Tuesday, February 2, 2010

DANGEROUS JOURNALISM: The James O’Keefe Story

Last week a couple of guys dressed as telephone repairmen entered Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s office in a New Orleans Federal building (below, left). Here is what we know for sure: They had to have entered the building under false pretenses. They videotaped their experience in Landrieu’s office using a cell phone and a camera hidden in one of the men’s helmets. Landrieu’s staff was suspicious and contacted security, who called the police. Four men were arrested, including one James O’Keefe. O’Keefe, some readers will recall, is the young man who disguised himself as a pimp in 2008, and accompanied by a woman disguised as a prostitute (header photo), entered several ACORN offices inquiring about how to start an illegal business of smuggling underage girls from El Salvador, with the intent of using them in a sex-related business. Those encounters were also videotaped, resulting in funding and support being cut off nationwide for ACORN.

James O’Keefe spent the night in jail, or 28 hours to be exact, and allegedly was denied the right to contact an attorney. This has not been substantiated yet. Federal prosecutors report that each alleged perpetrator now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for "entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony.” During the 28 hours O’Keefe was incarcerated, mainstream media reported the incident and some outlets suggested O’Keefe was in Landrieu’s office to bug her phones. The reported reason for this was that Landrieu had secured a $300 million payout for the state of Louisiana, after agreeing to vote in favor of moving the healthcare issue into the debate stage, back in November, 2009. Landrieu was the subject of slings and arrows from all quarters of the U.S. Some said simply that her vote was bought and paid for. Others went so far as to call her a prostitute or to say she whored herself and her state and sold her vote once the bid got high enough. For the record, here’s what Landrieu had to say about her decision to vote yes for the healthcare debate:

O’Keefe now says his aim was to uncover the truth as to why Landrieu’s office was not accepting phone inquiries about her vote. Apparently, some constituents and others were having trouble for up to three weeks getting their calls into Landrieu’s office. How O’Keefe & Co. were going to expose the truth is not known.

Here is what O’Keefe had to say to Sean Hannity on FOX News following his release:

Now, you may draw your own conclusions about what Landrieu did or did not do, the legitimacy of her decision and the effect the incident may have on future efforts to secure Senate votes. That’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to explore O'Keefe’s dangerous “journalistic” tactics.

Notice in his interview with O’Keefe in one passing comment he refers to “New Age Journalism.” Prior to using that term he alludes to mainstream media investigative journalism techniques that employ the use of deception to get their story. He refers to the Food Lion incident in 1997, when ABC used hidden cameras to prove that the grocery chain was using unsanitary food handling procedures, including bleaching outdated pork with Clorox, repackaging it and selling it. He also referred to NBC’s “Dateline” as a prime example of the use of deception in journalism.

My ears perked up when I heard this, because I teach media ethics, and one of the main topics we cover is the use of deception in gathering information for a story. Author/ethicist Louis Alvin Day, in his book “Ethics in Media Communications” cites four criteria for the use of deception in journalism, which I happen to support. Day contends deception might be used in reporting:
1. If the reporter is convinced the information is of compelling public importance.
What did O’Keefe see as a matter of compelling public importance – that Landrieu finagled $300 million for Louisiana, or that her staff was allegedly not taking calls? If it was the former, Landrieu has been totally forthcoming about the amount and her reasons for doing it. You may not agree with her reasons, but she said it out loud in the Senate and on national television.
2. If the reporter has considered all alternatives to the use of deception.
What did O’Keefe and his cronies do before they entered a Federal building under false pretenses? Did they try to meet with Landrieu? Did they contact her chief of staff? Did they research what she said about the $300 million to determine if there was truly any cause for alarm or action? Did they enter Landrieu’s office in street clothes and ask to meet with someone about the fact that they were unable to reach the staff by phone? So far, O’Keefe has not revealed anything legitimate that he did to gather information.
3. If the reporter is convinced the benefit outweighs the harm to the parties involved.
Regardless of what type of information O’Keefe may have secured in this caper, the fact is he entered a Federal building and a government office under false pretenses, impersonating a utility technician. What does this say to us, the citizens about the security of our Federal buildings? Does anyone remember the Murrah Federal building bombing, Oklahoma City in 1995, (above, left) or is that just a footnote in the history books now? If O’Keefe wanted to truly gather information of compelling public importance, perhaps he could have used his extreme escapade to uncover security flaws in these buildings. But that was not his intention. Did the benefit outweigh the harm here? The evidence revealed so far would say not.
4. If the reporter discloses to the audience the nature of the deception and the reason it was used.
As of now, we have no way of knowing if O’Keefe was going to disclose what he did, and if the public would be better off for his actions.

