NBC latest to gloss over controversies surrounding O'Keefe

In a segment on conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe, NBC correspondent Mara Schiavocampo reported on O'Keefe's hidden camera investigations into ACORN but omitted key facts about the controversy that undermine his credibility. Schiavocampo ignored that O'Keefe falsely claimed that he was never turned away from ACORN offices; that despite claiming to be “absolutely independent,” a conservative donor reportedly funded some of his past films; and that O'Keefe was accused by a friend of doctoring transcripts from a previous project.

O'Keefe falsely claimed every ACORN office visited was complicit

O'Keefe: “None of the facilities kicked us out. That's a lie.” During the September 13 edition of Fox News' America's News HQ, senior correspondent Eric Shawn asked O'Keefe, “ACORN says that you went to, what, five other places around the country where they kicked you out. ... [D]id you find ethical, honest ACORN employees in any of the places that you went to that kicked you out and said, 'No, we're not going to do this. We're not going to cooperate. We're not going to have ACORN help you'?” O'Keefe responded that the people at ACORN are “liars” and that he "[a]bsolutely" wanted an apology and later added: "[N]one of the facilities kicked us out. That's a lie."

Philadelphia ACORN Housing official: "[W]e called the police and filed this report." In a YouTube video, Katherine Conway Russell, ACORN Housing Corp.'s Philadelphia office director, stated that O'Keefe visited the office "[l]ast July" with “another woman.” Russell stated that "[a]fter asking several general questions, [O'Keefe] began to veer off into suspicious territory." Russell said that O'Keefe eventually “asked about bringing girls from El Salvador and getting them papers, et cetera,” but that “I told them that there was nothing we could do to help them, that I didn't know anything about what they were asking about.” Russell also said that after she contacted another ACORN official and it became clear that O'Keefe “lied to get his appointment,” they contacted the police. ACORN also released a copy of the police report, which claimed that “James O'Keefe” had created a “verbal disturbance” and was asked to leave.

O'Keefe reportedly received donations from conservative activist

Report: Earlier O'Keefe film funded by conservative Peter Thiel. A September 22 Village Voice article reported that despite O'Keefe's claims that he is “absolutely independent,” he reportedly received at least $10,000 in donations from PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel:

The ACORN videos are actually just the latest of several films O'Keefe has produced and uploaded to YouTube. An earlier film posted in February, “Taxpayers Clearing House” featured nonwhite, working class people being duped by O'Keefe, who led them to believe they had won money in a sweepstakes.

That video was produced with the help of a grant -- said to be about $30,000 [Thiel's spokesman says closer to $10,000 -- see update] -- from Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook -- an investment which made him a billionaire. Thiel is one of Silicon Valley's more interesting figures: a gay man (according to Gawker's “Valleywag” ) who has railed against the evils of “multiculturalism.” He lives in San Francisco and today runs a hedge fund.


O'Keefe told a friend, Liz Farkas, that he had approached Thiel with the idea for the video, and had walked away with “approximately $30,000” to produce it.


Through a representative, Peter Thiel confirmed that he had funded “Taxpayers Clearing House” through a “small-government group,” but denied having any involvement with the ACORN videos. The representative says Thiel first learned of the new O'Keefe videos after they hit the Internet, and having “watched them on YouTube ... he shares the view that taxpayer money should not promote human trafficking.” [The Village Voice, 9/22/09]

Thiel reportedly is former member of Federalist Society, critic of multiculturalism and domestic partner benefits. The Village Voice reported that Thiel is the “co-author of The Diversity Myth: 'Multiculturalism' and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford" and “was also co-founding editor of the conservative Stanford Review and was a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal circle that has included Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.” According to The Village Voice, Thiel's book “argues against Stanford instituting domestic partner benefits, complaining 'even in purely economic terms, the costs are substantial. ... The end result is something of a random scrambling of people into 'relationships,' all claiming the right to live off of everyone else.' ”

