Thursday, March 22, 2012

James O'Keefe Attacked Me Because I Caught Him Breaking the Law

Wondering about the motivations about James O'Keefe, faux pimp and purveyor of undercover videos? A failed sting last year -- one that is just coming to public light -- shows just how different his motivations are from the journalists he's trying to emulate.

The target of that sting... me.

I'm not all that well known -- I'm not nearly as influential in the media world as my colleagues, Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky, who were targeted by O'Keefe last fall. I write about science and mathematics, which isn't usually the sort of stuff that would attract the attention of a character like O'Keefe. I also do a little investigative reporting, too, but nothing that would catch O'Keefe's eye.

So why did O'Keefe come after me?

It's because I caught James O'Keefe breaking the law in late 2010.

I don't think he's forgiven me.


My encounter with O'Keefe started in the wake of the very bizarre story where he tried to lure CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau aboard his boat so he could attempt to seduce her on camera. One or two accounts mentioned that the person who tipped off Boudreau was O'Keefe's employee and apparently the executive director of Project Veritas.

I immediately thought: who are these guys?

I was just curious. Journalists are curious creatures by nature. I'm no different. So I looked Project Veritas up. First step: Google.

Project Veritas was James O'Keefe's new venture. Its website stated that it was a nonprofit organization -- specifically, what's known as a 501(c)(3) -- and, as a result, it promised supporters that their donations were tax deductible. Investigative reporters love nonprofits. You can find out a lot of information about them very quickly, because the IRS forces them to reveal certain things to the public on what's known as a form 990. It's really easy to get your hands on those forms; they're freely available on a number of websites. So I did what any investigative reporter would do when curious about a nonprofit: I pulled Project Veritas' 990. Or tried to. I couldn't find it anywhere. Odd.

Any investigative reporter could tell you what my next step would be: I tried to confirm whether Project Veritas was, in fact, a nonprofit organization. The IRS keeps a master list of such organizations, known as Publication 78. Project Veritas wasn't on the list. States also keep registries of nonprofits and charitable organizations. I checked Virginia, New York, and a few other states where the organization would probably be doing fundraising. No Project Veritas. Odder still.

So I tried contacting Project Veritas to figure out what was going on. First I tried Twitter. No response.

Then I tried e-mail. No response, even after a month.

Nonprofits aren't allowed to behave that way. These organizations make a deal with the IRS; they don't pay taxes, but they have to obey certain rules. And one such rule dictates that a nonprofit must respond to a request for certain information within 30 days. If Project Veritas was a nonprofit organization, they were apparently breaking the law.

That wasn't the point. I wasn't trying to catch Project Veritas breaking the law. I was trying to get information to satisfy my curiosity. I just wanted to know what Project Veritas was and how they were spending their money. So I tried again to get the documents I wanted -- I sent a certified letter, and I tried upping the pressure by tweeting again, reminding them publicly that they were required by law to respond. They didn't.

Journalists are stubborn creatures by nature. I'm no different. Deny me information that I'm entitled to, and I won't let go. It doesn't matter if you're a nonprofit organization or an Obama-administration government agency, I'll fight. So I took the next logical step to put pressure on Project Veritas -- I filed a complaint with the IRS, telling them that Project Veritas wasn't playing by the disclosure rules. Either that, or Project Veritas wasn't really a nonprofit.

That got them talking. I called that morning to tell them that I had filed a complaint, and the woman I got on the phone was, surprisingly, quite cooperative. I put my request in writing, and after a string of e-mails, she admitted that application for nonprofit status had been filed, but it had not yet been approved. Contrary to what the website said, Project Veritas was not a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and donations were, as a result, not tax-deductible. James O'Keefe had apparently committed an illegal act that could have caused donors unwittingly to make false claims on their taxes.

I finally had my answer. James O'Keefe was apparently breaking the law. So did I contact my friends in the liberal elite press establishment to try to make it a huge story? I could have gone to Romenesko, or sent it to my colleagues on major papers around the country. But I didn't.

For me, what O'Keefe had done wasn't a major story. Boil it down and O'Keefe's violation was pretty technical and easily correctible -- once I got his attention, he quickly altered his website to remove the claim of nonprofit status -- and, in my view, it would be petty to go after him because of it. O'Keefe was in the public eye because of his unethical (and occasionally illegal) surveillance of his enemies. A misleading phrase or two on his website, as dishonest as they might be, seemed to me to be small potatoes -- and irrelevant to the much more substantial discussion about O'Keefe's tactics.

Rather than make a big deal of it, I did a quick tweet to let my small handful of followers know the denouement to the saga -- I had a few who had asked for updates -- and I promptly forgot about the matter.

Apparently, O'Keefe didn't.


Because I had the temerity to ask O'Keefe to turn over documents he was required, by law, to provide, I made myself a target for one of his "stings." I would be an easy target.

Like Jay Rosen, I'm a professor at NYU's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. And like Jay and all of my other colleagues, I'm partly responsible for running the place. Until the end of last academic year, I was the Institute's director of undergraduate studies, and I spent (and still spend) a lot of time with prospective students who visit the building on short notice.

