If activists want to practice journalism, shouldn’t we hold their work to a rigorous journalistic standard?
“Hey Congressman Moran? Jason Mattera, from Virgina, actually, big fan. The 12th district of Virginia.”
With that Mattera, a conservative activist heavily promoted under the umbrella of Andrew Breitbart’s media empire, was already creating his own version of reality. Emerging from a new breed of political activism, Mattera’s brand of “ambush” journalism — in which a prepared barrage of politically guided questions are tossed at an unsuspecting, quickly-flummoxed interview subject — has been gobbled up by the insatiably hungry 24-hour news cycle. Mattera was not a “big fan” of Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, nor was he likely from Virginia, much less from the non-existent “12th District.” It’s not surprising that Moran, who on any given day may deal with dozens or even hundreds of constituents with any number of questions, was forced into a posture of confused defensiveness as the activist interrupted him with a series of non-contextual questions that were never really meant to be answered. Mattera and his fellow ambushers aren’t out in search for any semblance of truth, but rather to score ever more political points — and YouTube views. In one ambush interview with Senator Al Franken, the conservative made up a provision of the health care bill out of whole cloth — that it included billions in funding for “jungle gyms” — and then tried to force the Senator to justify said made-up provision. When Franken politely asked him to cite the claim, Mattera proceeded to simply shout over an increasingly flustered Franken, at one point calling him “Stuart Smalley.”
Though ambush journalism has likely existed as long as modern media, it’s hard to pinpoint the origins of this particular beast of dishonest hackery. Many have noticed similarities to the work of filmmaker Sacha Baron Cohen, who has made a career of manipulating American politeness to lure unsuspecting victims into saying any number of horrible things (Cohen has never pretended to be a journalist). The movement was adopted under the auspices of Bill O’Reilly, who has sent an army of “producers” to wait outside the homes or workplaces of unsuspecting victims. In many cases, said victim had recently criticized O’Reilly, raising the question as to whether the host is using Fox News to enact revenge for his own bruised ego. O’Reilly employs the argument that these people have refused to appear on his show and that the only way to confront them is to go to them, which seems sound until you consider the fact that at least two of his targets have said they were never asked to go on the O’Reilly Factor before being ambushed. He’s also been accused of heavily editing the videos to make them less favorable to the interviewee, which ultimately ties back to the perception of reality that is subject to the video-maker’s political whim.
But if O’Reilly and Cohen created the market for this manipulative approach, Matt Drudge protege Andrew Breitbart has taken it and transformed it into the carnival sideshow that leads to a college undergrad donning a prostitute outfit and accompanying a right-wing activist in what may be one of the most misleading journalistic atrocities in the last year, one that swept up nearly the entire traditional media. Breitbart, whose own spittle-flecked battles with his political opponents are well-documented on YouTube, has taken almost a paternal stance in his adoption of James O’Keefe, who you probably know as the guy who “brought down ACORN” with his series of videos purporting to document how the organization is aiding and abetting prostitution rings and child sex trafficking. Breitbart, always sharp tempered and hyperbolic, has launched particularly vicious invective whenever O’Keefe has entered troubled waters. When the activist was arrested by federal authorities earlier this year after he and a group of friends entered U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office dressed as phone company employees and claimed they needed access to Landrieu’s phones, Breitbart obsessively monitored every news story on the event and pummeled outlets for retractions for the slightest mistakes, only pausing long enough to get in an on-air screaming match with David Shuster for the MSNBC anchor’s own statements regarding O’Keefe. When a Salon writer wrote a piece questioning whether O’Keefe had a “race” problem, Breitbart was apoplectic, calling for retractions and confronting Max Blumenthal, the author of the article, at this year’s CPAC event. But as the facts began to unravel on the deceptive reporting methods his young protege used in producing his ACORN videos, there was little Breitbart could do to stem the tide of growing attacks and calls for corrections by those who wanted political payback for ACORN’S fate.
You may know at least a few of the litany of examples of journalistic malfeasance in O’Keefe’s “magnum opus,” but many of the worst atrocities have not even been touched by the likes of Fox News, who gave virtual round-the-clock coverage to the videos when they initially broke. Most other major news outlets have only barely shed light on the later revelations as well, which isn’t to say they didn’t feel the sting of public embarrassment when it came out that they were essentially duped. To date, multiple attorney generals have issued reports that they’ve found no illegal acts by ACORN; instead, they found the videos to be heavily “edited,” “dubbed,” and ultimately misleading as to what O’Keefe presented in the edited video compared to what actually happened.
For instance, despite wide public belief that O’Keefe had entered the ACORN offices dressed as a blacksploitation pimp — a belief stemming from cuts of him dressed as such — he actually went in dressed conservatively as a college student. O’Keefe also never referred to himself as a pimp, but rather as his companion’s boyfriend. The only references to the word “pimp” are when the two speak of her “abusive pimp,” from whom O’Keefe is trying to save her. So was ACORN trying to aid and abet prostitution? Or were they simply trying to save Hannah Giles, the young girl who had accompanied O’Keefe, from an abusive pimp? The unedited videos make this much less clear. Yet this didn’t stop O’Keefe from appearing on an episode of Fox & Friends dressed in the pimp outfit, allowing the host to make the widely-repeated claim that he had been wearing it when entering the offices. It also didn’t stop Andrew Breitbart from penning a Washington Times editorial using the word “dressed” when describing O’Keefe’s time in the offices. Should it be a surprise that dozens of other outlets followed suit and printed the same when giving their own accounts of the videos and the ensuing controversy?
