Video ››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
Donald Trump is fundraising off of the latest “sting” video from dishonest conservative activist James O’Keefe. In a fundraising email from the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, the fundraising committee claims the video “raises questions” about “phony news stories” from CNN and that the network was attempting to “rile up their rabid liberal viewers, and take us down.”
The video in question highlights comments made by a CNN staffer with no involvement in CNN’s political coverage engaged in a casual conversation in which he says a “smoking gun” has not been uncovered yet in the numerous investigations into allegations that Trump’s presidential campaign possibly coordinated with Russia's attempt to sway the election.
The video, as well as a Russia story that CNN published and later retracted, was seized by the White House and their allies in an attempt to prove “the media can’t be trusted.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders urged Americans “to take a look at” O’Keefe’s video despite admitting that she didn’t know if “it’s accurate or not.”
In May 2015 the Trump Foundation, Donald Trump’s charitable organization, donated $10,000 to James O’Keefe and his organization, Project Veritas. Trump routinely used O’Keefe’s dishonest videos on the campaign trail, even mentioning the videos during a debate with Hillary Clinton.
O’Keefe has been arrested for the illegal methods he uses to obtain his videos and he was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine to the subject of one of his videos after O’Keefe’s deceptively edited video smearing a former ACORN employee led to his firing. This is not the first time O’Keefe has attempted to sting CNN, as he also once tried to embarrass a CNN correspondent by luring her to a “palace of pleasure,” and planning to then videotaping her in the boat with sex props strewn about.
The political media world is dissecting CNN’s Russia coverage right now, which means late last night was the perfect time for self-described “guerilla journalist” James O’Keefe to do what he does best. That included releasing an embarrassing letdown of an undercover sting video that does very little of what he says it does but is nominally related to the story of the day, claiming credit for the “bombshell” revelation nonetheless, and then watching as his friends on the far-right fringe used social media to vault his shitty video art project all the way up to the Trump camp.
O’Keefe, a partisan activist who styles himself as a “citizen journalist,” has spent years hyping and releasing secretly recorded and heavily edited videos aimed at discrediting and attacking (almost exclusively) progressive organizers, leaders, and government officials. Since the election, O’Keefe has expanded his sights beyond progressive targets to “main stream media” and issued categorical threats of surveillance to CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, among other figures.
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 of the United States. O’Keefe also regularly incites his loyal internet followers to practice their own brand of “investigative journalism.”
His latest attempt -- a nearly nine-minute video called “American Pravda: CNN Producer Says Russia Narrative “bullsh*t" -- is yet another sign that O’Keefe has no actual interest in reporting the truth, but instead produces video art projects for the sole purpose of getting attention from one of his biggest fans, President Donald Trump.
Today's video, which O'Keefe is billing as the first in a series, isn't actually the first time he's tried to sting CNN since the election.
“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 back in February. After days of hyping a so-called investigation into CNN then, O’Keefe released an absolute dud of a video that pieced together audio-only recordings from CNN in 2009 to reveal purported “bias” in its reporting. The smoking guns in this release included a clip of a producer explaining the overwhelming scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, and another clip of a CNN staffer explaining that journalists have a responsibility to question institutions.
Now, O’Keefe is back at it again, with a new “part one” of his media exposé series, now called “American Pravda.” This latest video does about as much damage as the last attempt. Its “bombshell” is a CNN senior producer for medical content saying casually that the network thus far has no "smoking gun" in terms of the possible Trump-Russia collusion and suggesting that the focus on the story is excessive.
“You’re not going to believe what you’re about to hear. Or maybe you will,” O’Keefe says in his art project, following an ominous introduction segment complete with a signature Glenn Beckian conspiracy map.
Viewers will probably believe what they hear, though: a CNN staffer with no involvement in CNN’s political coverage (this isn’t mentioned in the video) speculating casually about CNN’s reporting on Trump’s possible involvement with Russia. The video also showed the same CNN producer claiming CNN makes reporting decisions based on ratings, a shameful tactic that’s really no secret at all -- and one that doesn't account for warranted, extensive reporting on an undeniably important story.
The lack of there there hasn’t stopped O’Keefe from shamelessly hyping his video alongside the legitimate news of a CNN reporting failure that’s been publicly addressed, thereby allowing him to claim credit for any and all public discussion of CNN’s reporting on Russia’s possible involvement with members of the Trump administration.
It also hasn’t stopped O’Keefe’s friends in far-right media from hyping the video. And if Donald Trump Jr. and The Washington Times are to be believed, O’Keefe’s lackluster video was enough to warrant an erratic statement from the president. (Trump’s actual tweets do not explicitly indicate whether he is referring to CNN’s retraction of a report related to Russia, or to O’Keefe’s video.) This afternoon, in response to a question about CNN's story retraction, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seemed to refer to the video during the White House press briefing when she urged people to watch "a video circulating now, whether it's accurate or not, I don't know."
It’s certainly believable that Trump (who gave thousands to O’Keefe about a month before declaring his presidential candidacy) would respond to the video too -- after all, it’s aimed perfectly to confirm his longheld anti-CNN and anti-media assertions. Trump apparently thought O’Keefe’s laughable February attempt at a CNN exposé was “so cool.”
Since 2009, O'Keefe has repeatedly pushed misleading and doctored “undercover” videos and embarrassed himself while attempting to launch sting operations targeting government agencies, media outlets, and liberal organizations and institutions. Here is Media Matters' compilation of O'Keefe's missteps over the years:
O’Keefe accidentally revealed plans to infiltrate a philanthropist’s organization on the targeted employee’s voicemail. In March 2016, O’Keefe accidentally detailed plans to send an “undercover” operative to secretly infiltrate the liberal philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundations in a voicemail message for an Open Society employee. After calling the employee and posing as a “Hungarian-American who represents a, uh, foundation,” O’Keefe held “a meeting about how to perpetrate an elaborate sting on Soros,” unaware that his phone was still connected to the employee’s voicemail. Investigative journalist Jane Mayer detailed in The New Yorker that O’Keefe also inadvertently recorded himself narrating his attempts to access the employee’s LinkedIn page before realizing the individual would receive a notification he had viewed her profile. O’Keefe later acknowledged the botched attempt, saying, “Some of us just forget to hang up the phone.” [Media Matters, 5/20/16]
O’Keefe and associates trolled college campuses dressed as the Constitution, but they “didn’t make much of a splash.” In the fall of 2015, Project Veritas released a video purporting to show officials at several colleges and universities “literally shredding” a copy of the Constitution in response to an undercover actor posing as a student upset by the document. The video also featured footage of O’Keefe, dressed in a Constitution costume with a tricorn hat and gloves, attempting to engage with students walking through the campuses as he asked female students for their phone numbers. In response, officials from several of the schools criticized O’Keefe’s attempts at “shoddy journalism,” and noted that the administrators featured in the videos were attempting to do their jobs by assisting a student who appeared to be experiencing a mental health crisis. Media writer and Vassar College professor Hua Hsu described O’Keefe’s stunt on his own campus, and its lackluster results, for The New Yorker:
Earlier this year, James O’Keefe, the conservative activist famous for his hidden-camera exposés, visited Vassar College dressed in costume as the Constitution. Vassar, where I teach, is one of those campuses that seems to typify, for some, how wacky and permissive higher education has become—a readymade specimen for those seeking to depict the twenty-first-century American college at its most insular and navel-gazing. O’Keefe hoped to do this by handing out pocket-sized Constitutions outside the campus’ busiest building. One of his operatives, posing as a student, would then coax an administrator into destroying this replica of our nation’s founding document. A video edited down from the day’s footage shows an officer of the college awkwardly humoring the faux student, who is pitch-perfect in her recitation of how the offensively retrograde Constitution had “triggered” and traumatized her, helpfully suggesting that the officer use a nearby shredder.
