Magazine article Newsweek

James O'Keefe: Meet the Man Who Makes the Fake News; James O'Keefe's New Book, "American Pravda," Is a Revealing Look at a Conservative Provocateur

Magazine article Newsweek

James O'Keefe: Meet the Man Who Makes the Fake News; James O'Keefe's New Book, "American Pravda," Is a Revealing Look at a Conservative Provocateur

Article excerpt

Byline: Alexander Nazaryan

There is a disconcerting scene about midway through American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News, the new book by conservative activist-slash-gonzo-journalist-slash-inveterate-troll James O'Keefe, a scene that made me ponder at length what he does, and what we do, we being the proud members of the coastal elite media establishment.

The scene has nothing to do with the time O'Keefe posed as a sex trafficker in an attempt to smear the community group ACORN, nor the time he got an NPR executive to say, on a surreptitious recording, that the Tea Party was "seriously racist." Nor his recent attempt--foiled, and rather embarrassingly so--to fool The Washington Post by sending a fake sexual assault victim its way.

This scene involves a journalism seminar at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. The video of the class was shot by Project Veritas--O'Keefe's outfit--in 2011. The session is led by the press critic and professor Jay Rosen. It takes just a few moments for Rosen, unaware that he is being filmed, to supply O'Keefe with the money quote he needs: "We are the one percent," Rosen informs his students. That, as they say, is going to leave a mark.

Co-teaching the class with Rosen is Clay Shirky, who writes about journalism in the digital age. "Elites are perfectly comfortable with there being information about how they make their decisions and what their decisions are, as long as that only circulates among other elites," he tells the aspiring journalists at NYU. The two instructors proceed to discuss political coverage at The New York Times with what feels, at least, like insider knowledge.

The video left me troubled by what O'Keefe found--which is exactly what he intended--but also by how he found it, not to mention how he presented it. The video's abrupt cuts make it impossible to know just what Rosen and Shirky mean. They sound hopelessly smug, selling aspiring journalists access to The Times. Maybe that's what they are, but perhaps only because that's what O'Keefe has made them out to be. There is no truth in a James O'Keefe video, other than the truth James O'Keefe wants you to see.

In other words, O'Keefe is exceptionally good at what he does, though what he does cannot be called, by any reasonable measure, journalism. "We confirmed suspicions," he writes in American Pravda, which is another way of saying that he tells his audience what it wants to hear. To investigate is to ask a question without knowing the answer. O'Keefe, however, already knows the answer: Democrats engage in voter fraud, Planned Parenthood kills babies, mainstream journalism is the realm of snobbish elites.

The NYU video hardly proves the last of these points, but it is nevertheless a point conservatives have been making for some time. To them, the shock over President Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election was proof that American newsrooms were being run by j-school graduates in the Rosen/Shirky mold, pompous and clueless at the same time. This criticism is not quite as off the mark as it should be. Elsewhere in this book, for example, O'Keefe approvingly cites former Obama national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who said, in an infamous New York Times Magazine feature from 2016, "The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old...They literally know nothing."

At the same time, journalism that seeks to destroy institutions is not journalism at all. And that's pretty much what O'Keefe practices with his mean-spirited, deceptive videos. "We did not reject journalistic ethics," he writes in his own defense. "We simply had to create those ethics anew."

Despite this (maybe because of it), American Pravda is worth reading, if only to understand how conservatives view the media--and, also, how conservative media works. It is a complex ecosystem, one in which Twitter and Reddit feed into Fox News, which in turn speaks directly to Trump. …

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