Sinclair Broadcast Group is a large media company that “owns, operates and/or provides services to 185 television stations in 86 markets” across the country. Its conservative bona fides became a matter of viral obsession in 2018, when it directed anchors at its stations to read the same editorial channeling then-President Donald Trump’s attacks on “fake news.”
A less well-known chapter in Sinclair history is emerging in a federal courthouse this week in the case Democracy Partners v. Project Veritas Action Fund, in which an umbrella group of Democratic political consulting firms sued James O’Keefe’s video-sting organization over an infiltration operation during the 2016 presidential campaign season. As the operation neared its end in October 2016, Project Veritas gave the story to Sinclair as an “exclusive,” O’Keefe testified on Monday.
What ensued was an awkward and ultimately fruitless handoff that could bolster the arguments of Joe Sandler, attorney for Democracy Partners, that the group fell victim not to a journalism outlet but to a group practicing political espionage.
Seeking comment from the targets of an investigation is a core journalistic principle. Facts that appear scandalous to a reporter, after all, may have an innocent explanation. Plus, it’s only fair that subjects know what sort of story is in the works. The best journalists work under a two-word mantra: No surprises.
A surprise, however, is just what visited Robert Creamer on Oct. 14, 2016. The co-founder of Democracy Partners was eating lunch at Ristorante Tosca with someone he thought was interested in advancing Democratic political causes. The man ended the lunch abruptly and said he needed to get going, so they both left the restaurant. On the way out, Creamer’s lunch partner bolted to the right — poof! From the left came a news crew from Sinclair, with Raphael “Raffi” Williams, then a political reporter at Sinclair’s digital arm, Circa News, asking questions stemming from videos that had been secretly recorded.
“I asked how they knew where I was,” Creamer said in his testimony last week. “Raffi said James O’Keefe said where I would be.” It was a setup, and Creamer’s lunch partner was working for Project Veritas. Very effectively.
Here’s what Creamer quickly discovered: Staffers working under O’Keefe had secured hidden-camera footage of him and other Democratic operatives, including Scott Foval, a specialist in political field operations who was working as a subcontractor for Democracy Partners, talking about their projects. Project Veritas even planted an intern — Allison Maass, using the false name of “Angela Brandt” — in the office of Democracy Partners. “I recorded everything,” Maass said on several occasions in court proceedings, which are taking place in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.
Having discovered the breach, Creamer moved into rebuttal mode. In a series of discussions with Sinclair lawyers and journalists, according to court filings and testimony, Creamer and his own lawyers went point by point over the topics covered in the videos, as well as three pages of questions sent by Williams. One problem was the loose-lipped Foval, who’d been caught on tape riffing about all manner of boundary-pushing tactics, for instance. “We’re starting anarchy here," said Foval. Creamer told Sinclair that Foval wasn’t working for Democracy Partners when Project Veritas first started recording him — and that the operative was talking trash. “He was trying to impress someone with how tough he was,” said Creamer in court.
Sinclair abandoned the story, never publishing a single frame of the Project Veritas videos, a decision that heartened Democracy Partners: The videos “would seem less credible if, you know, basically the Donald Trump news network wouldn’t publish them," said Brad Woodhouse, one of Creamer’s colleagues, in a deposition.
So Project Veritas took matters into its own hands. Without the imprimatur of Sinclair, it published on Oct. 17, 2016, the first of four videos in a series titled, “Rigging the Election.” Many clicks followed, as did professional consequences for the two main operatives in the package. Creamer stepped away from his work on the Hillary Clinton campaign and Foval lost his job. Mainstream outlets piled on with coverage.
On the witness stand last week, Creamer testified that Project Veritas never contacted him for his response to the videos. O’Keefe, in his own testimony, said he believed Sinclair didn’t pass along the responses from Democracy Partners. “I think that Sinclair asking for comment was sufficient at the time,” said O’Keefe in Monday’s testimony.
That comment — clinical and unapologetic — was typical of O’Keefe’s brief spell on the witness stand Monday. Sandler interrogated him about his professional background, his attendance at Trump events and aspects of the Democracy Partners investigation that depart from journalistic norms — most notably, the $20,000 donation to a progressive organization to “gain the confidence” of its leaders, in O’Keefe’s words; the offer of cash bonuses to staffers if they got certain content; and the decision to grant the “exclusive” to Sinclair.
The whole enterprise speaks to a mind-set more about political gotcha than journalism. But O’Keefe won’t be convinced: Asked by his own lawyer, Paul Calli, what was the “sole purpose” of the project, he responded that it was to “reveal information about people that they wanted kept hidden, which is the role of journalists.”