If James O'Keefe is staging guerrilla theater to expose hypocrisy and hate, a la Sasha Baron Cohen of Borat fame, maybe that's no big deal. But O'Keefe claims to be acting in the tradition of undercover investigative muckrakers. Bob asks James O'Keefe about misleading editing, distorted quotes, and how much untruth he is entitled to in his quest for veritas. Listen here to the full James O'Keefe interview
BOB GARFIELD: One thing about O'Keefe’s sting videos, he gets the goods. In his notorious ACORN series, local employees are seen offering suggestions about how to hide prostitution income from the government. In his NPR sting, ex-fundraiser Ron Schiller does come off at times as a pandering bigot, but along the way, misleading editing, distorted quotes and a number of outright lies. If James O'Keefe is staging guerrilla theater to expose hypocrisy and hate, a la Sasha Baron Cohen of Borat fame, maybe that’s no big deal. But Cohen is a comedian. O'Keefe claims to be practicing undercover journalism in the tradition of Mike Wallace and other venerable muckrakers. In his quest for truth, to how much untruth is he then entitled? For example, this:
MALE NARRATOR: On the MEAC website, it said that the organization sought to, quote, “spread the acceptance of Sharia across the world.”
RON SCHILLER: Really? That’s what they said? [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Hear how unappalled Schiller was at the prospect of global Sharia law? Except, he never did react that way. He'd uttered those words in response to a restaurant employee’s remark about their reservation. Previously, in the teaser video for his ACORN sting, O'Keefe is seen in a ridiculous circa-1970s pimp getup, complete with chinchilla cape, cane, Superfly hat and outsized shades. He also wore the outfit in subsequent publicity appearances and left unchallenged the supposition that he'd worn it into ACORN’s offices. In fact, he did no such thing. He says that’s irrelevant.
JAMES O'KEEFE: This is often used by my opponents as a form of obfuscation. They say, well, you didn't wear the pimp fur inside the office. It wasn't about the pimp fur. If you see the first YouTube video, you'll see a scene at 22 seconds in where I'm walking into the office in slacks and a button-down. Well, pimp protocol requires you to whore out underage girls. It doesn't require the wearing of a chinchilla fur.
BOB GARFIELD: Why use the pimp getup in the trailer, to begin with?
JAMES O'KEEFE: Many trailers and bumpers on TV and for news programs use a variety of introductions, and I wanted to, you know, do sort of a funny, sort of zany trailer that would be a prelude to these comments made by these employees, and maybe something as outrageous as their comments. I am, in fact, posing as a pimp. I'm trying to help her establish a brothel and profit off of that brothel.
BOB GARFIELD: In fact, you didn't identify yourself as her pimp. You identified yourself as her boyfriend, trying to protect her from an abusive pimp to get into the offices. And you talked about a run for Congress that you were hoping to make. It was only inside the offices that you actually started discussing with these corrupt employees the notion of -importing Salvadorian women for a Chesapeake Bay brothel, correct?
JAMES O'KEEFE: That's right. In, in Washington, D.C., for example, I said, you know, I can use the money that the girls - the tricks from the girls perform, I can use those profits to fund my political campaign, which, by definition, would be pimping.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you mind if we now turn to the NPR sting?
JAMES O'KEEFE: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: On your website, the headline is “Watch the Video, Learn the Truth.” Then, there is the cool quote from former NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller running down the Tea Party, but you took that quote out of context, didn't you? In the raw tape, which you also released, which got 1/500th of the page views that the short tape received, it’s clear that in that passage Schiller is quoting other people whom he identified as top Republicans.
RON SCHILLER: I, I won't break a confidence, but a person who was an ambassador, so a very highly placed Republican, another person, who was one of the top donors to the Republican Party, they both told me they voted for Obama, which they never believed they could ever do in their lives, that they could ever vote for a Democrat, ever. And they did because they believe that the current Republican Party is not really the Republican Party. It’s been hijacked by this group that is -
“MUSLIM”: The radical, racist, Islamophobic Tea Party people?
RON SCHILLER: And not just Islamophobic, but really xenophobic. I mean, basically they…
JAMES O'KEEFE: Well, I think it’s also clear that he’s agreeing with them. In the lat – later part of the statement he states, “It’s scary, I mean, they are seriously racist, racist people.” You can certainly tell from his body language and his –
BOB GARFIELD: But did you edit the tape and use that full quote out of context to put the NPR executives in the worst possible light?
JAMES O'KEEFE: I don't think I did. We did release the full unedited tape along with our - package. And you can try to focus in on one sentence in order to deflect from all the statements that Mr. Schiller made, in order to do damage control for your friends, but the fact is, is that he made these egregious statements.
[OVERTALK/BOTH AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: James, isn't that precisely what you do? Isn't that precisely your modus?
JAMES O'KEEFE: No, I think we show these egregious statements on tape, and I don't think that anything is mitigated by that. It’s a logical non sequitur for you to say, well, in the other parts of the tape he said non-egregious things. Therefore, it exculpates him.
[UNINTELLIGIBLE COMMENT/BOTH AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: I didn’t - I didn't say that. You did. But what do you think the number one responsibility for journalists is when they edit, when they reduce, when they select? What should we be thinking about at all times when we do that?
JAMES O'KEEFE: Well, I think you should be choosing the relevant portions of the story that accurately represent the statements that were made. And what is the story? The story is the contempt and the disdain that Mr. Schiller has for Americans, for uneducated, in his words, Americans, the fact that there needs to be more “educated elites,” quote, unquote, and the Republicans have been taken over by this Tea Party, which is characterized by this weird evangelical move. So there’s this disdain –
[OVERTALK/BOTH AT ONCE] - in this guy’s heart.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, once again, you are quoting Mr. Schiller quoting top Republicans. And, by the way, on the subject of education –
JAMES O'KEEFE: That’s not true, that’s not true. That, that’s not true. You don't have your facts straight.
