The conservative activist who brought down ACORN earlier this year with a pimp hat and a hidden camera is at it again. His target this time around: the U.S. Census. Apparently, James O’Keefe got a job as a census worker in New Jersey and secretly recorded his training, along with conversations with various supervisors. In a 10-minute video posted today to BigGovernment.com, O’Keefe shows footage of census bureaucrats telling him and his co-workers to mark a full day’s work on their time sheets when, in fact, they were leaving early.
As soon as the video was posted, liberal bloggers breathlessly tried to dismiss it as boring, anticlimactic, and pointless. Media Matters writes of the production: “The whole point seems to produce some slap-dash effort and then, more importantly, wallow in self-pity while mixing in delusions of grandeur.” Newser sarcastically tells readers to “prepare to gasp in amazement” at the video’s findings. And Gawker chimes in, “This is not sufficient reason for fame! Do you have any idea how many timecards Michaele Salahi had to fill out wrong before she made it big?”
But the problem with O’Keefe’s new video isn’t the premise, or even the revelations he obviously believes to be controversial. Shining some light on the inevitable waste of a taxpayer-funded bureaucracy is a good thing—but if you’re going to make such brazen accusations as “waste, fraud, and corruption” (as O’Keefe does in the article that accompanies the video), then you’d better make sure every detail of your report is accurate.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at exactly how much time O’Keefe and his fellow census workers were wrongly paid for.
At about 2:40 in the video, O’Keefe says in his narration that workers went home at 4 p.m. (instead of 5, as they marked on their time sheets), but when he points his hidden camera at the clock, the time is 4:10 p.m. On the next day of training, he says they left “shortly after 3:30 p.m.” and, sure enough, the clock shows it to be about 3:38 p.m. When he takes his concerns to various U.S. Census supervisors in New Jersey, he tells the first two that they left around 3:30 or 4 p.m. He tells the last one they left around 3 or 3:30 p.m.
Does it seem as if we’re straining at gnats here? That’s because we are—but don’t tell that to James O’Keefe. The entire basis of the video’s controversy is that government employees were unlawfully paid for a couple of extra hours of work. Surely the filmmaker knows the importance of being honest and accurate down to the very minute. In fact, at the beginning of the video, the text that appears on the screen is intended to establish this very point: “If 600,000 Census employees are paid $18.25/hour and each of them gets paid just four hours extra that’s $43,800,000.” By that math, 10 minutes of work (like the extra 10 minutes O’Keefe wrongly says his co-workers shouldn’t have been paid for) would amount to $1.8 million.
Of course, the more glaring problem is that his math is, shall we say, fuzzy. From Media Matters:
O'Keefe's figure is based on the assumption that all census workers make the same amount of money he did, when he spent two days training to be a census enumerator in New Jersey. However, according to the Census 2010 website, "census takers" are paid different amounts based on which local office they report to. These starting wages vary from $10.00/hour to $25.00/hour. The average starting salary for all 492 local offices is $14.78/hour.
According to the article O’Keefe posted on Big Government, he fancies himself the leader of a citizen-journalist revolution, with hundreds of hidden cameras working to expose the government’s shady dealings and wasteful uses of tax dollars. There is no question that the issues raised in his video are worthwhile, but if O’Keefe wants his movement to be taken seriously, he needs to draw a lesson from Investigative Journalism 101: when you’re speaking truth to power, make sure what you’re saying is actually true.