James O’Keefe says he’s an investigative journalist, making uncompromising videos that uncover hidden truths. And indeed some of O’Keefe’s projects have produced memorable results: This week, two Democratic operatives tied to Hillary Clinton’s campaign lost their jobs after O’Keefe’s organization, Project Veritas Action, posted secretly recorded videos of one of them apparently bragging about disrupting Donald Trump’s rallies and speculating about how to conduct voter-fraud schemes.
The videos gained widespread media attention and seemed to buttress Trump’s claims that the election is “rigged” against him. O’Keefe even titled the videos “Rigging the Election.”
But as with many of O’Keefe’s projects, the videos have raised questions among journalists. Most prominent: Do his ends justify his means?
The techniques employed by O’Keefe and his associates, they say, fall far outside journalistic norms. Mainstream news organizations discourage the methods that he regularly employs to expose questionable practices, usually by liberals or Democrats.
Among the more problematic is Project Veritas’s associates’ use of aliases and false identities to gain access to the people it stings. The organization acknowledges that its people posed as political donors to trick the two Democratic operatives into speaking with them for the “rigging” videos.
Although variations on such tactics have been employed by news organizations on rare occasions — a Mother Jones reporter exposed prison abuses this year by taking a job as a guard, although he used his real name in applying for the position — such deceptions are generally discouraged as a violation of trust between source and reporter.
O’Keefe, a 32-year-old Rutgers University graduate, has also used outright illegal means to pursue his quarry. While investigating Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in 2010, O’Keefe and three associates posed as telephone workers to enter her office in New Orleans. They were arrested, and O’Keefe eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal charge of entering a federal office under false pretenses. He received three years probation.
An even bigger issue, however, has been the way in which O’Keefe has edited some of his videos.
In 2009, he and an associate posed as a pimp and prostitute to infiltrate ACORN, a community social-services agency. The resulting video showed ACORN members offering the pair advice on how to set up a brothel. It also showed outtakes of O’Keefe and his partner dressed in the flamboyant attire of street hustlers, suggesting they had appeared that way when they spoke to the officials. In fact, the footage of the pair in costume was spliced into the video after the ACORN meetings, a fact the video didn’t mention.
Congress subsequently defunded ACORN, leading to its demise. O’Keefe was later sued by one of his subjects, who claimed his privacy had been invaded by the surreptitious filming; O’Keefe settled the matter for $100,000, admitting no guilt.
O’Keefe’s 2011 sting of NPR executives was fraught with discrepancies between what one of the executives said and how his comments were framed in the video. Then-NPR executive Ron Schiller was quoted in the video as saying that tea party activists were “seriously racist people.” But the raw footage of the encounter showed that Schiller was quoting two Republicans who viewed the activists that way, not that he held such views.
Veritas spokesman Steve Gordon said the organization has matured over the past few years and now imposes stricter editing controls to ensure that the context of any clip is clear to viewers. The group also instructs its operatives not to lie to federal officials, or to engage in forgery, or to carry fake identification cards, he said. (O’Keefe was unavailable for comment Wednesday.)
But Gordon justified using false identities in the course of a project. An interview subject “would not say the things he said if you were overt about being a reporter,” he said. “What a politician says on the podium or in a press release is not what he would say in a smoke-filled room” to someone he thinks is an ally. “I personally have no qualms misrepresenting my identity if it leads to a much greater truth that the public needs to know.”
Journalists say the best investigative reporting is done without deception and through the hard work of building cooperative sources and gathering data. There could be circumstances warranting O’Keefe-like tactics, they said, but these are rare.
“If you lie to get a story, you’re asking your audience to believe you, and that’s a hard sell,” said Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a journalists organization. “Even if your story is accurate and justified and all the editing is honest, it’s hard to justify when you lied to get an interview in first place. The story can be awesome, but you risk eroding the trust of your audience if you cut corners to get it.”
Andrew Seaman, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, calls O’Keefe “an advocate who uses some of the more controversial items in journalism’s toolbox.”
The SPJ’s ethics code doesn’t forbid undercover reporting, he notes. But it stresses that the methods O’Keefe regularly uses should be a last resort in pursuit of information that is “vital” to the public.
Seaman notes that although mainstream news organizations sometimes cross ethical boundaries, O’Keefe regularly does so.
“James O’Keefe is not an ethical journalist if we look at his actions in the context of” the SPJ’s ethics code, he said. “He obviously has an agenda, goes directly to surreptitious reporting methods and has a history of distorting facts or context.”