In October 2016, Project Veritas released a series of videos that they alleged demonstrated misconduct, impropriety, and vote “rigging” on the part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff or other Democrats.
Project Veritas’ YouTube channel displayed four “undercover” videos released in October 2016. The first video involved a surreptitiously recorded conversation between a covert operative for Project Veritas and Manhattan Board of Elections Commissioner Alan Schulkin at a December 2015 Christmas party. In the clip, Schulkin surmised voter ID would prevent voter fraud and discussed the possibility of “bussing” voters to polling places:
The second video purportedly evidenced a culture of ambient misogyny at a Clinton field office, framed as a response to concurrent controversy over lewd remarks by Donald Trump captured on tape in 2005:
The third video involved a hidden recording of Democratic candidate Russ Feingold opining that Hillary Clinton “might issue an executive order” pertaining to guns:
The fourth and most controversial video purportedly depicted evidence that the Clinton campaign’s field offices were tampering with Republican voter registrations and conspiring to incite violence at Trump rallies:
The videos are, as is typical of O’Keefe’s, work somewhat of a gish gallop, comprising a constellation of allegations and assertions that is virtually impossible to fact check without complete clips of the involved conversations. Nearly all the videos used stitched-together, out-of-context remarks with no indication of what occurred or what was discussed just before and after the included portions.
The framing and style of videos created by James O’Keefe is well known due to his 2009 “sting” in which he and accomplice Hannah Giles visited ACORN offices and pretended to be seeking advice on how to run an illegal business that included the use of underage girls in the sex trade. The resulting videos — which were edited to create the impression that O’Keefe and Giles had spoken to ACORN representatives while dressed as a pimp and prostitute — dealt that organization a mortal blow before reports publicizing the deception in O’Keefe’s videos came to light:
How quickly things seem to fall apart when James O’Keefe is the person who put them together.
O’Keefe’s incriminating ACORN video was shown to have been heavily edited — neither he nor Hannah Giles were actually in pimp and prostitute get-up when they spoke to ACORN employees, for example — and no criminal prosecutions of ACORN followed. While not letting ACORN off the hook for showing “terrible judgment” in the video, California’s then-attorney general Jerry Brown noted after an investigation into the tapes and the organization that “sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor.”
Those same words now seem applicable to the latest O’Keefe sting, which further tarnished NPR’s reputation and took down its CEO. As we noted, Glenn Beck’s conservative website, The Blaze, was first to report on discrepancies between the first edited eleven-and-a-half minute video released on the Project Veritas website and a later, unedited two-hour version … NPR media reporter David Folkenflik addressed the dubious editing on Morning Edition and in a written report for NPR’s website. Folkenflik reviewed the two tapes himself, along with some NPR colleagues and outsiders like The Blaze’s editor-in-chief Scott Baker and Poynter’s Al Tompkins. They home in on many of the same problems The Blaze pointed out. And they basically come to the same conclusion: the tape is still a problem, but the impression it leaves is different.
“I tell my children there are two ways to lie,” Tompkins said. “One is to tell me something that didn’t happen, and the other is not to tell me something that did happen. I think they employed both techniques in this.”
Columbia Journalism Review reiterated assessments and warnings about O’Keefe’s methods in a 2011 piece targeting NPR. That article noted that the time-consuming nature of fact-checking (particularly when source material is obscured) has led to Project Veritas efforts skating past cursory review:
From where might we have learned such a lesson? From video scandals past. Think ACORN and think Shirley Sherrod: job- and organization-crippling scandals in which the media blindly aided and abetted. Note too that O’Keefe is a political point-scorer, and here he is scoring from a soft-target.
We knew all of this, and yet few of us slowed down. Including the NPR brass.
It is telling that The Blaze was the first to point out O’Keefe’s context-stripping editing and that its report came out two days after O’Keefe’s video release. (And, yes, we at CJR should have been doing just as The Blaze did, searching for the discrepancies they found.) It’s telling because, as The Blaze showed, it takes time to vet a source.
We can only hope that, next time, the order in which this scandal and others like it have unfolded — headlines and drama first; reporting and vetting later — is reversed. Given the pattern that just repeated itself, we’re not optimistic.
The Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) organization also regularly covered O’Keefe’s efforts in 2011 and 2012, lamenting how often the details of the purported stings are misreported before being thoroughly investigated:
USA Today has a long piece by Martha Moore about video hoax artist James O’Keefe’s NPR project. The article does a pretty good job of running down the deceptions in O’Keefe’s video. That’s good. This, however, is not:
… The sting’s impact was magnified by the quick dissemination-without-scrutiny that is a hallmark of Internet-driven media.
O’Keefe’s video has nothing to do with muckraking. And please don’t blame the Internet for the fact that journalists apparently can’t be bothered to care whether a source is reliable.
From NBC Nightly News, courtesy of reporter Lisa Myers:
We last saw O’Keefe wearing a fur coat and playing a pimp when he managed to take down the liberal group ACORN.
No we didn’t … As should be well-known by now, O’Keefe used footage of himself wearing a “pimp” costume in his ACORN videos — but didn’t wear the ridiculous costume during his “undercover stings.” Media accounts acted as though he did, though — it took a lot of effort to get the New York Times to finally admit its errors on this count.
If reporters don’t know these facts, they’re bound to get fooled by O’Keefe again.
After his fraudulent ACORN videos, the lesson media should have learned about right-wing “citizen journalist” James O’Keefe is not to trust him. But they didn’t, so here we are with his NPR stunt, which allegedly shows NPR fundraiser Ron Schiller saying mean things about the Tea Party in a meeting with phony Muslim Brotherhood-connected donors.
But it appears that, once again, O’Keefe’s videos are not be what they seem. The first serious questions about them were raised on (I swear!) The Blaze, a Glenn Beck-affiliated website. Over there, Scott Baker pointed to a few problems. In one part of the video, NPR‘s Schiller seems to laugh about the phony Muslim group’s position on Sharia law. Baker says it’s out of context.
NPR has done at least two reports on the video. It’s not quite a Shirley Sherrod moment — where the right-wing video was edited to totally turn her message around — but it’s clear that things aren’t exactly what they first seemed. O’Keefe’s history should give media outlets serious reservations about taking him at face value on anything … which goes to show you that the argument that the media is tilted to the left remains totally unconvincing.
As Exhibit A, look at James O’Keefe, who famously and proudly passed off his partner as a prostitute while secretly videotaping ACORN staffers. Who in the debate over O’Keefe’s work took the position that because the colleague was not actually a prostitute, the entire project was unethical and therefore all of his videotapes should be ignored? The actual objection to O’Keefe’s work was that he deceived the public — misleadingly editing his footage to create false impressions, including the popular delusion that O’Keefe had gone into ACORN offices wearing an outlandish Superfly costume. Nevertheless, he got overwhelmingly positive coverage from right-wing and centrist news outlets alike, with the result that his mendacious reporting had the successful result of helping to bring ACORN down.
In a 2011 op-ed, a Washington Post writer laid out the reasons why videos released by Project Veritas should initially sound numerous ethical alarms:
It is now clear that O’Keefe’s editing of the raw video from his interview with NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was selective and deceptive. The full extent of this distortion was exposed by a rising conservative Web site, the Blaze. O’Keefe’s final product excludes explanatory context, exaggerates Schiller’s tolerance for Islamist radicalism and attributes sentiments to Schiller that are actually quotes by others — all the hallmarks of a hit piece … In this case, O’Keefe did not merely leave a false impression; he manufactured an elaborate, alluring lie.
Interest in the four current Project Veritas videos has run high on social media. Politico addressed them from the perspective of legality, such as whether Project Veritas violated the law in Florida by ostensibly not adhering to the state’s wiretapping laws. The article also included a statement from Florida State Democratic Party spokesman Max Steele regarding the allegations about voter registrations:
According to Max Steele, a spokesman for the state Democratic Party, Mao or anyone else would lose their jobs for destroying voter-registration forms.
“Sexual assault and harassment, and destruction of voter registration forms, are serious offenses,” Steele said in a written statement. “There is no question that a staff member who engaged in this kind of behavior would be immediately terminated, and we are investigating the claims. Remarks like these do not represent the Florida Democratic Party and are completely inappropriate.”
The video neither shows nor alleges that anyone affiliated with Clinton’s campaign actually destroyed any forms. Florida Democrats are surpassing Republicans in signing up voters. The state party has submitted 503,000 voter registration forms for this election; the state Republican Party only 60,000. The Florida Democratic Party said it trains volunteers on proper handling of the registration forms and tracks the documents to make sure none is destroyed in violation of state law.
