James O'Keefe, the undercover videographer known for his recent arrest at Sen. Mary Landrieu's office and last fall's ACORN sting videos, calls himself an investigative journalist in the tradition of 60 Minutes and others. Even if you are a fan of his work, I hope that you recognize that he is an activist and propagandist, not a journalist by the standards most professionals use.
Note that I said, "by the standards most professionals use." Because the First Amendment to the US Constitution prohibits laws abridging freedom of the press, there's no way of establishing a licensing process for journalists. So anyone can declare him or herself a journalist. However, news organizations and professional associations have codes of ethics and core principles that people who take up the title of journalist are encouraged to follow. That's why I'm going to base my comments on the principles elucidated by the Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics.
First, some background on James O'Keefe. His blog describes him as an investigative journalist who began his career as the founder of an alternative newspaper while he was studying at Rutgers University. As this post from Media-ite explains, he also achieved some notoreity for staging an "affirmative action bake sale" on campus, where people were charged different prices on the basis of their race.
Last September and October, O'Keefe made national news when he released hidden-camera videos and audio recordings that he and a colleague, Hannah Giles, made at several offices of ACORN. In the recordings, O'Keefe and Giles pose as a prostitute and her boyfriend/pimp, and the ACORN staff members appear to give the couple advice on home-buying and tax evasion.
The sting recordings prompted Congress to prohibit ACORN from receiving federal funds - a signficant blow for an organization that had been getting support from the federal office of Housing and Urban Development for years to help low- and moderate-income buyers secure or refinance mortgages, among other services. O'Keefe's sting was the latest in a series of charges against the community organizing group, including arrests of a handful of employees in several states for alleged voter-registration fraud.
ACORN Executive Director Bertha Lewis has attributed the documented instances of wrongdoing to a few bad apples who were fired as soon as their misdeeds came to light. She was named to her post in July, 2008 after a whistleblower forced the group to disclose that Dale Rathke, whose brother Wade founded the group in the 1970s, had embezzled nearly $1 millon from the organization. Lewis also argues that ACORN is being targeted by right-wing ideologues because of its effectiveness as an advocate for poor and working-class people. (During the 2008 presidential campaign, there was a lot of debate here at BlogHer about the relative merits and demerits of ACORN and its relationship to President Barack Obama -- feel free to browse the archives.)
On Jan. 25, O'Keefe and three confederates were arrested at Sen. Landrieu's New Orleans office. According to an FBI affadavit (.pdf), O'Keefe stands accused of assisting two men, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan, who were allegedly trying to interfere with Sen. Landrieu's telephones. A fourth man, Stan Dai, was also arrested and charged with participating in the plot.
O'Keefe has since said that they were investigating whether Landrieu's phones were broken because of reports that she was not responding to constituents' calls.
Here's why this is not journalism:
The first principle of journalism is that it is committed to the pursuit of truth in a manner that is as transparent as possible. As the Project for Excellence in Journalism notes:
This "journalistic truth" is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation. Journalists should be as transparent as possible about sources and methods so audiences can make their own assessment of the information.
Contrast this with the process that Giles and O'Keefe used to come up with the ACORN video sting. Greg Beato at Reason.com reports:
"One day I was jogging after work and I saw an ACORN, and I was like, hmm, you know, I've never seen them before, I don't like them," Giles explained to Fox News' Glenn Beck. "And I came up with the idea: What if a prostitute walked into ACORN, had no legal paperwork at all, and wanted a house to set up her business?" Echoing Giles at Biggovernment.com, O'Keefe explained how the duo upped the ante "by posing the most ridiculous criminal scenario [they] could think of."
No evidentiary basis for the story and no transparency in methods, either. O'Keefe defends this by citing a long tradition of undercover journalism. He is right that there is a long history of journalists going undercover to get a story, going back to the days when Nellie Bly posed as a mental patient to expose human rights abuses at mental hospitals in the early 20th century. But O'Keefe ignores the fact that this kind of practice has been roundly criticized. SPJ says it should only be done "when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public." And as the Columbia Journalism Review notes, it's even more important for undercover reporters to ensure that what they report is appropriately contextualized. That includes offering the target of the investigation an opportunity to respond - something that should be done anyway, regardless the way in which the investigation was conducted.