In a year when college campuses were particularly visible as hotbeds of political activity, O’Keefe’s stunt didn’t make much of a splash. The administrator in the clip seems confused and skeptical, like an actress flubbing her lines, while the real-life Vassar kids caught on camera look mildly inconvenienced rather than incensed. [The Oberlin Review, 11/6/15; The Cornell Sun, 11/10/15; The Vassar Miscellany News, 11/11/15; The New Yorker, 12/31/15]
Reporter asked, “Is this a joke?” as O’Keefe targeted the Clinton campaign for selling T-shirts. In a September 2015 sting operation, O’Keefe baselessly accused Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign of money laundering after releasing a video in which an undercover operative with Project Veritas purchased a campaign T-shirt on behalf of a Canadian attending a campaign event. The money laundering accusation was widely ridiculed by political reporters, with one journalist reportedly asking O’Keefe at a press conference promoting the video, “Is this a joke?” O’Keefe later reportedly admitted that his group likely broke the law by facilitating the $30 to $40 purchase. [Media Matters, 9/1/15; Talking Points Memo, 9/1/15]
After an Osama Bin Laden border crossing stunt, even Fox News suggested O’Keefe “give it a rest.” In August 2014, O’Keefe released a video in which he purportedly crossed the Rio Grande River while wearing an Osama Bin Laden costume, a stunt meant to suggest that terrorists could easily enter the U.S. at the Mexican border. Gawker immediately debunked the video in a post titled “James O’Keefe Is Getting Desperate as Hell, Part MCMXVII,” pointing to evidence O’Keefe grossly misrepresented the area he repeatedly crossed in his video. Even Fox News host Eric Bolling couldn’t defend O’Keefe’s antics, saying the video was “not helpful,” and that O’Keefe ought to “give it a rest.” [Media Matters, 8/11/14; Gawker, 8/11/14]
O’Keefe’s attempt at a bombshell Hollywood fracking video ended with a target using his own secret recording to expose O’Keefe. In May 2014, O’Keefe released a video he said exposed “the darker side of how a lot of the feel-good environmentalist propaganda gets funded by international interests who jeopardize national security.” In the video, a Project Veritas actor posed as “Muhammed,” an oil tycoon from the Middle East who attempted to fund a documentary project on the harms of fracking. O’Keefe suggested that, based on an instance in which two filmmakers appeared to accept the funding, his tactics had “exposed the truth about the dark funding behind Hollywood’s anti-fracking messaging machine.” O’Keefe even “debuted” the edited video at “a ‘premiere’ in Cannes, France.” Media Matters found that O’Keefe’s claims were refuted by unedited footage O’Keefe himself released, and one target of Project Veritas, film director Josh Fox, revealed his own secret recordings of their interactions that "caught" O’Keefe "in total deception," "willfully portray[ing] it in the wrong light" with heavy editing. The director shared his own revealing recordings on MSNBC’s All In, where host Chris Hayes introduced the segment on “disgraced right-wing operative professional troll” O’Keefe:
CHRIS HAYES (HOST): People-who-plead-guilty week continued on The Kelly File last night. Fresh off the heels of the blockbuster interview with Dinesh D’Souza, who recently pled guilty to campaign finance law violation, was James O’Keefe, the disgraced right-wing operative professional troll who has pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering federal property under false pretenses. On Fox News last night, O’Keefe was pushing his latest trolling enterprise in which he plays gotcha with environmentalists who are hypocritical because, well to be honest, I didn’t care enough about it to read about it. But it’s a James O’Keefe bombshell, you just wait a day for it to be debunked. [MSNBC.com, 5/22/14; Media Matters, 5/21/14; The Daily Beast, 5/22/14]
O’Keefe’s Battleground Texas video was declared “little more than a canard and political disinformation” by a state investigation. In February 2014, Project Veritas released a video purporting to show employees of the progressive voter registration group Battleground Texas using “potentially illegal methods to change elections.” Outraged Republican state officials pushed for an investigation into the video, ultimately resulting in two Texas special prosecutors disparaging O’Keefe’s tactics and the video itself. The special prosecutors concluded their investigation by asking that complaints against Battleground Texas be dismissed, calling the Veritas video “little more than a canard and political disinformation.” [Media Matters, 4/7/14]
O’Keefe “confronted” a lawmaker about nonexistent language in “race hustler” voting rights legislation. In a March 2014 video, O’Keefe bizarrely attempted to “ambush” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) about his bipartisan bill designed to reaffirm civil rights protections in the Voting Rights Act. After dancing to a New Order song while wearing camouflage, O’Keefe attempted to confront Sensenbrenner at several Wisconsin town hall meetings for so-called “racialist language” in his bill that “excludes whites,” which Sensenbrenner correctly noted the bill does not, in fact, do. Media reporter Dave Weigel described the bizarre video’s “strange” focus at Slate:
[K]udos to James O'Keefe for going undercover, in hunting gear for some reason, and posing as a constituent. It's just confusing what he decided to do when he got in the room. O'Keefe insists that Sensenbrenner's attempt to restore some version of voting rights law pre-clearance is de facto racist.
There is no mention of the "Voting Rights Act" in the intro. It's called "a part of federal law that gives Eric Holder the power to approve election law in 16 states," and Sensenbrenner's amendment is called "legislation to give Eric Holder back power over state elections."
