in question are a mishmash of decontextualized snippets, some from anonymous individuals, which ultimately provide no “hard evidence of cash in exchange for votes.” Nonetheless, the video had rocketed through the right-wing noise machine to Hannity’s radio show, his Fox show, and the president in one day.

On his September 28 broadcast, Hannity presented O’Keefe as a credible investigator who had documented corruption. O’Keefe’s video, Hannity warned, “should scare every American.” After acknowledging that “Fox News has not independently verified the contents of the video,” he proceeded to show part of it to his millions of viewers. He brought on O’Keefe himself, who claimed he had produced “incontrovertible evidence” of “voter fraud” that is “all on tape.” “I hope the attorney general of the United States is watching tonight and will watch that video,” Hannity concluded at the end of the interview. “We need to get to the truth.”

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Citation From the September 28, 2020, edition of Fox News' Hannity

And then the Project Veritas claims started to fall apart. 

The “insider” at the center of O’Keefe’s tale who explains the purportedly crooked “scheme” is Omar Jamal, a local gadfly who presents himself as a leader in the Somali American community but has few apparent followers. Subsequent reporting revealed he isn’t a credible source, and he reportedly backtracked on key claims he made to O’Keefe in a subsequent interview -- notably, that he had ever seen cash exchanged for ballots. In fact, he “specifically alleges that he thinks a clip that purports to show a ‘ballot harvester’ paying a voter $200 in exchange for a vote was instead a demonstration of how that process allegedly works” -- a statement he may have been in good position to make, since he is reportedly the “ballot harvester” shown in the clip

The local Fox owned-and-operated affiliate, KMSP, added to the implosion on Monday with an interview with Liban Osman, another subject of the Project Veritas videos. KMSP provided at least one clear-cut case of Project Veritas deceptively taking Osman out of context to suggest he had been offering money for votes, and Osman told the station that Jamal had offered him $10,000 from the group if he were to claim to be harvesting ballots for Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN). “Project Veritas denies manipulating or misrepresenting its undercover video and claims it never offered Liban Osman $10,000,” KMSP reported.   

Hannity’s audience hasn’t heard any of this from him, and they shouldn’t expect to. The Fox star knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s been promoting O’Keefe’s purported bombshells for years, despite his lack of credibility, because it’s propaganda intended to benefit the Republican Party, and Hannity is a Republican Party propagandist.

In this case, O’Keefe is the leading edge of an insidious and wide-ranging GOP plan to damage the credibility of absentee and mail-in ballot counts, suppress as many Democratic votes as possible, and undermine confidence in the election results. As part of that effort, Project Veritas has “worked to infiltrate the groups of volunteers and paid canvassers who collect absentee and mail-in voter applications from low-income, elderly, and minority groups--a perfectly legal practice in most states that conservatives have tried to label as nefarious ‘ballot harvesting,’” The New Republic reported over the summer. 

That means we can expect more dubiously edited videos from O’Keefe’s crew in the month before the election -- and there’s little doubt he’ll be back on Hannity’s show to talk about it. That’s Fox’s role in the scheme -- an outlet willing to feed its viewers nonsensical, overblown attacks on the election process to benefit the president.