What worries me more than anything is his reference to “New Age Journalism.” If O’Keefe sees the transitions traditional journalism has made in the past decade or so as carte blanche to employ any techniques necessary to gather information, he is severely misinterpreting the discipline of journalism. I did a little digging into his background. He earned a philosophy degree from Rutgers University, and while there he started a conservative newspaper called The Centurion, which still exists today. The first issue reveals the publication’s socio-political stance, albeit with some questionable writing and reporting. The early editions of The Centurion smack of the old Andy Rooney/Judy Garland movies where the iconic phrase became, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show.” O’Keefe, it appears from this vantage point, needs some good journalistic training, and certainly some mentoring in investigative journalism. His founding of the Centurion was certainly in the Rooney/Garland genre. If he is going to try to uncover truths he feels the public needs to know, he first must learn how to do it without breaking the law and certainly without getting arrested. Apparently, he has not considered that.

Further, at the ripe old age of 26, O’Keefe has become something of a college conservative media god to his successors. Here is what Rutgers student and Centurion writer Stephanie Jablonsky wrote in the December, 2009 edition of The Centurion:
“On Wednesday, October 28, the steps of Brower Common were graced by the presence of the most notorious conservative activist in the nation, legendary Centurion founder and Rutgers grad, ACORN infiltrator…James O’Freaking Keefe. When he arrived as the College Republicans’ main guest speaker for their campus Tea Party, babies cried, acorns cracked, and the stench of Rutgers’ progressive self-righteousness and hypocrisy was removed from the air –at least for a little while. James O’Keefe was home.”
You may view that over-the-top passage as simply that of a star-struck college co-ed, but that’s exactly the point. If O’Keefe is going to position himself as a new age version of the late William F. Buckley,(left, with President Ronald Reagan) perhaps he needs to get himself back in school, study public policy and journalism, and then try to change the world. You have to give him props for his chutzpah, but real activism comes from a place of strength, and that strength lies in knowledge and experience. The experience at 26 usually and necessarily has to be somebody else’s, but even that can light the way. O’Keefe’s bumbling turn as a pimp and his recent arrest are clear indications that he should not be positioning himself as a role model for young conservatives. Oh, and if you need further convincing that O’Keefe is the anti-journalist, watch this video of one of his lesser-known stunts in which heterosexual O’Keefe and his heterosexual friend trying to take out a marriage license in Massachusetts:

I realize how condescending this sounds, even before I write it, but I’m writing it anyway: O’Keefe is a very young guy. He’s trying to find his footing in the world. Like any other young guy, he will stumble along the way, but he has chosen to do it publicly. My sense of it is that the theatrics he uses today will someday make him cringe, especially the pimp suit. Apparently Magistrate Judge Louis Moore agrees with me on the youth angle. After O’Keefe’s unlawful entry in to the New Orleans Federal building, Judge Moore ordered O’Keefe to reside in the state of New Jersey until the next hearing – with his parents.

1 comment:

Tom Degan's Daily Rant said...

Aw, c’mon! These are just a bunch of kids! This is just a harmless prank! You know what they say, don’cha? Boys will be boys!

No doubt about it. It’ll be amusing to watch the right wing media trying to spin this latest debacle. Yesterday O’Keefe was the newest Fascist poster boy. Today he is a man looking at a nice stint in federal prison. The Republicans are once again experiencing the kind of OOPS moment for which they have become famous for in recent years. It really is quite touching when you think about it.

What I love more than anything is the “harmless school boy prank” angle that the right wing is trying to spin! I did a little bit of research, folks. Little Jimmy O’Keefe is almost two years older than Lee Harvey Oswald was when he assassinated President Kennedy. So much for that argument - you would think.

Is this merely the tip of a nasty iceberg? Will O’Keefe “cooperate” with federal investigators in order to reduce his sentence? Are there bigger fish that are due some serious frying?

To be continued….

http://www.tomdegan.blogspot.com

Tom Degan
Goshen, NY