James O’Keefe’s “caper” as he likes to call them, involved an effort to trick The Washington Post into publishing a phony story about a woman named Becca Phillips who falsely alleged that she had an abortion after Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore got her pregnant at 15 years old. It blew up in his face. As CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who spent a decade in the Washington Post’s newsroom wrote, it was never going to work.
O’Keefe’s business model is entrapment. It involves scamming unwitting marks into saying embarrassing things on hidden camera and selectively editing them to make them to make them appear as nefarious as possible. Some of his early efforts, such as his sting on ACORN, a Democratic Party aligned grassroots group, bore fruit. But, most, especially those targeting media have been duds.
O’Keefe’s bizarre 2010 plot to lure then CNN investigative correspondent Abbie Bordeau under the guise of an interview into a romantic tryst that he intended to film on hidden camera was foiled by a staffer who ratted him out.
In this most recent case, O’Keefe was undone by the very journalistic ethics that he intended to expose as lacking. When Becca Phillips contacted the Washington Post, the paper’s reporters did their homework. They found inconsistencies in her story. She claimed to have lived in Alabama as a teenager, yet had an Alabama cell phone number. When they researched her they discovered a GoFundMe page from someone with her name to raise money to move to New York for a job in the “conservative media movement.” Phillips’ daughter was a donor. When Post reporters confronted her with all this she crumbled.
The flaw in the plan was a fundamental lack of understanding by O’Keefe, who claims to be a journalist, of how journalism actually works.
“The problem,” Cillizza wrote, is “if O’Keefe knew anything about how large media organizations like the Post and CNN work — is that neither of these organizations would ever simply run with a story from one woman about an alleged forced abortion without doing the most basic fact checking.”
O’Keefe’s flawed assumption that real journalists operate on the same shoddy ethical code and partisan motivations that animate his efforts was his undoing.
O’Keefe’s flawed assumption that real journalists operate on the same shoddy ethical code and partisan motivations that animate his efforts was his undoing. But, rather than concede this, as a real journalist might, he dug his hole deeper, releasing a hidden camera video of Washington Post staffers essentially admitting that the Post operated exactly as it should.
In the video, a Washington Post reporter explains the distinction between news reporters who generally try to get to the facts and the editorial/opinion side of the operation, which is decidedly antagonist towards President Donald Trump. Later, another Post staffer reveals that Trump is good for business – no surprise there.
Occasionally, even the best journalists get it wrong. But, unlike O’Keefe, they usually try to correct their mistakes. Earlier this year, the Washignton Post erroneously reported a Russian effort to hack a Vermont utility. It turns out that an IT tech had misinterpreted data in server records. The Post corrected the story and then devoted an entire article to detailing what went wrong.
For all its unsavory elements, the affair provides a counterpoint to those who claim that the media is simply a shill for left-leaning political interests. Yes, media bias exists, but that does not mean that everything you don’t like in the news is a product of it.
James O’Keefe’s latest hidden camera “sting” was intended to expose the media’s bias — a willingness to publish anything so long as it damaged Republicans. Instead, it revealed the exact opposite — professional journalists who ran down bogus claims and found them wanting.
It’s no secret that elite reporters take a dim view to President Donald Trump. Trump’s perfidious rants against mainstream media outlets as “fake news” and simultaneous embrace of hair-brained conspiracy theories could hardly be expected to win him friends in newsrooms populated by people who separate fact from fiction for a living. But, that does not mean that they abandon journalistic standards to the point that they will knowingly publish things that are not true. The same cannot be said of James O’Keefe.