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Opinion ABC News should be ashamed for caving to James O’Keefe’s scam

James O’Keefe, founder of Project Veritas, takes questions from the audience at a gathering. (Laura Buckman)
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How are news organizations not wise to this scam?

That’s the reaction I had when I heard that ABC News had suspended reporter David Wright after Wright got secretly recorded by Project Veritas, the group run by conservative con artist James O’Keefe. Their goal is to “expose” media they see as biased and liberals they don’t like, which they usually do by recording people without their knowledge, then deceptively editing their comments and releasing them as an “exposé.”

I’ll explain a bit about that history and how it relates to what just happened, but here’s the latest:

The network disciplined David Wright, who reports for ABC’s signature news programs, including “World News Tonight,” “Good Morning America” and “Nightline,” several people confirmed late Tuesday.
The choppy, poorly shot video, released Wednesday morning by Project Veritas, captured Wright on what appeared to be a hidden camera, seeming to complain in general terms about political coverage.
“I don’t think we’re terribly interested in voters,” he said, echoing gripes about the superficiality of some aspects of White House and campaign coverage that have been raised by journalists for decades. Also: “Commercial imperative is incompatible with news.”

Not only are they suspending Wright, they’re also banning him from political coverage once he returns. They might as well put up a billboard atop their headquarters reading, “C’mon, conservative grifters: Have at us. We’re a bunch of cowards and we’ll crumble under the least bit of pressure.”

On the tape, which was taken at what appears to be a bar, Wright makes the kind of complaints about news coverage that any reporter will find familiar: It’s too focused on the outrage of the day, it’s caught in an endless cycle of triviality, it can’t figure out how to hold Trump accountable, and so on.

None of what he says should be controversial in the least, though I’m sure his bosses didn’t like it when he said that much of what’s on “Good Morning America” is just about promoting other products of Disney, ABC’s parent company.

But what’s important here is that this is a scam conservatives have been running for decades. It’s often referred to as “working the refs” — you accuse the media of “bias,” and even if you have no substance to back up your claim, if you do it often and loudly enough, they’ll bend over backward to disprove you, usually by being extraordinarily tough on Democrats (see “But her emails”).

Among the conservatives who make this their life’s work, no one is as sleazy as James O’Keefe. In 2010, he and several others pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in connection with a scheme in which the others posed as telephone repairmen in a Democratic Senator’s office. They had been arrested after the FBI alleged they tried to access the Senator’s phone system.

In 2016, he or one of his associates called George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, left a message under an assumed name, then forgot to hang up the phone, leaving a lengthy recording in which they discussed their plan to infiltrate OSF.

In 2017, he attempted to con The Post but was caught because our reporters did their jobs like the professionals they are. O’Keefe goaded a woman to claim falsely to Post reporters that she had been impregnated as a teenager by Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. The idea was that The Post would publish the story, then O’Keefe would reveal it to have been false to discredit the media and help diffuse the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct that had been raised against Moore.

The fact that O’Keefe is a literal con artist has not prevented his organization from getting enormous support from establishment conservatives. According to Project Veritas’s 2018 tax form, the group raised almost $9 million that year. Among the people and organizations that have supported them is the Trump Foundation, which gave $10,000 in 2015 (and of course, the Trump Foundation was itself a scam and has since been shut down).

Given all that, it is utterly shocking that ABC News would hear that Project Veritas has released a secret recording of one of ABC’s most senior reporters, then suspend him that very day, for comments that shouldn’t be controversial at all. Not only is it a monumental act of cowardice, it only encourages con artists such as O’Keefe, showing them that it takes almost nothing for them to make one of the largest news organizations in the country knuckle under.

This isn’t about whether the media should take criticism seriously; of course they should. There are times when conservatives have legitimate complaints about the way one issue or another is covered, just as there are times when liberals have legitimate complaints. It should be part of our job to listen, be self-aware and be thoughtful about how to improve.

But that’s the opposite of what happened here. ABC News executives decided to punish one of their top reporters for nothing, for no reason other than naked fear. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described a 2010 incident involving O’Keefe and a Democratic senator’s office. It has been changed to accurately reflect the plea agreement O’Keefe reached with prosecutors.

Read more:

ABC News suspends correspondent David Wright after comments about Trump coverage, socialism, in Project Veritas sting

Erik Wemple: ABC News hands James O’Keefe a victory

Kathleen Parker: James O’Keefe shows what real fake news is

Erik Wemple: James O’Keefe says he never ‘intended to plant a fake story’ in The Washington Post

Letters to the Editor: Project Veritas’s actions weren’t a ‘sting’

Alexandra Petri: Some top-secret sources I now worry were working for Project Veritas