In the room, asking questions, O'Keefe does use the law's name. He asks Sensenbrenner whether it's true that the bill "removes white people from the protections of the Voting Rights Act." Sensenbrenner says it isn't -- a red buzzer goes off. We're directed to language in Sec. III, subsection 4 of the bill, which defines "the term 'minority' as used throughout.
This is strange. That's not the bill's only mention of race -- it's a pretty trivial one, actually.
O’Keefe was forced to pay $100,000 and publicly apologize in a settlement related to his sham 2010 ACORN exposé. In March 2013, O’Keefe and conservative activist Hannah Giles settled a 2010 lawsuit after one of the videos they released in a series on the now-defunct group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which fraudulently portrayed the role of a former ACORN employee, resulted in the employee’s termination. In the video, the employee was shown appearing to aid undercover actors in criminal activity, but an analysis of the heavily edited video revealed the employee had actually called the police immediately following the secretly recorded interaction. Pursuant to the court-approved deal, O’Keefe and Giles had to pay the employee a collective $150,000, and O’Keefe issued a public apology claiming he was unaware the employee had notified authorities. [Media Matters, 3/7/13]
O’Keefe’s New York union boss “gotcha” attempt just showed local officials trying to be “courteous” in an absurd, O’Keefe-manufactured situation. In July 2012, Project Veritas released a video it claimed showed elected officials and union leaders in New York state helping undercover actors secure funding for a business “that literally does nothing but dig holes and then put the dirt back.” The raw footage of the video revealed that the officials featured in the video did not express support for the fake company or offer to help the actors find funding at all, but rather politely questioned the actors posing as their constituents about their clearly made-up operation. The officials later clarified they had assumed at the time that the discussion “must be a scam” but had “tried to be courteous.” [Media Matters, 7/18/12]
O’Keefe’s “voter fraud” video showed a “dead” voter later found to be very much alive and “non-citizens” who were actually citizens. A May 2012 video O’Keefe claimed showed voter fraud in North Carolina, including “ballots being offered out in the name of the dead” and “non-citizens voting," was found to have edited out some important facts -- the “dead” voter from the video was not actually dead, and the “non-citizen” in the video had become a U.S. citizen decades earlier. Upon viewing the raw footage from the “voter fraud” video, Media Matters found that O’Keefe had edited out an important exchange in which the undercover operative clarified he was actually seeking the ballot of the deceased man’s living son, who was registered to vote at the same address and shared his late father’s name. ThinkProgress similarly debunked O’Keefe’s claims of “non-citizens” voting in the video, noting that “a simple Nexis search” of one man’s name showed that he and his wife were naturalized citizens, and that a second man, who was reportedly harassed with anonymous phone calls about his citizenship prior to the video, had become a naturalized citizen the previous year. ThinkProgress concluded that “the one instance in the video where O’Keefe purports to show that a non-citizen had actually voted, in fact shows that a citizen voted.” [ThinkProgress, 5/15/12, 5/16/12; Media Matters, 5/16/12]
Yet another “voter fraud” video failed to show any actual voter fraud; it “just shows how limited O’Keefe’s talents are.” Over the course of several months in 2012, Project Veritas released videos O’Keefe claimed proved “widespread voter fraud” in several states and the District of Columbia. As several media outlets quickly pointed out in response to one of the videos in which an undercover actor appears to obtain a ballot posing as former Attorney General Eric Holder, the heavily edited videos do not, in fact, show any instances of voter fraud or voting at all. Instead, the videos showed actors almost committing a crime by attempting to falsely claim ballots, and illustrated how difficult it would be to commit actual voter fraud. As politics writer Alex Koppelman explained in The New Yorker (emphasis added):
James O’Keefe and his supporters think that he’s scored big today. See, not long ago, Attorney General Eric Holder criticized laws that require people wishing to vote to bring photo I.D. with them; he called those laws “a solution in search of a problem,” and said “there is no statistical proof that vote fraud is a big concern in this country.” So one of O’Keefe’s colleagues—a white man who looks considerably younger than the Attorney General—went to went to Holder’s polling place for the recent primary in Washington, D.C., and claimed to be Holder. The punch line, of course, is that he was given no trouble, and welcomed to vote. (He never went through with it and actually committed the voter fraud, presumably because someone’s giving them legal advice not to.)
It’s a cute little trick, and a lot of people on the right have gotten a nice little laugh at Eric Holder’s expense today. The Drudge Report has led with it all day. But it doesn’t prove anything—actually, if anything, it shows just how limited O’Keefe’s talents are, and how un-ambitious is the vision espoused by the right’s new investigative journalists and those who publish them.
