“I think it’s a form of investigative reporting that you use to seek and find the truth,” James O’Keefe said yesterday in an interview with Howard Kurtz on CNN’s Reliable Sources program. “People are not going to be honest with you when you have a notebook or you’re in front of a podium.”
Just in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, James O’Keefe is the self-proclaimed investigative reporter who set up the video sting of National Public Radio’s Ron Schiller, which ultimately led to the resignation of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller and lost Ron Schiller his upcoming work with the Aspen Institute, a position for which he had resigned from NPR. This is also the same James O’Keefe who set up a damning video of ACORN, a leading advocacy group for low- and moderate-income earners, as well as a phone call with Planned Parenthood in which a representative claimed they could direct his donation to the abortion of a black baby. During the course of the Kurtz interview, we’re also reminded of O’Keefe’s attempt to embarrass then-CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau by seducing her on a boat filled with sex toys.
O’Keefe is meddling in dangerous ground, and I say this with no intent of flattering him or the techniques he uses to coax scandalous stories. Aside from the fact that he seems to exclusively target non-profit organizations which are dedicated to helping generally marginalized populations and/or working to preserve our right to free and independent information, his cluelessness as to what constitutes investigative reporting poses a serious problem in a world of citizen journalism as enabled by new media. For example, when Kurtz asked O’Keefe to clarify his implication that deception is justified in the course of investigative reporting, O’Keefe responded with, “No, that’s not what I said. I said investigative reporting, you’re–it’s sometimes justified to go under cover to get the truth. You’re not–it’s a form of guerrilla theater.”
Actually, no. Guerrilla theater and investigative reporting happen to be two entirely different things. In the case of guerrilla theater, it usually refers to a staged event which takes place without the full knowledge of the audience or using makeshift set elements. Investigative reporting–at least, the type which we should expect–takes a full view of a story, tracing a complete narrative by continually asking even seemingly-basic questions, and either corroborating or contradicting the stated facts and assumptions of the story with various and multiple pieces of evidence. O’Keefe is confusing the two. If his NPR video really was an item of investigative reporting, there would have been full disclosure that the piece was edited in such a way as to effect a specific outcome. There would also have been some context, perhaps addressing things like, what led to the creation of this piece? What questions did O’Keefe hope to have answered, and why are they important? What basis does he have for believing that it is necessary to go under cover in this situation? And so on.
Ultimately, I don’t fear James O’Keefe or his “work.” My fear stems from media and media consumers who give credence to the notion that he is doing some public service which other journalists cannot or will not perform. There are a lot of reasons for the decrease of true investigative reporting in today’s media, none of which have anything to do with a lack of O’Keefian journalistic talent or ethics. When people are fired and organizations are crippled as a result of his output, it is an injustice not only to the individuals and causes which suffer the impact, but to all news consumers who deserve better. Really, now–the guy thought that having sex with a reporter and a dildo would be newsworthy. Let’s not give him too much respect.
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