If O'Keefe's pretext for the ACORN sting was imaginary, his reason going to Landrieu's office was preposterous. His statement on the Landrieu affair said, in part:
"I learned from a number of sources that many of Senator Landrieu’s constituents were having trouble getting through to her office to tell her that they didn’t want her taking millions of federal dollars in exchange for her vote on the healthcare bill. When asked about this, Senator Landrieu’s explanation was that, “Our lines have been jammed for weeks.” I decided to investigate why a representative of the people would be out of touch with her constituents for 'weeks' because her phones were broken."
But Landrieu didn't say her phones were broken. "Our lines have been jammed" means that they have been getting a lot of calls. No wonder, since conservative commentators had been calling her a "prostitute," charging that she traded her vote for the Senate's health care bill to get $300 million in additional Medicaid funding. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, after some conservative activists accused Landrieu of avoiding constituents' calls, Baton Rouge Advocate ran his own experiment, calling Landrieu's office several times at different times of day. He reported that he was usually able to get through, so he concluded there was no story.
David Weigel and others noted that O'Keefe's statement implies that Landrieu took a bribe when the most she could be accused of doing is engaging in the kind of horse-trading that senators do every day. CJR noted that O'Keefe made a similar comment in an interview with Sean Hannity, noting drily, "That's a serious problem." A journalist should correct statements that are false or misleading. So far, I haven't found evidence that O'Keefe has made an effort to do that in this instance.
O'Keefe admitted to Sean Hannity that he "could have used another approach." According to a Jan. 28 AP story, an attorney for one of the arrested men said they hoped to get footage of the Landrieu's staff blowing off callers who wanted to complain about her vote in favor of the Senate's health care reform bill. If that's true, then O'Keefe wasn't concerned with finding the truth - he wanted to find evidence to support a foregone conclusion. That's exactly the opposite of what an investigative reporter tries to do. Like a scientist, an investigative reporter starts with a hypothesis - and tries to disprove it. That's one way of trying to strip bias from your reporting. It's also why the PEJ statement talked about any news report being "valid for now, subject to further investigation."
Because O'Keefe seems to start with a conclusion and then look for supporting evidence, his fairness is suspect. Citing an internal audit conducted by former Massachusetts
Attorney General Scott Harsherbarger, a consultant hired by ACORN, Marcy Wheeler at Firedoglake, is among those who think that O'Keefe might have edited his recordings to produce the most damning evidence. Among other things, Harshbarger said that ACORN employees don't recall seeing O'Keefe decked out in the "pimp suit" that's shown in the video - they insist he was "dressed like a college student, in slacks and a button-down shirt."
In a blog post about O'Keefe's wealthy backers, Susie Madrak points to a September 2009 New York Times story reporting a charge that O'Keefe has made at least one deceptive video before. In that story, Rutgers student Liz Farkas said she helped O'Keefe make a video in which he told a Planned Parenthood nurses that he wanted to make a restricted donation to that organization to fund the aborting of black fetuses. Farkas said that she complained that his editing was "cherry-picking the nurse's answers." According to Farkas, O'Keefe ignored her.
ACORN has sued O'Keefe and his employer (.pdf), Andrew Breitbart, arguing that the surreptious recording of employees in their Baltimore office violates Maryland's wiretapping laws. Perhaps the discovery process for that suit, should it move forward, will yield information to settle the conflicting claims in this case. Meanwhile, the organization is reportedly in crisis, with offices closing and its California chapter breaking away to form a separate nonprofit.
O'Keefe's defenders are quick to point out that some of what's been reported about him is untrue. In particular, when he and the other three men were first arrested, an erroneous story circulated that they had been charged with wiretapping. In addition, a Salon magazine article on O'Keefe's history of involvement in racially charged situations reported that O'Keefe and another man had been involved in organizing a meeting that many considered to be a white nationalist gathering. Reporters who followed up on the story found sources who said he'd attended but was not a planner. Fair enough - professional journalists screw up all the time. The question is whether they acknowledge their errors, and whether they are striving for the truth in their reporting methods and manner of presentation.
James O'Keefe can truthfully claim that he has affected public opinion and influenced Congress. In the case of ACORN, he might even have uncovered some ugly truths. But what he is doing isn't journalism, and his behavior in the Landrieu case casts doubts on the credibility of any of his "reporting."
- Lindsay Beyerstein: Who are Landrieu's alleged phone tamperers?
- Ben Stein: Free James O'Keefe
- Connie Schultz: A conservative darling loses his charm
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