In the fact-based era before Donald Trump—when presidents of the United States didn’t embrace pernicious conspiracy fantasies and retweet Muslim-bashing neofascist videos, and credibly accused pedophiles weren’t frontrunners in U.S. Senate races—Project Veritas might not have survived, or at minimum would have sustained severe damage, after the sort of devastating expose’ published this past week by the Washington Post.
Instead, right-wing sting artist James O’Keefe—who runs the handsomely funded, seven-year-old non-profit that personally paid him $317,000 in 2016—is brazenly celebrating his perfidy and raising money off of what would, in dimly remembered normal times, have been universally judged a humiliation.
In its brilliant investigation of O’Keefe’s suburban New York-based outfit, the Post conducted a reverse-sting operation, complete with the kind of hidden-camera confrontation that O’Keefe has made his bones on (prompting high-level firings at NPR and the unraveling of the left-wing organization ACORN years ago, among other notorious O’Keefe operations).
With Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen grilling O’Keefe plant Jaime T. Phillips in a Northern Virginia restaurant, the Post revealed Project Veritas’ foiled attempt to dupe the newspaper into publishing Phillips’s hoax that Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore, the odds-on favorite in the Dec. 12 special election, impregnated her as a 15-year-old girl in 1992 and then drove her across state lines for a Mississippi abortion.
Under McCrummen’s interrogation about inconsistencies in her narrative—including a GoFundMe page on which Phillips announced, “I’ve accepted a job to work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceipt [sic] of the liberal MSM”—Phillips dodged, weaved and ultimately folded.
“I think I probably just want to cancel and not go through with it at this point,” she nervously told McCrummen, before retrieving her purse, apparently outfitted with a hidden camera, and getting up to leave. “I’m not going to answer any more questions. I think I’m just going to go.”
The Orwellian O’Keefe quickly spun this embarrassing defeat as a glorious victory.
“You know the mainstream media wants to destroy us because we are going after them,” he said in a Periscope posting on the Project Veritas Facebook page. “It’s not about the techniques. It’s about the nature of what we’re exposing. Nobody else is willing to do it. The press has so much power. It doesn’t necessarily use that power for good. We’re going to expose their lies and indiscretions. Nothing is going to stop us. They’re out for blood. We’re not going to surrender. Trust me about that.”
O’Keefe declined an interview request. Former Federalist columnist Ben Wetmore—a longtime confidant of O’Keefe, who has described him as his mentor—explained during a brief phone conversation: “The Daily Beast is a shit heel of a publication. If I were to scrape the shit off the bottom of my shoe, it would have more facts in it than The Daily Beast.”
Yet O’Keefe’s shameless gloating—touting his own freshly-posted videos of Post employees that purport to unmask the paper as a den of left-wing corruption, and crowing in a fundraising email that “we already got our story,” i.e. the Post videos—is probably not an unreasonable response to Project Veritas’ situation.
“Unfortunately, there are too many dumb American rich people willing to write checks to that guy,” conservative pundit and Trump critic Charlie Sykes told The Daily Beast.
“O’Keefe represents the ugly, fetid underbelly of conservative media,” Sykes said. “He’ll play the victim card in his war against the mainstream media, and the little old ladies and conservative oligarchs will write checks to him.”
R. Emmett Tyrell Jr., founder and editor in chief of the right-leaning American Spectator (famous for introducing Paula Jones to the world in an anti-Clinton hit piece by David Brock, thus launching a series of events that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment) told The Daily Beast: “It seems to me that Project Veritas is just different from the Heritage Foundation and the American Spectator or ISI [the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute]. It’s kind of out for its own ends, and doesn’t have much to do with advancing a political cause…They don’t have much in common with the intellectual conservatives, and don’t have much to do with the politicians. Those are the people I care about.”
The 73-year-old Tyrrell added: “They are not part of the conservative movement, and O’Keefe is a one-man band who rises and falls on his own luck. They have more to do with the Yippies of the 1960s than they do with conservatives today.”
Project Veritas critic Christopher Ruddy, chief executive of the right-leaning Newsmax outlet, said: “A lot of conservatives like it. Their view is, hey, the media has been so nasty to us conservatives, we can do these kinds of things, although I think it sets a really bad standard and it’s below the bar…National Review and Newsmax conservatives are not going to like their approach, but the Breitbart base will.”
Indeed, Breitbart senior editor at large Joel Pollak, who favorably compared Roy Moore’s dating of teenage girls in his 30s to a love song by Ringo Star—“Are you serious?” CNN interviewer Chris Cuomo marveled—trivialized the Post’s damning revelations as an amusing scuffle between two competing media outlets.
“James O’Keefe and Washington Post Bust Each Other” read the headline on Pollock’s story, which posited a false equivalency between Project Veritas’s fraudulent practices and the acknowledgement by Post national security reporter Dan Lamothe (unaware that he was being videotaped) that the paper’s editorials have been unflattering to the president.
“We cover the news; they are trying to, like, educate people, but with a point of view. It’s like a very different mission,” Lamothe tells Project Veritas’ undercover videographer—a completely irreproachable explanation of the differing roles of news and opinion writers at a responsible newspaper.
Yet, responsible or not, former New Jersey Democratic senator Robert Torricelli warns that not all newspapers, especially not all local papers, would be able to invest the staff and time to unmask a clever con cooked up by the likes of James O’Keefe. (Indeed, even at the Post and the New York Times, top editors worry that Project Veritas might successfully embed a spy in their newsrooms.)
“Every reporter needs to be on guard,” Torricelli said on MSNBC last week, noting that small dailies and weeklies without the resources of the Jeff Bezos-owned Post could be vulnerable to such scams. “This is manufactured news in concert with the far right.”
Still, not everyone shares Torricelli’s sense of alarm.
“What the Post did was follow the practices of good journalism,” Detroit Free Press editor Peter Bhatia emailed The Daily Beast. “True, not all have its resources. But any mainstream news operation would background the purported source in a case like this and would be careful not to rush to publish.”
Dallas Morning News editor Mike Wilson said: “I don’t think the Post did anything that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do. To me, the whole utility of the story was just to be reminded that people purveying nonsense have always been around, but for most of history they were trying to aggrandize themselves. And now there’s all kinds of other motivations. One of the big ones is trying to discredit us [in the news media] and harm our reputation, and we just have to be extremely on guard about what people tell us.”