[Ben] Shapiro and O’Keefe and the rest don’t know when voter fraud takes place, if indeed it does, because they don’t do the work necessary to find out. O’Keefe may be lionized as an investigative journalist, but he’s not one, and he never has been. He takes the easy, flashy way out: his videos don’t prove that malfeasance is happening; they prove that it could, maybe. (Taking the same trick and repeating it over and over again, which is basically what O’Keefe did with this latest video, part of a series of such work, doesn’t help.) [The New Yorker, 4/9/12; Media Matters, 1/11/12, 1/11/12, 1/12/12, 4/9/12, 4/16/12]
O’Keefe’s “pointless” “To Catch A Journalist” series was roundly mocked by experts. In a video series titled “To Catch a Journalist,” O’Keefe attempted to show journalists engaging in questionable or biased journalistic practices. Instead, a range of highly respected reporters and journalism experts immediately mocked his heavily edited videos. Even the Project Veritas website noted that the first video in the series had drawn criticism from “the media elite” and “a Pulitzer Prize winning professor from Columbia’s Journalism School.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple dismissed the first video as a “gotcha attempt” and “fishing expedition” against Huffington Post reporter Sam Stein. Reporter Jack Schafer wrote for Reuters, “The only thing O’Keefe has accomplished with this ‘To Catch a Journalist’ expose is to prove that Stein is a conventional journalist,” adding that the video “ends up making Stein look normal and O’Keefe slightly tetched.” The Poynter Institute’s Steve Myers discredited the second video in the series, noting it was “heavily edited” and pointing out that the video, which was supposed to target The New York Times, did not feature any Times employees or journalists at all. The Atlantic Wire concluded that O’Keefe “burns his own straw man” in the video. A Forbes reporter declared the series “a dumb idea,” condemning “the lameness of O’Keefe’s results,” “the dubiousness of his method,” and “the pointlessness of the enterprise itself.” In a later, also failed attempt, O’Keefe was reportedly filmed and then dismissed by an unfazed Columbia University journalism professor, who said O’Keefe also couldn’t figure out how to use the door to exit the professor’s office, writing, “Turns out they were pulling the door instead of pushing it.” As Gawker summarized:
James O'Keefe has been lurking in journalism school hallways across the country in pursuit of his latest bombshell series "To Catch a Journalist." So far, he's blown the lid off the story that some college professors like Barack Obama and that sometimes journalists drink alcohol and use bad words. [Gawker, 11/10/11; The Washington Post, 10/24/11; Project Veritas, 10/27/11; Poynter, 10/27/11; The Atlantic Wire, 10/27/11; Forbes, 10/28/11]
“Medicaid fraud” videos actually just showed Medicaid workers doing their jobs. A series of heavily edited videos that O’Keefe said proved “widespread Medicaid fraud” in fact depicted no instances of fraud, but did show footage of Medicaid workers in Ohio, Indiana, and Maine correctly following Medicaid application procedures. The processes partially shown in O’Keefe’s videos, in which workers advise undercover actors about the rules and limitations for Medicaid eligibility and help them to accurately fill out applications, were the first in many steps necessary before any type of fraud could have been committed. [Media Matters, 7/18/11, 7/26/11, 8/11/11]
Even Glenn Beck's website discredited O'Keefe's “bad reality show” NPR video. O’Keefe released a video in March 2011 that claimed to show two NPR executives making controversial remarks to two people posing as members of a "Muslim Brotherhood front group,” including statements alleging that members of the tea party were racist. Even Glenn Beck’s website TheBlaze concluded that the video was a smear. As Time magazine reported:
In the video, NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller and a colleague met with two members of a fictional Muslim group dangling a $5 million donation. Prodded by the "donors," Schiller said liberals "might be more educated" than conservatives, described Republicans as "anti-intellectual" and said the GOP had been "hijacked" by the "racist" Tea Party.
Or did he? After the tape became national news, and after NPR hastily sacrificed its CEO to appease critics, a video editor at the Blaze — a website founded by Fox News host Glenn Beck — compared the edited sting video and the two-hour original, also posted online.
Schiller did say some bad things, the Blaze found. But the short video took them out of context, like a bad reality show, and made them sound worse. It transposed remarks from a different part of the meeting to make it seem as if Schiller were amused by the group's "goal" of spreading Shari'a law. It left examples of his complimenting Republicans on the cutting-room floor.
And that Tea Party quote? Schiller was, for at least part of it, describing the views of some Republican friends. Somehow — oops! — O'Keefe left that bit out. [Time, 3/17/11; The Blaze, 3/10/11; Media Matters, 3/8/11, 3/14/11]
A CNN reporter detailed O’Keefe’s botched plan to demonstrate media “hypocrisy” by “faux seducing” her with a boat full of sexual “props.” In September 2010, then-CNN investigative correspondent Abbie Boudreau described how O’Keefe had attempted a “failed punk” on her by staging what a former colleague of O’Keefe’s called a “bizarre sexual conversation” on a boat filled with sex toys. The “punk” was halted when the former employee of Project Veritas alerted Boudreau, who later obtained a document detailing the various “props” O’Keefe had requested for the stunt. According to an internal script, the plan was to have O’Keefe introduce the resulting footage by explaining that the reporter who was doing an investigative piece on conservative activists “has been trying to seduce me to use me, in order to spin a lie about me. So, I'm going to seduce her, on camera, to use her for a video. This bubble-headed-bleach-blonde who comes on at five will get a taste of her own medicine, she'll get seduced on camera and you'll get to see the awkwardness and the aftermath.” As reported by CNN’s Scott Zamost:
"The plans appeared so outlandish and so juvenile in tone, I questioned whether it was part of a second attempted punk," Boudreau said.
But in a phone conversation, [Project Veritas employee Izzy] Santa confirmed the document was authentic. Listed under "equipment needed," is "hidden cams on the boat," and a "tripod and overt recorder near the bed, an obvious sex tape machine."
ABC used O’Keefe’s own footage to contradict him on live television. In a video posted on the late Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment.com in June 2010, O'Keefe stated that he had been hired as a U.S. Census worker and attended two days of training. He said, "What I found were census supervisors systematically encouraging employees to falsify information on their timesheets." The video includes clips of census employees who, according to O'Keefe, "didn't seem to have a problem with the discrepancy" of the hours recorded on his time sheet versus the hours he claimed to have worked. O'Keefe omitted a clip that was later aired by ABC during a Good Morning America interview with O’Keefe and Breitbart that showed a census supervisor emphasizing the importance of accurately reporting on miles driven by census enumerators. [Media Matters, 6/1/10; ABCNews.com, 6/1/10]
O’Keefe pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal charge of entering a Senate office under false pretenses. In January 2010, O’Keefe and three associates were arrested on criminal misdemeanor charges stemming from a botched attempt to tamper with the phones at the New Orleans office of then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). In May, the group pleaded guilty and O’Keefe faced probation, a fine, and community service for his illegal antics. As The Times-Picayune reported:
The four defendants who were arrested in January in Sen. Mary Landrieu's office in the Hale Boggs federal complex in New Orleans pleaded guilty Wednesday morning in federal court to entering real property belonging to the United States under false pretenses.
Magistrate Judge Daniel Knowles III sentenced Stan Dai, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan each to two years probation, a fine of $1,500 and 75 hours of community service during their first year of probation.
James O'Keefe, as leader of the group and famous for posing as a pimp in ACORN office videos, received three years of probation, a fine of $1,500 and 100 hours of community service. [The Times-Picayune, 5/26/10; Media Matters, 1/29/10]
O’Keefe’s heavily edited ACORN “pimp” hoax videos were investigated and widely discredited. O’Keefe’s brand of performance activism first made national headlines in 2009, with the release of several heavily edited videos that O’Keefe said showed staff from the nonprofit Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) engaging in criminal behavior. In the videos, O’Keefe and an associate are portrayed as if they had dressed as a “pimp” and a “prostitute” attempting to elicit help from ACORN staff in eight offices across several cities in supposedly setting up a child prostitution ring. It was later discovered that, among other misrepresentations in the edited videos, O’Keefe and his associate were not, in fact, dressed flamboyantly during their secretly recorded meetings at ACORN offices, and the audio of ACORN workers was muted and edited. An independent investigation, state-led investigations in California and New York, and a federal investigation through the Government Accountability Office all found no evidence of illegal activity from ACORN staff, and a Congressional Research Service report found no instances of ACORN violating the terms of its federal funding, but it did note that O’Keefe and his associates may have violated state bans on secret recording in California and Maryland. The California attorney general concluded that O’Keefe had engaged in “highly selective editing of reality.” An ACORN employee who was terminated because of the videos subsequently sued O’Keefe and his associate Hannah Giles, and O’Keefe had to settle the case and issue a public apology. [Media Matters, 10/21/09, 12/8/09, 2/17/10, 7/21/10, 3/7/13; CNN.com, 6/14/10]
The president and his trolls are not fighting CNN. They're fighting the practice of journalism itself.