Thiel reportedly may have made ACORN films “financially possible.” The Village Voice reported that "[t]hough Thiel denies directly funding O'Keefe's latest videos, Thiel may have made them financially possible anyway. O'Keefe has, in the past, used support from one project to fuel another." From the Village Voice article:

In the same way O'Keefe used equipment from the Leadership Institute to make his future films, he may have made use of Thiel's cash infusion for future projects, too. The “Taxpayers Clearing House” video that Thiel's money made possible was posted just a few months before O'Keefe and Giles set off on their summer adventure. The multiple ACORN videos were shot and produced over the course of more than two months, in San Diego, San Bernardino, Brooklyn, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (plus an unknown number of other cities, like Philadelphia, where O'Keefe attempted to shoot but the sting failed). [The Village Voice, 9/22/09]

Friend of O'Keefe reportedly objected to past transcript distortion

Report: O'Keefe friend said she “grew disillusioned” with his tactics after being asked to doctor transcript of a past film. A September 18 New York Times article reported that Liz Farkas, a college friend of O'Keefe's while at Rutgers University, said she “grew disillusioned” after O'Keefe asked Farkas to help deceptively “edit the script” of a video involving a nurse at the University of California at Los Angeles. From the Times:

“It was snippets to make the...nurse look bad,” Ms. Farkas said. “I said: 'It has no context. You're just cherry-picking the nurse's answers.' He said, 'Okay' -- and then he just ran it.”


From the September 23 broadcast of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:

WILLIAMS: Tonight, an NBC News exclusive. In his first broadcast network news interview, the young man behind the Candid Camera-like spoof that has caused so much backlash against the group ACORN, he tells his story. ACORN has now filed a lawsuit over his hidden-camera video that got two of its Baltimore office employees fired and touched off a big internal investigation. NBC's Mara Schiavocampo has our story.

[begin video clip]

SCHIAVOCAMPO: This is how most of the world was introduced to James O'Keefe: as a young video producer dressed like a pimp for a hidden-camera investigation into ACORN, the community-advocacy group whose voter registration efforts in disadvantaged communities were targeted by President Obama's opponents last year. And this is how I met him --


SCHIAVOCAMPO: -- as a soft-spoken self-described radical dealing with an awful lot of new attention --

MAN ON THE STREET: We think you're unbelievable.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: -- that's caught him completely by surprise.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: Did you expect all these repercussions when you started?


SCHIAVOCAMPO: Posing as a pimp and prostitute, O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, a friend he met on Facebook, caught ACORN employees in five cities appearing to give advice on tax evasion, human smuggling, and prostitution.

TRESA KAELKE (employee at ACORN's San Bernardino office): If you're just taking money from underage prostitutes -- oh my God. That doesn't sound good.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: O'Keefe says he and Giles spent about $1,300 to fund their trips, though he won't say how many offices they visited.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: Do you consider yourself a conservative?

O'KEEFE: No, I consider myself a progressive radical. I don't really want to conserve anything.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: How do you define yourself? As a journalist, as an activist?

O'KEEFE: I don't have a business card. I mean, I'm too busy doing what I do. I let other people frame it the way they want.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: It's a controversial style O'Keefe has been honing since his college days at Rutgers University. He started with pranks like complaining about Lucky Charms being served in the dining halls.

O'KEEFE: As you can see, we're not all short. I mean -- but we have our differences of height, and we think this is stereotypical of all Irish-Americans.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: And moved on to more outrageous political fare, like calling Planned Parenthood to see if they would accept donations to abort black babies.

O'KEEFE: There's definitely way too many black people in Ohio, so I'm just trying to do my part.


SCHIAVOCAMPO: O'Keefe plans to release more ACORN footage in the coming weeks and has already started thinking about his next project.

O'KEEFE: I would hope to be able to do more of these types of things and expose more corruption and do more investigating. Absolutely. I would love to be able to do -- it would be a privilege to be able to do this full-time.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: His hope: that this introduction to the public is the beginning of a long relationship.

Mara Schiavocampo, NBC News, New York.

[end video clip]