California local television news produced generally misleading coverage of a discredited right-wing nonprofit attacking a local high school teacher for allegedly teaching kids progressive ideology. According to a Media Matters analysis, the stations provided one-sided coverage, took the nonprofit -- which has a history of producing misinformation -- at its word, and ignored threats and harassment directed toward the teacher and school board.
Project Veritas is a right-wing nonprofit that produces videos claiming to expose corruption, but they are typically full of misinformation and often deceptively edited. On August 31, the group released a video of snippets of a conversation with an Advanced Placement government teacher at Inderkum High School, which is part of the Natomas Unified School District in Sacramento, California. The conversation has been heavily edited, but it appears that the teacher is claiming that he wants to make kids more progressive via his class.
The video is intercut with images of his classroom. The walls are decorated with LGBTQ+ rights flags, a flag associated with the loosely organized antifascist movement antifa, and a poster of Chinese communist revolutionary and dictator Mao Zedong. An investigation by the district confirmed that those wall decorations were present in the classroom and had since been removed. But there’s little information about the quality of the teacher’s education style or the success of his students. In fact, Natomas Superintendent Chris Evans told local NBC station KCRA that the school and district have not found any complaints about the teacher submitted between his hiring and the release of the Project Veritas video. Regardless, the school district is in the process of firing him.
After the original video was released at the end of August, right-wing media figures jumped on the chance to critique this teacher and the district and amplify the story. The teacher and school officials received threats, and their contact information was leaked. Project Veritas itself encouraged people to email school officials the same day the school district put out a statement saying it was receiving “a number of emails” from “outside our community that express hate and threats.” The school district also held a heated school board meeting on September 1, which was attended by a combination of community members and right-wing political operatives. The forum ended early due to safety concerns, according to the school board.
Here’s how Sacramento TV stations failed in their reporting on Project Veritas’ videos:
Ignoring the nature of Project Veritas
Project Veritas has a long history of pushing misinformation. In 2020 alone, it falsely accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) of being involved in an illegal ballot collection scheme and pushed lies about mail-in ballots long after they had been debunked. It also has a longstanding habit of cutting out context in its videos in order to make the subject look worse. Both Project Veritas and its founder, James O’Keefe, have also been banned from Twitter.
Local television news has been a leader in confronting the group’s misinformation at least once in the past. Minneapolis’ KMSP managed to investigate and debunk a significant portion of Project Veritas’ September 2020 videos accusing Minneapolis Democrats of illegal ballot collection, even revealing that a portion of those videos was likely staged. But local stations in Sacramento have not provided the same sort of scrutiny to the recent videos.
A Media Matters analysis of California broadcast coverage of this story that aired between August 31 -- the date the original Project Veritas video was published -- and September 10 found 30 news reports on this story. While 20 correctly identified Project Veritas as right-wing or conservative, only one piece — from Sacramento CBS station KOVR — referenced the organization's history, saying that it has been “accused of deceptive editing” and had been banned from Twitter. The other 29 reports lacked any implication that Project Veritas has pushed misleading narratives in the past.
In the immediate aftermath of the Project Veritas video release, Natomas Unified School District released a statement which, in part, stated:
Sadly, a number of emails have come in from outside our community that express hate and threats. There is sad irony in that outsiders are expressing displeasure towards the individual teacher while also using intense vulgarity, hate speech and threats of violence.
But on the same day, Project Veritas released a video publicly giving the email addresses of school officials and encouraging people to send complaints. Numerous threats and pieces of hate mail followed, and even the September 1 school board meeting ended due to safety concerns after meeting attendees were overheard discussing “threats and possible violence.”
Media Matters found only one report on local broadcast news that actually covered this harassment, from Sacramento-area NBC affiliate KCRA, and only after the station had interviewed Natomas Superintendent Chris Evans on September 2. The harassment was also briefly acknowledged by Evans in another KCRA piece aired on September 3. But KCRA didn’t acknowledge that Project Veritas had publicly encouraged people to write to school officials in either report.
In its coverage of the school board meeting, CBS affiliate KOVR, in particular, described the meeting as ending with the board “storming out.” The station continued to use that framing the day after the meeting without acknowledging that Natomas put out a public statement on September 2 explaining that there were “legitimate safety reasons.”
Additionally, in 20 reports, the teacher’s full name was disclosed. Local paper The Sacramento Bee has stated it will not name the teacher in its coverage due to harassment. Most broadcast outlets opted to ignore this risk and mention his name in full, repeatedly.
Engaging in one-sided reporting
Media Matters found only five instances in which an outlet even referenced any support or defense of the teacher. No outlet in our review mentioned that he was doxxed and received a deluge of harassment after the Project Veritas video came out, a detail highlighted in the Sacramento Bee's reporting.
KCRA opted to level even more accusations at the teacher based on an anonymous source claiming to be a parent. The station aired the source’s claim that their child said a previous student said the teacher didn’t properly prepare students for the AP government exam. There is no other evidence for this claim in the piece, and Evans told the outlet he wasn’t aware of any complaint against the teacher.
Local broadcast media in Sacramento seem to have bought into the narrative of a far-right organization’s smear campaign against a local teacher without really questioning its authenticity, despite Project Veritas’ history of questionable practices. Most of these outlets also didn’t acknowledge the very real harm that the videos did to the school district via harassment campaigns, instead opting to cover protective measures as cowardice.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database from ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates from the Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto, San Diego, Fresno-Visalia, Reno, Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-San Luis Obispo, Monterey-Salinas, Bakersfield, Chico-Redding, Medford-Klamath Falls, Palm Springs, Yuma-El Centro, and Eureka markets for mention of any of the terms “Project Veritas,” “Natomas,” “Inderkum,” or the concerned teacher’s last name (which we are withholding to protect them) from August 31 through September 10, 2021.
We noted the affiliate type, call sign, date aired, time aired, company that owns the affiliate, show title, and market for every report found about the Project Veritas video on the teacher. Coverage included live or pre-recorded news packages or reports and anchor headline reads, which we defined as instances when the Project Veritas video was the stated topic of discussion at the beginning of such news segments.
We then reviewed each report for whether it acknowledged that Project Veritas is a right-wing group, said or displayed the teacher’s name, or mentioned any of the following: Project Veritas’ history of misinformation, harassment against the school or school board, harassment against the teacher, or any support for the teacher.