Over the weekend, CNN published, investigated, and retracted a story which reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking into a Russian investment fund whose head met with a close aide to President Donald Trump earlier this year. On Monday, the network announced that the story’s reporter, editor, and the executive editor of CNN’s investigations division had all resigned. A network source told The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that while the network had not disproved the story, swift action had to be taken because there had been a “breakdown in process.”
Viewed in a vacuum, this would be an admirable, if harsh, example of a major media outlet working to uphold its standards. But the incident -- and the response from the right, with President Donald Trump and his media allies attacking CNN -- comes amid a months-long effort to brand the network and the rest of the mainstream press as “fake news.” The attacks on CNN that have poured in over the last few days have not been credible arguments made in good faith by people who want a better media. They’ve been the vapid bleatings of the press’s enemies, who want to grind down journalists and narrow the scope of acceptable behavior for mainstream outlets using standards to which they don’t themselves adhere. There is no point in trying to appease the right-wing critics, and responsible journalists should not act as if there’s a way to win them over.
“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign,” Trump tweeted this morning. “What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!”
“CNN's descent from news organization to political campaign is nearly complete,” Tucker Carlson claimed on Fox last night. For Fox’s Sean Hannity, the incident proved there is a “major credibility crisis at CNN.” Asked about the president’s tweets on Fox & Friends the next morning, Newt Gingrich, a close ally of the president’s, chimed in to say the network needs to get rid of president Jeff Zucker and bring in “an outside analyst” to “review everything at CNN and basically reset it.”
To be clear, CNN investigated its report, found it did not meet the network’s standards, and the report was not only retracted, but the people involved with its production also no longer work there. At the pro-Trump press outlets like Fox, such consequences simply do not happen.
If Fox held to CNN’s standard, the network would have fired Special Report anchor Bret Baier over last year’s retracted, anonymously sourced report, presented days before the presidential election, that an indictment was “likely” in the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. Fox & Friends hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade wouldn’t still have jobs after being scolded by a top network executive and a federal judge for their tendency to credulously report Internet hoaxes and absurd smears. Senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano would have been canned after he claimed that unnamed intelligence sources had told him that late last year, a British spy agency had surveilled Trump on behalf of then-President Barack Obama.
The reality that mainstream outlets have standards that the right-wing press doesn’t is admirable, but it is also a vulnerability. The president and his media supporters have internalized the lesson that admitting fault is how you lose, and fighting back is how you win. Thus they almost never say they did something wrong -- and certainly never penalize themselves for their failings -- even if, say, tape emerges of the president saying that he likes to sexually assault women. This refusal to apologize has allowed them to prime their audience to feast on opponents who acknowledge failures.
The right wing’s argument in this case is extremely simple, and it fits with a story its adherents have been telling for quite some time: CNN, and the mainstream media more broadly, is fake news, deliberately producing false stories to damage Trump and the conservative movement. CNN’s argument -- that the network tries hard to get its stories right, and when it fails to meet its own standards, it takes action -- is much more complex. That’s a weakness since the general public simply does not have much trust for journalists.
And the president’s media allies do not intend to leave it there. Late last night, video propagandist James O’Keefe released a hidden-camera video featuring a supervising producer for the CNN Medical Unit, who said that the network had yet to uncover a Russia “smoking gun” and that the network’s reporting is driven by ratings.
The claim that CNN has no standards and cares only about getting more viewers is contradicted by the resignations from yesterday, and it's unclear why a health producer would have particular insight into the network’s Russia coverage, or why all network producers should have the same opinions about coverage. But no matter; the point is to tear the network down. The video is being billed as a major scandal by the “alt-right” and pro-Trump media, with Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large for the conspiracy theory website Infowars, stating that Trump “must now revoke CNN’s White House press credentials” based on the tape.
CNN and rest of the media should learn from this. For decades, the right wing has sought to work the press as a way to delegitimize and lessen critical coverage. But the conservative attacks on the media are not made in good faith. The most important tweet the president sent this morning explains what Trump thinks of major news outlets:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 27, 2017
This isn’t an argument over what constitutes good journalism and what doesn’t. It’s a fight over whether a critical press should exist.
Journalists should do what they think is right in order to adhere to and uphold their standards. But they should make those decisions without paying attention to the bad-faith complaints from the right. They can’t worry about the conservative criticisms as if there is something they could do to make them stop. That will never happen. Firing journalists who mess up won’t help. Neither will hiring pro-Trump sycophants. The conservative goal is a cowed press that pushes the same propaganda that Fox does. Unless the rest of the press is willing to adhere to that standard, the right will never be satisfied.
Following President Donald Trump’s announcement that he is setting up a commission to review voter fraud allegations -- which experts have decried as a pathway for voter suppression -- right-wing media repeatedly hosted and quoted guests to promote the commission and Trump’s (false) allegations of fraud. These guests and sources are noted liars, nativists, and extremists.
Move Over Nerd Prom; Troll Prom Is In Town.
On April 29, about a mile away from the annual White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, a little over a hundred members of a group who dubiously brand themselves as purveyors of the “real news” gathered in a downtown Washington cigar lounge to revel in their success. And the success is not insignificant - leveraging social media audiences to manufacture controversies and troll, they are now providing for their followers an increasingly expanding alternative to what they see as a hopelessly biased press.
At first glance, The Gateway Pundit's ‘80s-themed “Real News Correspondents Gala” -- billed as an alternative to the simultaneous "establishment media" dinner of the White House press corps -- was indistinguishable from a stereotypical Washington affair: The audience consisted of high-profile figures, apparent benefactors, and an insatiable crowd eager to network with anyone seemingly important. However, the standard, “What do you do?” networking question often preceded the more cultish reference to a new alternative right-wing: “How did you arrive at the movement?”
