What James O'Keefe doesn't get about the media
Posted November 28, 2017 9:09 a.m. EST
(CNN) — As someone who spent a decade working in The Washington Post newsroom, I could have told James O'Keefe that his attempt to trick Post reporters into running a made-up story about Roy Moore forcing a woman to have an abortion -- and capture those same reporters saying bad things about the Alabama Republican Senate candidate (and Donald Trump) -- was never going to work.
O'Keefe has made his bones by secretly taping people saying things they shouldn't under the auspices of an organization called Project Veritas. His heavily edited videos have taken aim at longtime conservative targets like ACORN and Planned Parenthood in the past -- with some results. O'Keefe and his ilk have been far less successful, though, in exposing alleged bias in the media. (Full disclosure: Project Veritas targeted CNN -- to little effect.)
This episode is Project Veritas' biggest swing and miss -- by far.
The plan went like this: A woman named Becca Phillips, who was aligned with Project Veritas, approached several Washington Post reporters claiming that she had engaged in a sexual relationship with Moore that led to an abortion when she was 15. (Sidebar: It's worth an entire separate piece about what would lead someone to make up an abortion in order to entrap reporters.)
The goal was simple: To reveal that The Washington Post, which broke the initial story about Moore's alleged pursuit of intimate relationships with teenagers, was willing to publish anything from any source as long as it made a conservative Republican look bad.
The problem -- if O'Keefe knew anything about how large media organizations like the Post and CNN work -- is that neither of these organizations would ever simply run with a story from one woman about an alleged forced abortion without doing the most basic fact checking.
Like, why, if Phillips had only lived in Alabama for a summer as a teenager, did she have a cell phone with an Alabama area code? Or why did a woman with that same name have a GoFundMe page seeking to raise money for a move to New York City for a new job in the "conservative media movement"? And why was one of the two donors to that GoFundMe effort Phillips' daughter?
No story -- NOT ONE -- would get anywhere near the Post's website or CNN's website or air with these sorts of major red flags. And no researcher worth his or her salt -- and the Post and CNN have some of the best fact-checkers in the business -- would not find these things and find them quickly.
There are backstops within backstops to make certain things like this made-up story don't get through the cracks. That doesn't mean that stories that aren't totally airtight don't slip through those cracks every once in a while. What it does mean is that those are human errors made by people committed to getting it right and beating themselves up -- and enforcing consequences -- when they don't.
O'Keefe would know that if he had actually spent any time in newsrooms or learning about how a tip becomes a story (or doesn't). Instead of doing that, however, he has spent his time seeking to find people in media who affirm his preconceived notion that all reporters are part of a broadscale liberal cabal in which facts take a back seat to ideology.
Except that he bit off WAY more than he could chew on this one. The Post "expose" that O'Keefe envisioned actually turned into a very revealing look at the careful and fair ways in which reporters at major media outlets deal with salacious news tips. I'd urge you to read the Post story if you haven't and watch the nine-minute video of a Post reporter's interview with Becca Phillips. What you'll see there is a veteran reported named Stephanie McCrummen seeking to prod and poke the clear holes in Phillips' story and then hold her to account for those inconsistencies.
What O'Keefe revealed in this latest video is how good journalism works. And how a cynical ploy to entrap reporters by an organization that uses decidedly controversial techniques to obtain its "scoops" failed spectacularly.
The idea of "fake news" has always been fake. This latest Project Veritas effort proves just that.