Under state law, a “person may not knowingly destroy, mutilate, or deface a voter registration form or election ballot or obstruct or delay the delivery of a voter registration form or election ballot.” The third-degree felony carries a maximum five-year-prison term and $5,000 fine.
However, the video itself could constitute a third-degree felony on the part of Project Veritas because of Florida’s law that requires consent before someone is recorded. A person must give explicit consent or give “implied consent” by continuing to talk after being told he or she is being recorded.
As the piece noted, the “rigging” clip and claims of voter registration form destruction did not stem from activity surreptitiously recorded by Project Veritas. Instead, the viral video simply depicts an operative of the organization attempting to bait campaign workers into “admitting” they would tolerate such behavior. And as with the video involving Manhattan Board of Elections Commissioner Alan Schulkin, what Project Veritas’ targets appeared to be doing was going along with leading questions rather than disputing them.
Schulkin himself provided comment to that effect, telling the New York Post that he had played along with a young woman he described as a “nuisance”:
The videographer asked point-blank, “You think they should have voter ID in New York?”
Schulkin responded, “Voters? Yeah, they should ask for your ID. I think there is a lot of voter fraud.”
Schulkin defended his videotaped remarks, with slight revisions.
“I should have said ‘potential fraud’ instead of ‘fraud,’” he said.
But he reiterated his support for a voter ID requirement.
He recalled a woman asking him a lot of questions the night he was recorded.
“She was like a nuisance. I was just trying to placate her,” he said.
The October 2016 releases weren’t Project Veritas’ first foray into the 2016 elections and the political climate of the day. In March 2016, O’Keefe infamously bungled an attempted “investigation” by failing to hang up his phone after calling a target (thereby exposing his plot to those whom he was trying to fool). A May 2016 New Yorker article about that aborted sting examined the forces behind Project Veritas and the diminishing impact of deceptive videos:
Many O’Keefe operations, however, have fallen flat, including his repeated efforts to prove that voter-identity fraud is pervasive. “It seems like most of the fraud O’Keefe uncovers he commits himself,” Richard Hasen, a professor of election law at the University of California, Irvine, says. A sting aimed at Hillary Clinton was considered especially feeble. Veritas operatives persuaded a staffer at a rally to accept a Canadian citizen’s money in exchange for a Hillary T-shirt — a petty violation of the ban on foreign political contributions. Brian Fallon, the communications director for the Clinton campaign, says, “Project Veritas has been repeatedly caught trying to commit fraud, falsify identities, and break campaign-finance law. It is not surprising, given that their founder has already been convicted for efforts like this.”
It may be that the shock value of such exposés is diminishing. A recent series of sting videos against Planned Parenthood, created by a group called the Center for Medical Progress, involved deceptions so devious — including an attempt by undercover operatives to buy fetal tissue — that the campaign backfired. Pro-choice activists united in anger at the sting’s perpetrators, and a Texas grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing and indicted the C.M.P.
Project Veritas’ October 2016 election-related sting videos (embedded above) reveal tidbits of selectively and (likely deceptively edited) footage
absent of any context in which to evaluate them. Unless his organization releases the footage in full, undertaking a fair assessment of their veracity is all but impossible.
Campanile, Carl. “Elections Official Caught on Video Blasting de Blasio’s ID Program.”
New York Post. 11 October 2016.
Hammer, David. “ACORN ‘Gotcha’ Man Arrested in Attempt to Tamper With Mary Landrieu’s Office Phones.”
The Times-Picayune. 26 January 2010.
Hart, Peter. “Blaming the Internet for Reporters’ Gullibility.”
FAIR. 17 March 2011.
Hart, Peter. “NBC Still Doesn’t Know About O’Keefe’s ACORN Hoax.”
FAIR. 15 March 2011.
Hart, Peter. “NPR Unstung? Once Again, O’Keefe Shows He Shouldn’t Be Trusted.”
FAIR. 14 March 2011.
Gerson, Michael. “The NPR Video and Political Dirty Tricks.”
The Washington Post. 17 March 2011.
Mayer, Jane. “Sting of Myself.”
The New Yorker. 30 May 2016.
Meares, Joel. “O’Keefe Teaches Media a Lesson (Again).”
Columbia Journalism Review. 15 March 2011.
Naureckas, Jim. “Media’s Weird Ethics: Pretending to Be Someone Else Is Worse Than Facilitating Global Catastrophe.”
FAIR. 22 February 2012.