The Corner

Politics & Policy

James O’Keefe Shoots at the Washington Post and Misses

In today’s big media news, gonzo video journalist James O’Keefe had yet another of his undercover sting operations blow up in his face. The Washington Post caught O’Keefe and his Veritas Project trying to scam the paper into running a false sexual abuse allegation against Roy Moore:

The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists. But on Monday morning, Post reporters saw her walking into the New York offices of Project Veritas, an organization that targets the mainstream news media and left-leaning groups. The organization sets up undercover “stings” that involve using false cover stories and covert video recordings meant to expose what the group says is media bias.

Undercover journalism aimed at embarrassing misbehaving liberal and left-wing organizations is a valuable thing; it’s hard work, it’s risky (ask David Daleiden, targeted for prosecution for recording Planned Parenthood), and not everybody is cut out for it. O’Keefe has gotten a lot of funding and benefit of the doubt from the Right because he’s one of the few people doing it, and he undoubtedly has some talent. Getting undercover is a tricky con job, and the sheer number of times and ways he’s gotten in the door at various organizations testifies to that. But his track record over the past several years has been increasingly embarrassing. Even if you set aside the factual integrity of his reports – and there are those on the Right who believe that ”war by the other side’s rules” means not worrying about such things – and judge O’Keefe strictly on activist terms by the scalps he collects, he’s been startlingly ineffective for several years now at actually damaging any of his targets. Moreover, because he’s handsomely paid for what he’s currently delivering, he seems to have no incentive to actually accomplish anything for the conservative movement besides grabbing headlines for himself. It really would serve the movement if his funders would consider financing someone more effective.

What is particularly noteworthy about the bad judgment O’Keefe displayed in this particular sting is his choice of target and topic. If you want to catch people doing wrong, the secret is to get them when their guard is down. Major media organizations do run shoddy hit jobs on Republicans and conservatives, and they are more likely to do so when nobody thinks they are watching. Instead, O’Keefe chose the one story (sexual predation by Roy Moore) on which Washington Post reporters and editors were least likely to be motivated to run thinly-sourced drivel, and most likely to be on their guard. They were unlikely to be desperate for a story because they had just broken a big one, a campaign-altering scoop that was extensively reported. And they were likely to be wary because Moore’s entire response to the story has been built around discrediting the messenger. The least responsible precincts of right-wing journalism were signaling loud and clear that they were chumming the waters for a hit on the Post:

The tipster’s email came amid counterattacks by Moore supporters aimed at The Post and its reporters. That same day, Gateway Pundit, a conservative site, spread a false story from a Twitter account, @umpire43, that said, “A family friend in Alabama just told my wife that a WAPO reporter named Beth offer her 1000$ to accuse Roy Moore.” The Twitter account, which has a history of spreading misinformation, has since been deleted…On Nov. 14, a pastor in Alabama said he received a voice mail from a man falsely claiming to be a Post reporter and seeking women “willing to make damaging remarks” about Moore for money. No one associated with The Post made any such call.

The tease was framed in a way sure to set off red flags:

Phillips said she lived in New York but would be in the D.C. area during Thanksgiving week and suggested meeting Tuesday in a shopping mall in Tysons Corner, Va. “I’m planning to do some shopping there so I’ll find a good place to meet before you get there,” Phillips wrote in a message sent via Signal, the encrypted messaging service. When Reinhard suggested bringing another reporter, Phillips wrote, “I’m not really comfortable with anyone else being there this time.”…Phillips also repeatedly asked the reporter to guarantee her that Moore would lose the election if she came forward. Reinhard told her in a subsequent text message that she could not predict what the impact would be. Reinhard said she also explained to Phillips that her claims would have to be fact-checked. Additionally, Reinhard asked her for documents that would corroborate or support her story. Later that day, Phillips told Reinhard that she felt “anxiety & negative energy after our meeting,” text messages show. “You just didn’t convince me that I should come forward,” she wrote. 

Sure enough, the Post’s personnel acted like people who smelled a trap coming:

Phillips suggested meeting somewhere in Alexandria, Va., saying she was shopping in the area. Post videographers accompanied McCrummen, who brought a printout of the fundraising page to the interview. Again, Phillips had arrived early and was waiting for McCrummen, her purse resting on the table. When McCrummen put her purse near Phillips’s purse to block a possible camera, Phillips moved hers. The Post videographers sat separately, unnoticed, at an adjacent table. 

There’s more, but you get the point. Why did O’Keefe choose this target, this time? If he was really trying to make a broader point about the Washington Post’s poor reporting and editorial standards, not only did he fail spectacularly, but he set himself up to have a very poor percentage chance of succeeding in the first place. On the other hand, if O’Keefe’s goal was just to discharge flak into the winds of a nasty, nihilistic Senate campaign in the stretch run, without much regard for actually damaging the Post’s credibility, the decision makes a lot more sense and further degrades any reason that anyone on the Right has to treat him a journalist, even a bad one. This looks like the work of an operative, not an activist, and his work in the future should be evaluated as such.

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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