This movement has run rampant on new-media and is rapidly expanding throughout the internet. Its members have taken to social sites like Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Reddit, and YouTube to promote far-right nationalist politics, conspiracy-laden worldviews, and fact-flexible rants to an audience it has isolated and now dominates, shoddy journalistic practices aside, as its preferred news source. Their increasing reach over online subscribers has turned them into an asset for the White House, which has compensated members of this new media circuit -- often eager to undermine media reporting negatively on the administration -- with access to bring their paranoia straight into White House press briefings.
The event hosted and celebrated a handful of the most prominent members of the so-called “new right fam” (a transparent attempt at rebranding after their "alt-right" identification grew toxic) including “dumbest man on the internet” Jim Hoft, self-described “guerilla journalist” and fraud-peddling performance artist James O’Keefe, Rebel Media host Gavin McInnes, the White House’s favorite rape-denying troll, Mike Cernovich, Gateway Pundit White House correspondent and troll Lucian Wintrich, and “alt-right” figure Cassandra Fairbanks, who writes for the Russian state-sponsored outlet Sputnik.
The night took off with Hoft, who had donned a retro white headband and a pair of reflective sunglasses, welcoming guests to the shindig, giving shoutouts to a roster of speakers from the “alt-right” including McInnes and Wintrich, and presenting O’Keefe and Cernovich with awards for their “work.” The people Hoft introduced then took the floor to acknowledge that without that digital echo chamber, many in their movement would be virtually unknown. Cernovich reminisced about “Hillary’s health thing,” referring to rumors he helped push that former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was chronically ill, whose spread “only happened because of the amplification of social media.”
But for a group that previously basked in its own isolation and claims to despise the Washington establishment media, the night was sharply punctuated by complaints that “the movement” -- shorthand many of its members now use in conversation to refer to these "alt-right" or “new right” online content creators and their acolytes -- and its message are not validated by mainstream reporting.
“Not only do they not do the journalism,” O’Keefe told attendees as he accepted an award for his own so-called journalism, “but they’re too afraid. ... We really are the only ones left to actually do the job.” For the record, O’Keefe’s journalism has included creating misleading and doctored “undercover” videos as well as embarrassing himself while attempting sting operations targeting liberal organizations.
In a self-aggrandizing speech, Wintrich claimed, “Many of the people in this room, we’re all the last bastions of free speech in America. We’ve had this old guard media who have been running with these stale narratives that are purely left-leaning for decades, and finally after ages we’re seeing this beautiful transition.”
But the movement’s idea of journalism contains a clear premise: that their own right-wing bias is an advantage that allows their followers, who already think mainstream media cannot be trusted, to trust them. As described by The Washington Post when profiling Cernovich, “objectivity is less important than an impression of honesty." To gain the trust of their audiences, they actively attack and undermine mainstream media. As Wintrich admitted, he’ll “take the occasional jab at media, because” he “hate[s] them all," and “half of” his job as a White House correspondent is “fucking with people.” To members of this group, this approach validates their charade as legitimate news providers and lends authenticity to their work.
Cernovich went so far as to suggest that many of the movement’s narratives are artificial and self-induced -- yet still journalism.
“There’s this new form of media now which is part activism and part real journalism,” Cernovich said. “And the way I put it is if there’s nothing happening, make it happen, and a lot of people say, ‘Well, that’s not real journalism. Real journalism is observing things,’ and I don’t really believe that’s true, actually. If you can get on a microphone and say ‘Bill Clinton is a rapist’ -- if the crowd reacts, that’s news.”
Despite the questionable journalistic premises the movement holds dear, like Cernovich’s method of provoking crowd reactions for “news,” or O’Keefe’s habit of presenting heavily edited videos as evidence or attempting to smear mainstream media, the night was full of recognition of attendees for their supposed journalistic merit. Along with presenting an award to O’Keefe, Hoft also honored Cernovich for being “one of the main individuals who helped [President] Donald Trump get across that finish line” and celebrated him as the person who “first started noticing” and “pushing” the idea that Clinton “looks a little sick.”
This journalistic debauchery would be nothing more than bad theater if it hadn’t been legitimized by the White House by granting practitioners access to press briefings. Despite Gateway Pundit’s admission that its correspondent is “there to troll,” Wintrich was credentialed to attend White House press briefings. Cernovich was also approved for a press pass, and he used his access to cause a commotion in the briefing room by yelling at members of the press corps. He later uploaded a video of his outburst to his Periscope feed.
The “Real News Correspondents Gala” also hosted many young people hoping to board the new-media train barreling out of the “new right” movement. One amateur media personality told us that he was there to network and make connections to expand his platform online. Media figures in attendance seemed receptive to the aspiring personalities and were eager to pose for pictures. As Cernovich gave his speech, he recounted the story a young woman in attendance told him about her college broadcast journalism professor telling her she would never make it in the industry.
“Her dreams were killed in college, but you can live your dreams now,” Cernovich said. “Give her a hug. Tell her we love her.”
And the movement may have good reason to entertain new media aspirants: Many prominent online personalities of the “alt-right” movement have talked publicly about expanding their media operations and hiring more people. Vanity Fair reported that “alt-right” poster boy Milo Yiannopoulos is planning to launch a new media operation “for libertarian and conservative comedians, writers, stand-up comics, intellectuals, you name it” and plans to hire 30 people. O’Keefe told the audience that his group Project Veritas would hire “dozens of full-time infiltrators who are going to work their way to the top” of progressive organizations.
Cernovich also revealed that the movement’s leaders are considering hosting a TED talk-style conference over the summer and will continue to host happy hours and social events for their supporters.
“Connection and community is what we have to focus more on because everybody on the internet feels isolated and alone, and then they come to an event and they go, ‘Wow, Mike. A lot of people come to your happy hours,’” Cernovich said. “Well, yeah. No shit, right? We’re popular. There’s a lot of us out there and you wouldn’t get that message if you only watched the news.”
As its members enjoy their newfound popularity, the "new right" movement is also challenged with balancing the inflammatory rhetoric and “meme magic” that have been the foundation of its online success, against the backlash that results from deploying this rhetoric in the real world, which could threaten the long-lasting political capital and broader legitimacy they crave. That is what explains their attempts to rebrand themselves as “new right” and distance themselves from the most toxic figures of the “alt-right,” even despite their gaining notoriety and followers during the 2016 election by associating with and praising the “alt-right.”
