Style | Analysis
June 28, 2017 at 9:14 AM
by Paul Farhi
Conservative activist James O'Keefe caused a stir on Tuesday with the release of a secretly recorded video that purports to show a CNN producer casting doubt on his network's coverage of possible collusion between President Trump's associates and Russian officials.
But it's what the video doesn't show that may be as important as what it does.
The video is a recording of several encounters between a CNN producer named John Bonifield and an unidentified man who was working for O'Keefe's organization, Project Veritas, which engages in undercover "stings" aimed primarily at mainstream news organizations and liberal groups.
Their work has been repeatedly criticized for intentionally deceptive editing, though, and O'Keefe has a criminal record from an effort to illegally infiltrate a Democratic senator's office.
The latest video was apparently shot earlier this month using a hidden camera by a man having a private conversation with Bonfield, who is not involved in political coverage, catching him making several off-the-cuff remarks.
At one point, the producer says the Trump-Russia story could be "bulls---" but that CNN keeps covering the story because it draws viewers. "I just feel like they don't really have it, but they want to keep digging," Bonifield says. "And so I think the president is probably right to say, like, look you are witch hunting me. Like you have no smoking gun, you have no real proof."
The video drew endorsements from Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted his approval, and White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who told reporters at a briefing that she encouraged "everybody across the country" to view it. She characterized it as "a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism."
Yet the video includes several journalistic evasions and shortcuts that would likely elicit outrage from critics if a mainstream news organization had employed the same techniques.
For example, it never mentions that Bonifield is a producer of health and medical stories, raising questions about how relevant his views are, and how informed he is, about CNN's political coverage. It also doesn't disclose that he is based in Atlanta — not in Washington or New York, where most of CNN's coverage of national affairs and politics are produced.
Instead, the video identifies him as a "supervising producer," suggesting a senior decision-making role. O'Keefe, who appears on the video as a kind of master of ceremonies, furthers this impression by saying the footage describes "the real motivation behind our dominant media organizations."
But CNN said Bonifield speaks only for himself. In a statement, it said stood by him and that "diversity of personal opinion is what makes CNN strong. We welcome it and embrace it." The network said it had no plans to take any disciplinary action.
The video also doesn't identify the man to whom Bonifield is speaking, nor does it provide any clue about how he came to record Bonifield.
A Project Veritas spokesman, Stephen Gordon, declined to offer details on those points, saying that doing so could reveal the organization's methods and identify its practitioners. He said, however, that the "undercover journalist" was introduced to Bonifield by "a third party," whom he also did not identify.
People at CNN said Project Veritas's operative was referred to Bonifield through a social-services organization in Atlanta called Rainbros that matches young adults with mentors. Bonifield met the man in question about five times, and apparently was under the assumption that he was interested in a career in journalism.
Although some mainstream news organizations have engaged in "undercover" journalism, the practice is uncommon and generally considered unethical.
Project Veritas, which is headed by O'Keefe, regularly uses such methods in order to expose what it says is corruption and fraud. Its operatives often have gained access to their targets by using false identities and by lying about or failing to disclose their actual intentions. Its various projects have also been clouded by accusations of deceptive editing.
O'Keefe pleaded guilty in 2010 to unlawfully entering the New Orleans office of then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) after he and three associates went to the office dressed as telephone workers in an alleged attempt to tamper with the senator's phones. He received three years of probation, a fine of $1,500 and 100 hours of community service.
Later that year, O'Keefe attempted to lure a CNN correspondent, Abbie Boudreau, onto a boat filled with sex toys in order to film the encounter and "punk" Boudreau, who was reporting a story on conservative filmmakers. Among the props O'Keefe reportedly intended to use were a jar filled with condoms, posters and paintings of naked women, fuzzy handcuffs and a blindfold. Boudreau declined the invitation.
In a video "sting" of two Democratic Party organizers last year, Project Veritas operatives posed as political donors to persuade two men to speak to them about purported efforts to provoke violence at Trump's campaign events. One of the men, Robert Creamer, sued O'Keefe earlier this month, claiming a violation of federal and District laws against unauthorized recording of private conversations.
In perhaps O'Keefe's most famous project, he and a female associate posed as would-be clients of a community agency called ACORN. The pair sought advice about how to set up a brothel and evade taxes. The resulting video showed ACORN members offering their assistance.
The video triggered a public-relations crisis for ACORN, which subsequently lost its federal funding and went out of operation.
O'Keefe later paid $100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by one of the employees seen in the video. Rather than abetting O'Keefe and his partner, the man said he had called the police to report them.