On September 21, 2011, I spent more than an hour with a young woman, "Ashley." She claimed to be an undergraduate who was interested in transferring to NYU from a community college in Texas. Ashley happened to be Nadia Naffe, conservative activist and erstwhile O'Keefe operative. And she was trying to get me to reveal my true colors as a racist and elitist professor indoctrinating students with liberal lies.

Ashley offered me some bait: aging footage of an old Tea Party rally where people called her a racial epithet. Ashley told me that she wanted to turn it into a documentary film when she came to NYU. I didn't want to actively discourage her -- I didn't want to say no to her project idea before she had even enrolled at NYU -- but I didn't think the project was particularly interesting. So I danced around the issue a bit; I told her that there was plenty of other stuff to cover, and that if she's interested in doing a film about racism, New York is a good laboratory. I mentioned the stop and frisk database as an example of a source of rich stories.

Then I gave her a tour.

Ashley and I exchanged a few more e-mails -- she wanted to meet again, but I wasn't able to schedule an appointment. She wanted to attend Jay Rosen's class, and even though it's for graduates rather than undergraduates, I made the arrangements. Then I heard nothing more.

It took me some weeks -- and an O'Keefe attack on my colleagues -- to figure out that Ashley was part of an O'Keefe operation. She posed as a prospective student to get into my office, and, taping me the whole while, she hoped that, presented with the prospect of video evidence of Tea Party racism, I would lose my composure and reveal my liberal biases.

The operation was a failure. O'Keefe never released the footage. Presumably, I was so inoffensive that even O'Keefe couldn't use his signature style of creative editing to turn my utterances into something incriminating. Worse yet for O'Keefe, Ashley -- Nadia -- left the project in disgust. It seems that Nadia finally realized that O'Keefe had used her not to expose a far-left, elite, racist professor but instead to pursue a very personal vendetta against someone who dared point out that he was apparently breaking the law. Nadia's defection brings into stark relief what O'Keefe so sorely lacks: the very same moral sense that is essential to good journalism.


As a journalism professor, I'm grateful to O'Keefe for one thing: he shook up my students a bit, and shaken-up students are the best kind to teach.

The week O'Keefe released his bungled hit-job on Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky, I played a short snippet for my class. As the clip was playing I asked them, quite casually, to try to figure out where the video had been shot. Behind Clay is a whiteboard -- a whiteboard identical to the one behind me as I asked that question. The expression on their faces as they made the connection shows just how powerful this lesson was; no amount of lecturing about press ethics or privacy can match the sense of violation that they got to feel first hand. After their initial expression of shock, our conversation soon turned to address the obvious question: is there a difference between what we do as journalists, and what O'Keefe does? It's not a trivial question to answer.

Any journalist who's inclined in the slightest degree toward introspection knows the opening line of Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible." It's an overstatement, but not by much.

We journalists like to think of ourselves as moral creatures, yet, at the same time, our profession depends on using, and sometimes injuring, people to achieve our ends. We often inject ourselves into the lives of people who would rather dwell in obscurity, exposing them to attention that they would rather avoid. Though we will occasionally make targets miserable, leaving each of them with a lingering sense of violation, we justify our cruelty because we think we do it for the public good. In other words, we use exactly the same calculus as O'Keefe.

But there is a difference.

We attempt to be transparent about our biases and try to overcome them. O'Keefe is driven by them. O'Keefe struck at me as an act of revenge for reporting his nonprofit to the IRS -- and that level of personal animus would compel any real reporter to recuse himself from an investigation. And, of course, O'Keefe has made a career out of using his platform to distort the words of his perceived enemies.

We sometimes do things that are ethically gray; journalists don't live in a world where right and wrong are divided by bright lines. But O'Keefe seems scornful of numerous voices that are telling him he's crossed ethical boundaries that he shouldn't have crossed, including voices from within his organization.

We believe that it can be worth breaking the law for the greater good; many of us would gladly go to jail to protect a source, for example. But O'Keefe shows contempt for the rules of our society: he has broken the law in the past, and, even discounting my discovery about his nonprofit, it looks like he continues to break it by inducing others to commit illegal acts on his behalf. (Though the courts haven't been entirely clear on the matter, "Ashley," as well as Jay Rosen's visitor, "Lucas," appear to have broken the law when they lied to gain access to our offices.)

O'Keefe is a journalist reflected in a funhouse mirror. He appears to be grappling with the same moral and ethical issues that we journalists do all the time, but his actions are distorted and twisted by his own personal agenda into something unrecognizable.

The whole affair makes for a fascinating discussion, one full of ironies. Perhaps the greatest is that IRS form 13909, the one I filled out when Project Veritas was breaking the law, has a little checkbox on it that reads: "I am concerned that I might face retaliation or retribution if my identity is disclosed." I did not check the box, choosing instead to be open about my actions. It is because of this choice to reveal my identity despite IRS' offer to try to shield me from retaliation, that I face retribution. Retribution by a man who masks his identity so he can smear his enemies. And retribution from his organization, which claims to strive for "... a more ethical and transparent society." Yet the only things made clear by my tangle with Project Veritas are the real motives that drive O'Keefe.

It's hard to get more transparent than that.