Then there is the inconvenient truth that a few ACORN offices either turned the “pimp” away or even called the police, a fact that O’Keefe seemed to leave out of the videos and his subsequent interviews. In fact, we didn’t learn of this until the revelatory attorney general reports were released. Or how about the fact that ACORN has only received a few million dollars from the federal government, rather than the “billions” O’Keefe claimed when he released the video? The videos were also edited down so it seemed that ACORN employees were speaking on one subject instead of responding to something else, meaning much of the context was removed from what they said.
So how was O’Keefe rewarded for his journalistic misdeeds? There’s the aforementioned round-the-clock Fox News coverage, in which he, Giles, and Breitbart were invited on countless shows to recount the horrors of ACORN to unskeptical hosts. Not only did the New York Times cover the controversy, but the public editor wrote a piece chastising the paper of record for waiting a whole week to jump on the media bandwagon in covering O’Keefe. By the time the truth of what really happened in those offices began to leak out, nearly every major news outlet had covered the controversy. The YouTube videos had hundreds of thousands of views and Congress had voted to cut ACORN’s funding. Not long ago, the organization announced it would shut down its national operation because of the damage the videos had caused.
At least some of the news outlets felt the burn stemming from their lack of skepticism. After dragging his feet for several weeks as bloggers pummeled him with demands for retractions, the New York Times public editor finally wrote a column diving into the misleading aspects of the videos. A few days later, the Times published official corrections. And when O’Keefe recently produced a new set of videos — this time claiming fraud from the Census — mainstream media outlets for the most part only lightly touched the story; even Fox News mostly stayed away from it. Many on the left claimed that journalists were becoming much more cautious at taking O’Keefe at his word that the “reality” he was presenting in his videos was, well, reality. Others simply pointed out that the revelations of the videos weren’t really all that shocking, so the media had less of a story with which to run.
Like Mattera, O’Keefe refers to himself as a “journalist,” a beacon of light bent on exposing organizational corruption. But whether or not one agrees that this is a kind of “journalism,” it would be silly to ignore the other obvious label for these YouTube releases: Political activism. In each case, the activist sets out with a predetermined point to make and often manufactures situations that border on entrapment. This should lead to us asking ourselves the following question: If the situation we’re viewing before us is manufactured, should we allow ourselves to be outraged by what they purport to find?
A perfect example of this would be the recent retirement of White House press corps dean Helen Thomas, who was caught in a YouTube video telling Israelis to get the “hell out of Palestine,” and that they should “go home” to Germany and Poland. Fox News, the usual water carrier for these types of activist videos, invited the creator of the video, David Nesenoff, to call into one of its shows. Nesenoff ludicrously inferred that he was just innocently approaching Thomas because she was an “icon,” and that there was no political aim in his questions. A self-described Rabbi (gee, I wonder what side of the political debate he’s on?), Nesenoff dispelled this notion of disinterest before the video even ended, displaying the text, “How can Helen possibly report unbiased?” Here, we have a prime instance of the activist distorting reality, given that Thomas ceased reporting for the wires years ago and has been an opinion columnist for Hearst for nearly a decade. A more appropriate sentence would read, “How can an opinion columnist possibly have an opinion?” Would this entirely contextual omission be because it would be inconvenient to the activist’s story?
Further revelations also dispelled any notion of innocent objectivity. After loudly suggesting Thomas was a bigot, Nesenoff felt the swing of the pendulum when it was revealed that he had produced a video espousing racial stereotypes of Hispanics. I’ll take your antisemitic accusation and raise you a racist one. Other videos showed “undercover” investigations Nesenoff had conducted, calling to mind a certain ACORN hoaxing wannabe pimp.
But what should be pointed out above all else is that Thomas did not seek out the spotlight to air these views. She did not say them during a speech before a university or include them in one of her columns. She had an activist come up and thrust a camera in her face and ask her a slew of politically loaded, vague questions. We don’t see the context of how Nesenoff introduced himself or what happened after the video cuts away. We have a completely manufactured incident that never would have happened if it weren’t for an activist’s — yes, I’ll say it — entrapment.
Do we really want to live in a world where you can get fired because some guy comes up to you unannounced, launches questions for which you haven’t prepared, forces you to say things you had no plans to say, then edits the video down into the most damning soundbite before hanging you with it?
James O’Keefe and Andrew Breitbart would say this is a world where corruption and malfeasance is uncovered, but I say it’s a world in which mainstream journalists unquestioningly carry the water of political activists who masquerade as fellow journalists. Whether you take my side or theirs depends on how well — or how badly — you believe I’m distorting my own version of reality, or, on the other hand, whether you believe that in the end reality even matters at all.
Follow me on Twitter