James O'Keefe speaking at a 2016 conservative rally. Photo: Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia
Reading video exposé entrepreneur James O’Keefe’s recent book, American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News, I was struck mainly by his level-headed estimate of the way the internet has changed news gathering, something politicians are only beginning to come to terms with.
O’Keefe’s career as a provocateur started as a prank. On St. Patrick’s Day, 2005, he persuaded an unusually dense Rutgers administrator that persons of Irish descent might be offended by Lucky Charms cereal. She took the bait and removed the “offensive” boxes of cereal from the dining hall. O’Keefe posted a video on the story and got hooked (“I saw immediately that video had a viral power that print simply did not have. (p. 7″) Few traditional media risked exposing how not so-fun crazy campus life was becoming until the full riot gear episodes of 2017.
He was later propelled to fame by his exposure of community organizing group ACORN for offering to run underage (im)migrant prostitutes. ACORN was part of the constellation of groups that nurtured U.S president Obama (2008–2016). He went on to address a number of issues, including voter fraud, domestic terror, and dodgy public education. About that last item, he explains, “Given our resources, we can only expose the tip of the iceberg, but every time we explore public education, we find more and more iceberg” (p. 62).
O’Keefe’s trademark method is, of course, the video sting. His rationale is fairly simple: Traditional media, hampered by a now-highly corporate but out-of-date business model, “could not afford to sponsor” such stings (p. 17). Huge corporations are, in many ways, more beholden to government than small ones. What strikes a traditional news writer like me about the ACORN story is that it was just so ripe for the picking. Yet “[No] sunlight had ever penetrated the ACORN operation. (p. 56)” Understanding O’Keefe’s complex role means, among other things, confronting the irrevocable changes that underlie it.
The current fuss over his Project Veritas group’s use of deception feels historically odd. Traditional media heroes often used deception. He reminds us that in 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a seedy bar, run by reporters, to sting corrupt area politicians. Today, we are told, reporters are too ethical for such tactics. So if we want to know about the Chicago Way, we might need non-traditional sources. And yet, when US presidential candidate Mitt Romney (2012) was filmed undercover saying that 47 percent of Americans depend on the government, media widely touted the find.
In short, a funny thing happened to the media on the way to the internet. They were compelled to choose sides and they went deep state.
O’Keefe has had his ups and downs. He was convicted of a misdemeanor in New Orleans (p. 26) and once paid US$100,000 to settle an invasion of privacy lawsuit. But, he asks, what about ABC News’ surely much heftier settlement over pink slime? If you are still paying attention to ABC News, there is no reason in principle to ignore O’Keefe. Then there was the botched sting operation on the Washington Post (an effort to see how much rubbish the Post would swallow about “Ten Commandments” judge Roy Moore, a failed US Senate contender). But in truth, I was delighted that the Post didn’t take the bait. There’s some hope for them!
An occasional misstep or rules violation is a hazard of the adventurous part of the news business and always has been. I know a highly ethical, middle-class Christian journalist who was once arrested in Toronto in the line of duty.
The near-collapse of traditional media has probably made outfits like Project Veritas inevitable, and probably necessary. But that collapse is not wholly due to the internet. The trend to corporate ownership must be factored in. O’Keefe notes that “In their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky anticipated a showdown like the one that played out in the campaign of 2016. By 1988, the dominant mass-media outlets were all large, powerful corporations.” Such media rely not on censorship but on “market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship and without overt coercion.”
The bigger the company, the more it depends on government as opposed to customers. Although Chomsky and Herman thought media would skew right, they clearly did not.
And so now? As O’Keefe observes, post-2016, “The hatred for Trump is so universal and so visceral at the Times that there is no way it cannot deform the news coverage” (p. 274). Would such media break a scandal, no matter how revealing, if it harmed special interests that might underwrite their survival? Their remaining audience, he assesses, need stories, true or false, that “sustain their worldview and feed their anger on any number of issues.” The traditional Soviet Pravda readers were much more jaded than current American ones. (p. 275).
He sheds some light on a paradox: Watergate, widely touted as a high point for American media, may have diminished traditional media organizations’ adaptation to reality. They started taking themselves way too seriously. (p. 51). Could this be a sign of the changing times? The Watergate story is beginning to weary even fans of legacy media. L. V. Anderson comments at Digg on the Watergate movie, The Post: “The best biopics refrain from constantly announcing that their subjects are extraordinary people making world-changing decisions. “The Post” never lets you forget it.”
The main problem with that Watergate portentousness is that it no longer reflects reality. If it did, few would hear of indies like O’Keefe.
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.