By Lena Williams
Much has been made of two recent videos that show New York Times video editors discussing their bias against President Trump and his administration, and mocking the idea of objectivity in journalism.
Some journalists and media outlets have called James O’Keefe, whose company made the videos, a right-wing conservative who will stoop to any level to embarrass what he views as the “liberal media.” Others say O”Keefe’s company, Project Veritas, uses deceptive tactics to further his political agenda.
O’Keefe may be an unscrupulous opportunist or a “despicable person” as Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor, described him. His company may engage in unethical conduct and use false pretenses to get people to say things they might not otherwise.
Notwithstanding how loathsome O’Keefe or surreptitious his so-called “newsgathering” methods may be, O’Keefe is employing some of the same undercover techniques investigative journalists have used for decades in exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and the press and the public’s right to know.
An argument can, and has been made, that O’Keefe is not a journalist and thus does not enjoy the same First Amendment protections that credentialed journalists do. But several court cases have broadened the definition of journalists to include bloggers, student journalists and ordinary citizens who uses smartphones and video cameras to record events and share them with the public.
For years, media companies like The New York Times, have conducted undercover investigations to expose wrongdoing in the public and private sector. In the 1970s, The Times sent a black reporter and a white reporter to apply for rental apartments in New York City after reports of widespread racial discrimination in rentals across the city. The reporters did not identify themselves as journalists but rather as prospective renters.
What the reporters found was that the white reporter was frequently shown available apartments and sometimes offered the rental with no questions asked while the black reporter, who went to the same buildings, was told no apartments were available. Â The page one story they wrote prompted city officials to implement laws that imposed significant fines for racial discrimination in housing.
The Times engaged in deception for a greater good.
O’Keefe wants the American public to believe that he and his organization are doing the very same thing, but I beg to differ.
What greater public good was O’Keefe and Project Veritas serving when they secretly videotaped Nick Dudich, a recently-hired junior strategy editor for The New York Times, admitting that he wasn’t at the paper to “objective?”
Dudich was shown on hidden-camera bragging about using his position at the paper, where he manages videos posted to The Times social media websites, to “target” Trump businesses to “get people to boycott going to his hotels.”
It’s not the first time O’Keefe’s practices have come under fire.
In 2009, O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, a conservative activist, secretly-recorded workers at offices of the non-profit organization, ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) that had been involved for nearly 40 years in voter registration, community organizing and advocacy for low-and-moderate income people.
The heavily-edited videos created a misleading impression about ACORN’s activities and generated extensive negative publicity that ended the company’s contracts with the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service. ACORN lost most of its private funding and subsequently filed for bankruptcy.
O’Keefe, who was disguised in a fur coat, top hat, sunglasses and walked with a cane when he visited ACORN’s offices, claimed he was”bringing up 13 girls from El Salvador to live in their house and work as prostitutes.” An ACORN employee tells him “you are gonna use three of them they are gonna be under 16 so you is eligible to get child tax credit and additional child tax credit.”
When O’Keefe asked, “What if they are going to be making money because they are performing tricks too?” the employee replies, “But if they making money and they are underage, then you shouldn’t be letting anybody know anyway.”
In September of 2009, the California Attorney General found that O’Keefe and Giles had violated state privacy laws and warned them and others that this type of activity can be prosecuted in California. He went on to criticize O’Keefe for not acting as a journalist trying to objectively report a story from the facts but as someone “out to make a point to damage ACORN.”
And therein lies the difference between Project Veritas and media outlets like The Times.
Speaking at a Times Talk forum in Washington, DC, on Oct. 12, Baquet acknowledged that some of Dudich’s comments were damaging.
“He said things, he shouldn’t have said and I’ll deal with that,” Baquet said of Dudich. “But the greater sin wasn’t his, it was theirs.
“I think his work is not investigative journalism,” Baquet went on to say. “A journalist has to have in his heart or her heart a desire to make society better. All James O’Keefe is trying to do is hurt institutions and get some clicks. He just did a video about it that I think, and I used the word before and I’ll use it again, is despicable.”
O’Keefe is trying to drive a wedge between mainstream media and the public it serves. He is trying to prove that Trump is right when he refers to the media as “fake news” and as liberal-minded co-conspirators out to embarrass the president and his administration.
O’Keefe probably knows, and probably doesn’t care, that he is doing an enormous disservice to the American public,” Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek’s national affairs correspondent wrote in a column that appeared on the magazine’s website on Oct. 22. “It is no accident that polls show an erosion of trust in journalists in the last several years. That’s largely the result of attacks by Trump and his abettors in the right-wing media, especially Fox News and Breitbart, both of which have early promulgated O’Keefe’s shoddy unethical investigations.”
Reporters have a First Amendment right to use deception as a journalistic tool to uncover wrongdoing, but many mainstream news organizations say they rarely allow reporters to use deceit because it amounts to lying which weakens credibility and public trust.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics handbook says deception should be used only when all other means have been exhausted; the story illuminates an extremely serious social problem or prevents profound harm to individuals; when the journalists reveal their deception to the public; and when the harm prevented by the information outweighs the damage caused by the deception.
By those judging standards Project Veritas failed on all accounts.