What the NYT Magazine Doesn't Say About James O'Keefe

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new profile of the right-leaning provocateur tries to examine the controversy surrounding his work, but it leaves out the most damning material

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As a longtime observer of James O'Keefe, the right-leaning provocateur best known for his hidden video stings, I am frustrated by the profile about him just published in The New York Times Magazine. The writer, Zev Chafets, capably sketches his subject's biography, and correctly intuits that any worthwhile feature story on the 27-year-old must grapple with the ethical questions raised by his activism. But the grappling is woefully incomplete, leaving readers unaware of the most damning critiques of O'Keefe's work and unable to render an informed judgment.

Totally absent is any mention of CNN Correspondent Abbie Boudreau, who contacted O'Keefe in 2010. At O'Keefe's bidding, she traveled to Maryland, expecting to interview him. But he and his team had other plans. It was their intention to lure her onto a boat where O'Keefe would be waiting below deck, hidden camera rolling. In planning documents obtained by CNN, there was a list of potential props: "condom jar, dildos, posters and paintings of naked women, fuzzy handcuffs."

O'Keefe later claimed he didn't approve such props. In any case, once he got her down there alone, he planned to make her uncomfortable by attempting to seduce her. Then he'd somehow humiliate Boudrea and embarrass CNN by releasing footage of the bizarre incident. It was averted at the last minute when a female member of O'Keefe's team became uncomfortable with the plan, and tipped off the reporter to what was intended. In the aftermath of the incident, which made national headlines when it happened, publisher Andrew Breitbart commented, "From what I've read about this script, though not executed, it is patently gross and offensive. It's not his detractors to whom he also owes this public airing. It's to his legion of supporters."

A profile writer can't include every detail of his subject's life. But surely a piece that touches on the propriety of O'Keefe's work and the evolution of his relationship with Breitbart should've mentioned a major incident that bears on both, especially because it shows something other anecdotes don't: that O'Keefe is willing to use subterfuge and mock his subjects even when there is no wrongdoing to uncover.

The profile does mention the sting on ACORN, the video project that made him famous. In that film, O'Keefe and collaborator Hannah Giles pretend to be a pimp and prostitute, and find some ACORN workers willing to give them advice about how to set up a brothel said to include underage prostitutes. Embarrassingly, I was actually impressed when I first saw the videos, but quickly concluded that I'd been had -- that critics were correct in charging that certain editing decisions were egregiously misleading. Here is how Chafets characterizes the controversy over the movie:

His takedown of Acorn was even more devastating, although Bertha Lewis, Acorn's former chief executive, contends that the videos were dishonest. "He is demon, a liar and a cheat," she says. "What he did was despicable. He created a fiction." Bertha Lewis still insists that Acorn did not offer advice on how to break the law. Clark Hoyt, a former public editor for The New York Times, reviewed O'Keefe's raw footage and edited tapes and concluded that "the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context."

There is no doubt that O'Keefe disseminated only the material that supported his thesis about Acorn, but this kind of selectivity is the norm in advocacy journalism. "I put James O'Keefe in the same category as Michael Moore," says Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri's school of journalism. "Some ethicists say it is never right for a journalist to deceive for any reason, but there are wrongs in the world that will never be exposed without some kind of subterfuge."

This is a mess.

Through the quote he chooses, Chafets leads the reader to conclude that the core controversy is whether it's ever okay for a journalist to mislead his subject. But the mortal sin that O'Keefe commits in the ACORN videos is misleading the audience. His videos are presented to the public in less than honest ways that go far beyond normal "selectivity." Instead of quoting a former Times public editor (who wrote two columns about the ACORN controversy) as his expert source, Chafets should've consulted the report from the California Attorney General's Office. The staffers who wrote it interviewed everyone involved, saw all the raw video footage, and issued a lengthy accounting with detailed descriptions of the misleading edits O'Keefe made.

Readers are never alerted to that report, or its most damning section: the story of Juan Carlos Vera. He was an employee at ACORN's San Diego office. O'Keefe and Giles came in, pretended to be a pimp and prostitute, and asked for help smuggling underage girls across the Mexican border.