Online, these personalities behave like trolls, taking pleasure in triggering “social justice warriors” (the pejorative nickname given in online forums to those perceived as socially progressive) by, among other things, using inflammatory language, but claiming it’s in jest. As New York magazine’s Noreen Malone explains, the group uses irony as armor when their jokes get criticism: “If you take them seriously, they’ll claim you miss the joke.” Much of this ironic contrarianism permeates into their real life personas and makes them seem like walking memes. At the “gala,” as Mike Flynn Jr., son of Trump’s former national security advisor and one of the leading proponents of the pizzagate fake news story, generously positioned himself and his Golden Girls T-shirt into any and all pictures he was asked for, he couldn’t help but invite fellow partygoers to“trigger some snowflakes” by flashing the “OK” sign. Members of the “alt-right” have ironically appropriated the “OK” sign to represent their faction after a viral message board hoax pushed the idea that it had white nationalist connotations. The vocabulary of this “new right” group draws so much from the online forums its members frequent that it would be foreign to anyone who hasn’t spent time reading their digital output. Our female reporter was congratulated by a fellow partygoer for being “red-pilled” (someone who has been awakened to the real world) -- which he determined based simply on her being one of the few women in attendance (the male to female ratio was, by generous approximation, seven-to-three -- not counting the women on Flynn Jr.’s Golden Girls T-shirt).
Again, all of this would seem just amusing anecdote were it not for the powerful connections that have legitimized their shoddy journalistic practices, employed in order to reach their growing audiences and leverage their support. President Donald Trump’s sons are allegedly serving as sources to Cernovich, and his media appearances have been publicized by Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. And those connections suggest the possibility that some “new right” ideas could influence policy. But until it’s possible to assess how much of the movement’s digital output is meant as posturing to continue amassing followers that sustain their digital media enterprises, and how much represents actual positions with enough political support to make them executable, we are forced to keep taking them at their word, meant in jest or not.
Images by Dayanita Ramesh
College campuses have long served as unique places for the free exchange of ideas -- but increasingly they’ve also become playgrounds for ideologically driven, right-wing billionaires and the dark-money groups they fund. Media Matters has mapped out some of the biggest actors behind astroturf conservative campus activism, creating an echo chamber of seemingly grass-roots right-wing student media and campus groups that are actually propped up by a handful of the same conservative funders and, sometimes, even prominent hate groups.
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.
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.
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.”
Unaccountable so-called “citizen journalism” is on the rise, with vigilantes peddling private citizens’ personal information and engaging in illegal recording and harassment in an effort to practice what they call undercover reporting. And these tactics are actively endorsed by President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump’s campaign rhetoric and behavior, and his allies in the media, fueled virulent conservative distrust of established media outlets -- regardless of their individual successes and failures -- leaving a patchwork of fragmented, and often disreputable, news sources to fill that void.
Anonymous internet vigilantes and so-called “citizen journalists” like discredited video artist James O’Keefe are capitalizing on this moment of distrust to push their dangerous “reporting” tactics. O'Keefe is getting help from his supporters, such as Trump allies and media conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Roger Stone, and the anonymous internet users O’Keefe and others have tried to incite as “agents of truth.” And these self-styled journalists have been directly validated -- and even funded -- by our next president.
Trump specifically cited distortions from O’Keefe’s latest round of heavily edited videos on the campaign trail, and his charitable foundation gave at least $20,000 to O’Keefe’s nonprofit, Project Veritas, in 2015. Trump also personally validated and encouraged “new media” to combat “the total dishonesty of the press” on Reddit. In July, Trump hosted an AMA (“Ask Me Anything”) forum in July in the popular “r/The_Donald” pro-Trump subreddit, a community that combs through hacked personal emails, pushes hateful memes, and promotes conspiracy theories under the guise of “journalism.” Shortly before the election, Trump posted a brief missive to the subreddit declaring that “MAINSTREAM MEDIA is rigged!” and encouraging followers to “stop the RIGGED mainstream media” by watching a presidential debate on his website instead of on any news channel.
Throughout the election season, Trump and his allies tweeted unvetted nuggets of misinformation from anonymous social media users, sometimes originating from the Trump subreddit. In the final weeks before Election Day, the Trump campaign seized on context-less soundbites from discredited video artist O’Keefe to push conspiracy theories at rallies and on air, stoking fear and further distrust of the government among his supporters.
GOP presidential candidates like Carly Fiorina and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) also elevated the work of another wannabe journalist: Media Matters’ 2015 misinformer of the year, David Daleiden, who created a series of deceptively edited “investigative journalism” videos smearing Planned Parenthood. In a September CNN debate, Fiorina infamously delivered an impassioned -- and completely factually inaccurate -- speech describing a “video” in which she claimed to have seen a “fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” No such video exists, but media praised Fiorina for her “fiery” remarks.
The danger lies in the stakes: Partisan activists who pose as “citizen journalists” have no stake in getting it right. They are not beholden to editors or to upholding any publication’s reputation for accuracy. With minimal name recognition and a clearly political agenda, though, these operatives do have an incentive to get media and public attention by any means.
These operators willfully misrepresent their findings with deceptive editing and refuse to release full footage. They follow trails of misinformation -- without the benefit of a fact-checker to guide the way -- to private citizens’ doorsteps and church vans transporting people to the polls. They produce extreme headlines that don’t reflect reality but do confirm polarized beliefs -- enough for lawmakers and presidential candidates to cite them, at least. They delight in collecting “scalps” -- people who have lost their jobs because of deceptively edited undercover footage -- even as the truth later vindicates many of these individuals.
They also call to action anonymous internet users who have even less to lose and the time to pore through obscure data or tail random members of the public, looking to find and publicize the personal information of individuals they perceive as unethical. In December, this danger culminated in a man shooting a rifle at a D.C. pizzeria as he attempted to “self-investigate” a conspiracy-laden fake news story propped up by anonymous, self-styled citizen journalists who accused the restaurant of operating a child sex-trafficking ring. The early stages of this collective internet investigation, too, were encouraged by conspiracy-loving Trump allies like 9/11 truther Alex Jones, and Michael Flynn Jr., a former Trump transition team member whose father is Trump's pick for national security adviser.
Responsible, independent journalism is a hallmark of the American free press, and it’s a critical tool for holding leaders accountable for the decisions they make. It makes sense that some of the bright spots of 2016 stemmed from quality investigative reporting, but it also makes sense that a twisted view of the journalism field has elevated the worst in people this year.
In the wake of Trump’s victory, right-wing activists styling themselves as “citizen journalists” are growing bolder. Since Election Day, they’ve been fearmongering and fundraising among their new supporters, congratulating each other on their journalistic chops, and touting “serious journalism being done onFacebook (sic) and YouTube.”
O’Keefe’s post-election fundraising email included categorical threats of surveillance aimed at Attorney General Loretta Lynch, interim Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile, CNN reporter Wolf Blitzer, and President Barack Obama. “The tide has turned,” the email stated, “and we have them on the run.”
