There is a disconcerting scene about midway through American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News, the new book by conservative activist-slash-gonzo-journalist-slash-inveterate-troll James O’Keefe, a scene that made me ponder at length what he does, and what we do, we being the proud members of the coastal elite media establishment.
The scene has nothing to do with the time O’Keefe posed as a sex trafficker in an attempt to smear the community group ACORN, nor the time he got an NPR executive to say, on a surreptitious recording, that the Tea Party was “seriously racist.” Nor his recent attempt—foiled, and rather embarrassingly so—to fool The Washington Post by sending a fake sexual assault victim its way.
This scene involves a journalism seminar at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. The video of the class was shot by Project Veritas—O’Keefe’s outfit—in 2011. The session is led by the press critic and professor Jay Rosen. It takes just a few moments for Rosen, unaware that he is being filmed, to supply O’Keefe with the money quote he needs: “We are the one percent,” Rosen informs his students. That, as they say, is going to leave a mark.
Co-teaching the class with Rosen is Clay Shirky, who writes about journalism in the digital age. “Elites are perfectly comfortable with there being information about how they make their decisions and what their decisions are, as long as that only circulates among other elites,” he tells the aspiring journalists at NYU. The two instructors proceed to discuss political coverage at The New York Times with what feels, at least, like insider knowledge.
The video left me troubled by what O’Keefe found—which is exactly what he intended—but also by how he found it, not to mention how he presented it. The video’s abrupt cuts make it impossible to know just what Rosen and Shirky mean. They sound hopelessly smug, selling aspiring journalists access to The Times. Maybe that’s what they are, but perhaps only because that's what O’Keefe has made them out to be. There is no truth in a James O’Keefe video, other than the truth James O’Keefe wants you to see.
In other words, O’Keefe is exceptionally good at what he does, though what he does cannot be called, by any reasonable measure, journalism. “We confirmed suspicions,” he writes in American Pravda, which is another way of saying that he tells his audience what it wants to hear. To investigate is to ask a question without knowing the answer. O’Keefe, however, already knows the answer: Democrats engage in voter fraud, Planned Parenthood kills babies, mainstream journalism is the realm of snobbish elites.
The NYU video hardly proves the last of these points, but it is nevertheless a point conservatives have been making for some time. To them, the shock over President Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election was proof that American newsrooms were being run by j-school graduates in the Rosen/Shirky mold, pompous and clueless at the same time. This criticism is not quite as off the mark as it should be. Elsewhere in this book, for example, O’Keefe approvingly cites former Obama national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who said, in an infamous New York Times Magazine feature from 2016, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old...They literally know nothing.”
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At the same time, journalism that seeks to destroy institutions is not journalism at all. And that’s pretty much what O’Keefe practices with his mean-spirited, deceptive videos. “We did not reject journalistic ethics," he writes in his own defense. "We simply had to create those ethics anew.”
Despite this (maybe because of it), American Pravda is worth reading, if only to understand how conservatives view the media—and, also, how conservative media works. It is a complex ecosystem, one in which Twitter and Reddit feed into Fox News, which in turn speaks directly to Trump. While not an especially eloquent writer, O’Keefe does a good job of explaining how something from /The_Donald subreddit ends up on the evening news, not to mention in a print-out on the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.
Much like the president he supports, O’Keefe revels in his outsider status, even if he is, today, very much an insider (annual salary: $240,000). A product of suburban New Jersey, O’Keefe entered Rutgers in 2002. In his first video investigation, he pretended to be outraged by a dining hall offering of Lucky Charms, because the leprechaun-studded cereal perpetuates “negative stereotypes of Irish-Americans.”
In one version of the recording, a dean listens respectfully, taking notes. At its conclusion, O’Keefe declares that “Rutgers banned Lucky Charms.” This was, however, fake news. It was also beside the point. The point was to mock liberal piety, cultural sensitivity, and political correctness, largely by alluding to them and thereby hoping to gain the unwitting subject’s assent. The dean did not need to say anything incriminating to activate this mockery. She merely had to partake in the theatrics O’Keefe was staging before her.
O’Keefe writes reasonably well about other undercover journalists, “independent folk heroes who could not be bought or sold,” including Upton Sinclair and Nellie Bly. He tells an amusing story about a 1977 episode in which the Chicago Sun-Times “purchased a seedy bar and used it to attract the city’s equally seedy politicians. Reporters actually ran the bar….The journalists posed as waitresses and bartenders.” That certainly sounds more fun than chronicling the latest high-stakes Twitter feud.
O’Keefe sees himself as part of this tradition. “The goal of Project Veritas is to show the world as closely as possible the way the world really is,” he writes, elsewhere alluding—grandiosely and incorrectly—to his cinéma vérité methods. Although he is right to remind today’s young journalists that intrepid independence should inform all their work, his own project borrows far more from Sean Hannity than from Errol Morris.
While O’Keefe is unstintingly critical of what he calls the “statist media,” which he charges with abetting the “deep state,” he seems to have no ability to see his own shortcomings. He shows no contrition, no regrets. The time he and his cronies tried to tap the phones of Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana? Oh, that was just the “incredibly corrupt judicial system in New Orleans” at work. In the psychodrama O’Keefe has created for himself, all means and methods are justified because the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
American Pravda takes its name from O’Keefe’s recent fixation on the media, an enterprise that accurately reflects the president’s own grievances. Last fall, O’Keefe promised to expose rampant bias at The New York Times, but all he found were a couple of irrelevant goofballs talking up their own importance at the paper. O’Keefe did not bother to explain that a computer contractor or a low-level video editor—the goofballs in question—have no influence whatsoever on editorial strategy.
A subsequent attempt to ensnare The Washington Post proved disastrous. After the paper broke the story that Alabama senatorial candidate Roy S. Moore had allegedly harassed underaged girls several decades ago, O’Keefe sent one of his “reporters” to pretend to be a politically motivated Moore accuser. The Post ’s reporters listened respectfully, checked out her story, found that she was lying, and published their findings. Confronted by Post journalists, O’Keefe was deceptive and combative, hardly the principled truth-teller he portrays himself to be.
“At Project Veritas,” he writes on the penultimate page of American Pravda, “we wake up every morning with the humble and profound realization that the whole system—media, legal, political—is lined up against us.” This from a man who has received funding from Robert Mercer, one of the top conservative donors in the nation, as well as The Donald J. Trump Foundation. In 2016, he netted about $1.7 million from a charity associated with the Koch brothers.
The acknowledgements that follow include pretty much the entire conservative establishment, from former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon to Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson. Best of all, O’Keefe compares himself to Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “whose writings helped me understand human nature under a corrupt regime.” Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in a Gulag, followed by another three of exile. To write the above sentence as a product of suburban New Jersey takes no small amount of chutzpah. It may be, in the end, that lack of shame is where James O’Keefe truly excels.
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