One of my former U.S. students insists that the conservative filmmaker — famed for taking down NPR executives and the liberal activist group ACORN — is not a journalist. She recently asked for my opinion, and I hesitated to reply. I suspect she objects to O’Keefe’s methods — he gathers information through deceptive means and I’m certainly one who frowns upon journalists who lie or mislead their audiences or subjects. But, I think she also objects to O’Keefe’s ideology — but only she knows which objection carries more weight.
This recent NY Times Magazine profile of O’Keefe helps shed light on these issues. Take the time to read it–it’s well-written and largely unbiased. In it, two professors of journalism speak to the issue of whether O’Keefe’s methods are outside the norms of journalism:
“Undercover journalism goes back to at least the 1820s in this country,” says Brooke Kroeger, the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, who has written a book on the subject, to be published next year. “And the use of hidden cameras to do it came into prominence after World War II.” Muckrakers, of course, are advocates, loved or despised according to the targets they choose. “For years, advocacy groups such as those for a better government have partnered with journalistic organizations,” Kroeger says. “Last year the Humane Society released an undercover video of the inhumane treatment of pigs in Virginia that got picked up by media around the country and won applause from animal lovers. Many of those same people vociferously went after O’Keefe for his exposé of NPR. It’s basically a question of what you care about and what side you are on.”
Earlier this year, two of O’Keefe’s actors, posing as fictitious representatives of a Muslim philanthropic organization, had lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR’s senior vice president for development. In the course of ingratiating himself with these potential donors, Schiller was caught denigrating Tea Party members and Republicans in language that the corporation later said it was appalled by. The scandal hastened the departures of both Schiller and his boss, Vivian Schiller (no relation). When it was suggested that the tapes had been dishonestly edited, O’Keefe invited people to watch them in their entirety. “He said it, that’s just a fact,” Dana Davis Rehm, a spokesman for NPR, said of Ron Schiller. In the aftermath, NPR conducted sessions on ethics for its support and operational staff and is planning to publish updated ethics guidelines in September.
His takedown of Acorn was even more devastating, although Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s former chief executive, contends that the videos were dishonest. “He is demon, a liar and a cheat,” she says. “What he did was despicable. He created a fiction.” Bertha Lewis still insists that Acorn did not offer advice on how to break the law. Clark Hoyt, a former public editor for The New York Times, reviewed O’Keefe’s raw footage and edited tapes and concluded that “the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.”
There is no doubt that O’Keefe disseminated only the material that supported his thesis about Acorn, but this kind of selectivity is the norm in advocacy journalism. “I put James O’Keefe in the same category as Michael Moore,” says Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri’s school of journalism. “Some ethicists say it is never right for a journalist to deceive for any reason, but there are wrongs in the world that will never be exposed without some kind of subterfuge.”
I agree. I think O’Keefe’s methods are questionable but not outside the norms of journalism. His tactics looks quite similar to liberal provocateur Michael Moore, and I certainly consider him a journalist as well. But, they both represent a certain type of “muckraking” journalism — one that belongs on the media fringes, not not on the evening newscasts or metropolitan dailies.
In the end, these partisan journalists add something to media landscape that their more “objective” brethren can’t. And I’d argue that we’re all better off for it.