In the ACORN videos, it appears that Vera is willing to be an accomplice in the made up smuggling plot. O'Keefe may well have thought so at the time. According to the California Attorney General's investigation, however, Vera didn't know what to make of the pair at first, tried to elicit as much information as possible from them so that he could contact law enforcement, and called his cousin, a police officer, as soon as they left. Phone records confirm the call to his cousin, and Vera was soon directed to a San Diego police officer who specializes in human smuggling. He spoke to that police officer too. As Vera was cooperating with police, the ACORN sting videos began to appear, portraying him as a willing child smuggler. He was fired from ACORN during the PR fallout, and has since filed a lawsuit against O'Keefe and Giles.

Chafets mentions none of this, but it's relevant for three reasons. First, it highlights one of the reasons that it is ethically questionable to take hidden video and air it without ever confronting the subject with its contents first. Second, you'd think that after phone records confirming that Vera called the police were made public -- and after an investigation by a state attorney general suggested his probable innocence -- O'Keefe would apologize, or at least correct his original story. But he didn't. Finally, if a magazine story is setting forth a controversy about a journalistic story, isn't it relevant to include the fact that one of the subjects filed a lawsuit against the reporter?

Then there's the NPR controversy. Here is how Chafets characterizes it:

Earlier this year, two of O'Keefe's actors, posing as fictitious representatives of a Muslim philanthropic organization, had lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR's senior vice president for development. In the course of ingratiating himself with these potential donors, Schiller was caught denigrating Tea Party members and Republicans in language that the corporation later said it was appalled by. The scandal hastened the departures of both Schiller and his boss, Vivian Schiller (no relation). When it was suggested that the tapes had been dishonestly edited, O'Keefe invited people to watch them in their entirety. "He said it, that's just a fact," Dana Davis Rehm, a spokesman for NPR, said of Ron Schiller. In the aftermath, NPR conducted sessions on ethics for its support and operational staff and is planning to publish updated ethics guidelines in September.

Isn't that oddly constructed? It's as if Chafets thinks that the charge of dishonest editing is somehow answered by the mere challenge to look at the full tapes. What happened when journalists accepted that challenge? James Poniewozik of Time wrote an article titled "The Twisty, Bent Truth of the NPR-Sting Video." He concludes that Ron Schiller said something objectionable and that the video was misleadingly edited, which aren't mutually exclusive, even if Chafets treats them that way. There is also a comprehensive examination of the NPR video and its flaws by Scott Baker, editor of Glenn Beck's website "The Blaze," which produced a surprisingly solid and lengthy item on the matter. The short version: There are numerous flaws serious enough that if CNN or The New York Times committed them, it would mean scandal and firings.

There are merits to the Chafets profile. He's a talented writer, has a knack for setting a scene, and adeptly captures something about O'Keefe's worldview and personalty. But insofar as the piece tries to give readers an adequate understanding of the ethical issues surrounding O'Keefe's journalism, it fails. There's a moment early on when Chafets describes meeting O'Keefe for the first time:

He arrived at the Chart House restaurant in Weehawken, N.J., right on time, but he seemed slightly surprised he had showed up at all. "You're from The New York Times," he said. "How can I be sure you'll be objective and accurate?"

"The same way I can be sure you're not filming this conversation," I replied.

O'Keefe assured me that he would never do such a thing. I assured him that my article would be a model of journalistic rectitude. I think it is fair to say that neither of us was fully convinced, then or in our subsequent encounters.

It can be hard on a journalist when an honest rendering of his subject would show indefensible lapses in professional ethics and basic human decency, especially if the subject has no good explanation for his behavior. But it's perfectly possible to be fair to O'Keefe, and to give a proper airing of the controversy that surrounds him. Doing so does require, however, that the writer not draw a false equivalence between the journalistic standards of the New York Times and those of James O'Keefe.

I presume, having liked some of his work in the past, that Chafets would never dream of luring an unsuspecting female CNN reporter onto a boat for a seduction sting; that if he reported on someone being complicit in illegal behavior, and later found out that his subject was cooperating with police to stop the criminals, he'd do his utmost to inform the public about the new information and undo the damage to his subject's reputation; that when rendering interviews, he doesn't edit them in a way that makes it seem as though his subject is giving his own opinion, when he is actually relaying the opinion of someone else; and that if he were caught doing any of those things he'd be fired. If only the journalists who write about O'Keefe held him to the standards of basic ethical behavior and journalistic integrity to which they hold themselves. 


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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