Additionally, O’Keefe uploaded a video to YouTube the day after the election titled “Main Stream (sic) Media Is Now Powerless,” in which he described receiving “thousands of tips about fraud” and encountering “hundreds of people who seek to become undercover journalists.” O’Keefe also thanked “truth-seekers and Internet sleuths” who “crowd-sourced the investigative journalism” on Reddit and promised viewers they would hear more from him soon.
When we do, let’s be prepared.
Right-wing media figures attacked Facebook for announcing that it would partner with third-party fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact and The Associated Press to combat fake news. The freakout from conservative pundits follows their repeated attempts to hijack the term “fake news” in order to discredit mainstream news sources.
A new website called Professor Watchlist is soliciting “tips” to help publicly “expose and document” college professors who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” The conservative group Turning Point USA, led by frequent Fox News guest and former Breitbart.com contributor Charlie Kirk, is behind the site.
Professor Watchlist, which launched on November 21, encourages visitors to “submit a tip” to report professors who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” (The website originally also solicited reports of professors who “promote anti-American values,” but that language has since been deleted.) The submission form allows visitors to identify professors by name and school, and to submit evidence of perceived bias discovered via “Article/News Report,” “1st Hand Experience,” or simply “Word of Mouth.” It also allows visitors to share optional “Video/Photo Evidence” of alleged transgressions. The site’s “About Us” page notes that it will “only publish profiles on incidents that have already been reported somewhere else,” though it does not provide further information on the quality of previous reporting required or the overall vetting process.
As of noon on December 1, the site lists 143 professors by name, including photos of the allegedly biased educators, brief details of reported incidents that have warranted their inclusion on the site, and links to “source(s)” that reported the incidents. Of these 143 entries, right-wing student reporter website Campus Reform, operated by the conservative activist training group the Leadership Institute, served as the singular “source” for 75. The conservative student blog The College Fix sourced 10 entries, and the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant David Horowitz Freedom Center’s website DiscoverTheNetworks, which often cites white nationalist groups, accounted for another 12. Other sources included Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze, FoxNews.com posts, and edited “undercover” videos from conservative activist James O’Keefe’s discredited group Project Veritas. (Even Bill O’Reilly expressed some concern about the legitimacy of these “third-party” reports in a recent interview with Kirk.)
Kirk’s Professor Watchlist site mimics the M.O. of other “citizen journalist” vigilantes of the far-right, like O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, by promoting “tips” from the public with little accountability for the truth, yet potential real consequences for those caught in the crossfire.
In fact, O’Keefe was invited to attend the final presidential debate courtesy of Kirk and Turning Point USA. Last year, O’Keefe spoke about “gorilla journalism” (sic) at a Turning Point USA event in West Palm Beach, FL, and Professor Watchlist cites his videos as the sole “source” justifying four entries so far.
The “alt-right” white nationalist news site Breitbart.com, now predictably defending Kirk’s dangerous watchlist, has previously aligned itself with O’Keefe via exclusive releases and spirited defenses of his “journalism” tactics. Both Kirk and O’Keefe also appear to support Breitbart mouthpiece Milo Yiannopoulos, a racist and sexist media stunt artist who styles himself as a journalist.
The 23-year-old Kirk has made guest appearances on Fox Business for several years. Kirk was previously a contributor at Breitbart, and he has written pieces for The Washington Times and FoxNews.com, among other right-wing outlets, beginning when he was in high school. On Twitter, Kirk has pushed Clinton conspiracy theories, repeatedly delighted in the failures of “the media,” and targeted “leftist” professors and “likely” professors for perceived bias for years.
In 2015, Kirk was the subject of several puff profiles labeling him a “major player in conservative politics” and a “boy wonder” set to “energize” the Republican Party. His group also hosted multiple “Big Government Sucks” rallies that year, with Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) making appearances. In July of this year, Kirk spoke at the Republican National Convention about Turning Point USA, describing its work to push conservative values on college campuses, which he called “the most treacherous terrain imaginable.”
Apart from “calling back to McCarthyism and making lists of college professors who have offended their conservative sensibilities,” Kirk’s Turning Point USA is classified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose stated mission is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” The group claims to have a “presence” on 1,000 college and high school campuses nationally. Another of its projects, Hypeline News, is a “young-adult driven social news site” that employs college-age writers and says it’s “taking back the media.”
Kirk personally publicly supported Trump for the final months of the election season (although during the primaries he called Trump a “statist” and “demagogue” and was “cheering for a slowdown of the Trump train” in March). In 2011, however, Kirk -- then a high school student -- repeatedly tweeted at Trump, encouraging him to run for president. Last week, Kirk reportedly met with undisclosed members of the Trump transition team at Trump Tower to give “advice on young people and millennials and outreach.”
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
Loading the player reg...
ThinkProgress has identified a $10,000 donation from the Donald J. Trump Foundation to Project Veritas, the 501(c)(3) organization run by discredited conservative activist and videographer James O’Keefe.
O’Keefe has a long history of engaging in criminal, misogynistic, ethically dubious, and bizarre behavior related to his video stunts. He has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering a government office under false pretenses; sought to set up a video “sting” in which he would lure a female CNN reporter onto a boat filled with sex toys and attempt to seduce the reporter on camera; and had to pay a former video target $100,000 and publicly apologize in a legal settlement. O’Keefe’s videos often make a big splash, but they fall apart under scrutiny by reporters and state investigations.
The Trump campaign has used O’Keefe’s latest dubious and heavily edited videos to support its baseless claim that the election is “rigged” against the Republican candidate, and O’Keefe attended the final presidential debate on October 19 and pushed his videos in spin room interviews after the debate. But as ThinkProgress explained, Trump may have a more direct connection to O’Keefe’s new videos through a $10,000 donation his private charitable foundation made to O’Keefe’s Project Veritas in May 2015, barely more than a month before he officially became a Republican candidate for president. Project Veritas’ affiliated 501(c)(4) organization Project Veritas Action, which is more free to engage directly in political matters, is the group that released this week’s videos. From ThinkProgress:
Trump claimed the videos exposed that a violence at a March Chicago rally was a “criminal act” and that it “was now all on tape started by her.”
Trump neglected, however, to mention his own connection to the videos, released by James O’Keefe and his Project Veritas tax-exempt group. According to a list of charitable donations made by Trump‘s controversial foundation (provided to the Washington Post in April by Trump’s campaign), on May 13, 2015, it gave $10,000 to Project Veritas.