James O’Keefe, founder of Project Veritas, speaks about the organization’s work to a gathering hosted by the Young Americans for Freedom at Southern Methodist University last year. (Laura Buckman for The Washington Post)
Media critic

In a Monday night interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, James O’Keefe took issue with any claim that he and Project Veritas were out to plant a false story with The Post. “Let me make something very clear to you,” said O’Keefe, who just published the book “American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News.” “We never intended to plant a fake story.” The organization, he argued, has a track record of undercover actions designed to extract the most candid remarks from people in media and political organizations. This was no different, he contended.

That’s a contrast from the remarks O’Keefe made in November, when Post reporter Aaron Davis confronted him about his Roy Moore project. “I have to run to this meeting right now,” said O’Keefe.

The context for O’Keefe’s blow-off is by now famous. The Post on Nov. 27 reported that a woman had approached the newspaper — specifically, reporter Beth Reinhard — with explosive material about Moore, a Republican who was then in a tight Alabama race for a U.S. Senate seat with eventual victor Doug Jones, a Democrat. The woman alleged that Moore had impregnated her in 1992, when she was 15, leading to an abortion. The “tip” came after Reinhard had collaborated on a blockbuster article in which an Alabama woman, Leigh Corfman, alleged that Moore had initiated sexual contact with her in the late ’70s, when she was 14 years old. That was real news.

Through the use of public records and some careful Internet searching, The Post suspected that the woman, whom it identified as Jaime T. Phillips, might be working for O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, which specializes in outfitting its operatives with hidden recording devices as well as aliases — the better to record media figures and Democratic operatives saying embarrassing things. Indeed, The Post’s stakeout spotted the woman entering Project Veritas’s Mamaroneck, N.Y., offices, setting the stage for Davis’s questions for O’Keefe.

“Someone approached a Washington Post reporter, saying that she was impregnated by Roy Moore. Was that truthful or was that not?” asked Davis, who was told to make an appointment. “Does Jaime Phillips work for Project Veritas?” No answer.

Days later, at an event in Dallas, O’Keefe told reporters that he declined to address his investigative methods, noting merely that they are “very sophisticated” and “very elaborate.” “I’m just going to talk about what we actually release,” he said, citing some videos in which operatives discuss the news business with reporters from The Post. “Nothing, nothing the media says about me will ever get me to stop. The only way to stop me is to kill me.”

In fact, the organization’s “goal,” O’Keefe told this blog Monday, was to use “a deception as a means to gain access to people.” Media folks, he argues, have adopted a jaded approach to the story, designed to amp up criticism of O’Keefe’s organization, which has targeted organizations such as NPR, the New York Times and, in the runup to the 2016 presidential election, Democratic operatives. “The story needs there to be this fact that I was trying to plant a fake story,” he says. “If you take that out, what’s the scandal? Is the scandal using an alias? Well, that’s not really scandalous. The story needed the intention to plant a fake story, which wasn’t so.”

More from O’Keefe: “We posed as a rape victim in order to draw the reporter out in order to extract comments.” The Project Veritas boss says he outlined this argument in an op-ed that he submitted to The Post, but editors wouldn’t publish it, he says.

There’s a very surface-level problem with O’Keefe’s protestations. It results from logic: When you deploy an operative to send in a false tip to a newspaper, you are, in effect, attempting to plant a fake story. O’Keefe rebuts this notion by arguing that if The Post had been ramping up to publish such an account, he would have taken some preemptive action. For example, he might have “immediately released the video of that conversation,” he says, or have had his operative inform The Post that she was playing fast and loose with the facts.

Ironic that O’Keefe appears to have trusted that The Post wouldn’t just run straight to the presses with the explosive allegations about Moore. That, after all, is the very stereotype of the mainstream media that O’Keefe and his brethren have sold for years.

The more global justification for the lies of Project Veritas relates to the importance that its leader ascribes to its work. “You can’t evaluate the utility of the means without evaluating how important the public interest in these cases is,” said O’Keefe in his chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. For instance: O’Keefe ran undercover video of a CNN producer named John Bonifield talking about his network’s dedication to the Trump-Russia story. “I just feel like they don’t really have it, but they want to keep digging,” Bonifield says in the Project Veritas video. “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.”

To secure that video, Project Veritas sent an operative to pose as a member of Rainbros, an Atlanta mentoring group. So we asked O’Keefe about the price of such deception. Imagine how the episode affected the group’s trust in others. Is it worth ruining people’s faith in others for a few juicy quotes from a CNN guy? “In some of these things, the stakes are very high,” responded O’Keefe. “What could be more important than exposing how our media apparatus has become in many ways a propaganda organ? Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

To expose the mainstream media as a propaganda organ, O’Keefe and his associates have gone to great lengths to sidle up to agents of famous media outlets — sometimes at bars, sometimes in other settings. The result has been, essentially, reporters blabbing about this or that in jumpy videos touted by O’Keefe as groundbreaking events. But if the media is so corrupt, why not just examine its output — the articles, the cable-news segments, the podcasts? When asked that question, O’Keefe recaps his media stings, including some recordings of reporters at The Post and CNN, and also a Twitter sting. Those exercises, O’Keefe argues, capture the truth of how these organizations operate. “The broader point here is that the mainstream media is more deceptive than we are because they blindly relay untrue information that people give you on the record,” he says.

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