BOB GARFIELD: Did not Mr. Schiller make a point to argue against the notion that conservatives were somehow less educated than liberals? Didn't he s - make a point of saying that he in no way holds that view?
JAMES O'KEEFE: Yeah, he also said that Republicans were inherently anti-intellectual and liberals more educated than conservatives. And you’re using a logical fallacy, focusing on something that happened that doesn't mitigate the things that do happen. And if you hold your logic up to any other reporter, if you make any other reporter live up to your own book of rules, you have completely discredited the genre of journalism. All journalists use excerpts to highlight the most egregious things made by their subjects. All Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism does that. Do you think when a reporter files a FOIA request and goes through to audit the university or the business or the publicly funded entity, he focuses on every single excerpt? Or does he focus on the excerpts that characterize the subject, on the unethical things that the subject does?
BOB GARFIELD: Your organization is called the Project Veritas. What does “veritas” mean?
JAMES O'KEEFE: Latin for “truth.”
BOB GARFIELD: It’s Latin for “truth.” And if you’re moving tape around to even subtly alter meaning, if you’re leaving out large chunks of reporting that would put an entirely different cast on reality, is that truth?
JAMES O'KEEFE: I don't agree with your assessment. I think we've been pretty accurate in the reflection of Mr. Schiller’s statements, and he's even admitted he’s made the statements. And he - and we've released the full unedited tapes. Unless you can point to a specific thing in the tape that mitigates or exculpates the egregious statements made by the employee, you’re just using obfuscation. You’re just trying to deflect from those statements.
[OVERTALK/BOTH AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: James, for example - for example, there were no fewer than six times in the raw NPR footage where Ron Schiller or his colleague took pains to tell you that, no, you cannot for five million dollars or any other sum buy coverage on NPR, you cannot influence the news organization. And yet, that is conspicuously absent. Where you edited in his amused reaction to Sharia law, he had evinced no such amused reaction to Sharia law. In fact, it had been cut from one place and dropped in another. What is that, if not obfuscation?
JAMES O'KEEFE: You’re making mountains out of a molehill here. That was an introductory sequence change that broadcast journalists use all the time. If you’re gonna try to mitigate all the dozen things he said by the supposed scene change of, of him sitting down at the table, it’s, it’s a losing argument. People will see right through it.
BOB GARFIELD: It – well, it - it would be, if that were the argument I'm making. But I'm not trying to mitigate anything Ron Schiller said. I'm trying to get to your tactics. So let's just recap for a moment the ACORN scenario. You lie to get into - the offices. You lie, subsequently, about the lie you told to get into the offices. You edit the pimp shot into the trailer to create the illusion that you were somehow wearing it during your sting. You go on television wearing the same pimp outfit and let interviewers observe, uncorrected, that that’s what you were wearing when you confronted the ACORN employees. If your journalistic technique is the lie, why should we believe anything you have to say?
JAMES O'KEEFE: Investigative reporters have used, you know, quote, unquote, “false pretenses” like To Catch a Predator, ABC’s Primetime Live. Even Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes went undercover. You go undercover in order to get to the truth. Now, is it lying? It’s a form of guerrilla theater. You’re posing as something you’re not, in order to capture candid conversations from your subject. But I wouldn't characterize it as, as lying.
BOB GARFIELD: Who are your heroes?
JAMES O'KEEFE: My heroes include G.K. Chesterton, the British writer. I admire his common sense political philosophy. He’s someone I real – I really look up to. We look up to Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes. I think our methods can be considered a hybrid of many different genres, and that includes the undercover reporting of 60 Minutes and, and ABC News. There are elements of Gonzo. There’s elements of Borat, which includes the guerrilla theater of Borat. So if you combine all these things together, I think you'll get a good sense for who we are.
BOB GARFIELD: And who are your enemies?
JAMES O'KEEFE: I think one of my enemies is the mainstream media. I think one of my enemies is the media which selectively edits everything and selectively edits out the truth about many things and, and willfully ignores subjects that they don't want to investigate. If the media was doing their job in this country, telling us the truth about public officials, telling us the truth about people and about events, then we'd live in a much better world.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, James. Thank you very much for doing this.
JAMES O'KEEFE: You’re welcome. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: James O'Keefe is founder of the Project Veritas. That was an edited version of a much longer and often contentious conversation, which can be found intact at Onthemedia.org. Among the material not found in the on-air version is discussion based on our own bad information or false premises, the sort of material routinely excised from edited interviews, for obvious reasons. In addition, also in line with our standard practice, as often discussed on this show, the version you just heard involves many interior edits and even some rearrangement, for the sake of clarity and brevity. However, there is another way to cut and paste, applying the black arts of broadcast editing to create an utterly dishonest impression altogether. And that might sound something like this:
BOB GARFIELD: Who are your heroes?
JAMES O'KEEFE: G.K. Chesterton, underage prostitutes, Attorney General Gerry Brown and hyperbole and obfuscation.
BOB GARFIELD: No surprises there. But who are your enemies?
JAMES O'KEEFE: I think that’s something for analysts and commentators and reporters and, and the audience to glean for theirselves.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, but I'm guessing it’s - Buffy the Vampire Slayer, her watcher, Rupert Giles and the whole Watchers Council. Come on. Am I right?
JAMES O'KEEFE: That's right, except for one.
BOB GARFIELD: So then the one you actually don't wish to see destroyed is who, Giles?
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
JAMES O'KEEFE: Yes, that’s right. It’s Giles.