On Tuesday, the Washington Post published the story of Jaime T. Phillips, a woman who approached the newspaper claiming to have engaged in a sexual relationship with Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Phillips told Post reporters that she and Moore had engaged in a sexual relationship, culminating in Phillips being forced to get an abortion when she was only 15 years old.
The allegation aligned perfectly with Moore’s apparent modus operandi (four women allege that Moore’s sexual misconduct took place when they were in their teens and Moore was in his thirties). Moreover, the hypocrisy of a pro-life, Bible-thumping, conservative Republican forcing his teenaged paramour to get an abortion would be extra ammunition for Moore’s political opponents.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), Phillips’ story wasn’t true.
The Post’s reporters became suspicious when, upon communicating to Phillips that they would need to fact-check her claims before moving forward, Phillips became agitated. Adding to that, some of the details of Phillips’ allegations did not hold up under closer examination by the Post’s researchers and fact-checkers, and the Post decided to scrap the story.
However, the Post’s reporters weren’t done there. They decided to perform a deeper investigation into Phillips herself, which ultimately led them to Project Veritas.
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In his 1925 book The Phantom Public, reporter and political commentator Walter Lippmann argued that “[i]f the voter cannot grasp the details of the problems of the day because he has not the time, the interest or the knowledge, he will not have a better public opinion…he will simply be more bewildered, more bored, and more ready to follow along.” By that metric, an organization like Project Veritas appears (in theory, at least) to be an honorable undertaking. But there is no honor in any of the so-called “reporting” done by Project Veritas or its founder.
Project Veritas was founded in 2010 by James O’Keefe, a conservative political activist. The goal, according to the site’s “About” section, is to “investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud and other misconduct” in government and media. O’Keefe prefers to expose such underhandedness through the use of hidden-camera videos with unsuspecting subjects in the hopes of catching them in a “gotcha” moment.
O’Keefe made a name for himself in 2009 when Breitbart published videos of O’Keefe and his partner Hannah Giles posing as a pimp and a prostitute and asking representatives at Associations of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) for advice on how to run an illegal business. Not long after, it was revealed that O’Keefe had heavily selectively edited the video, and that what actually took place was not accurately represented on film.
O’Keefe was ultimately ordered by a judge to pay $100,000 in damages for smearing the ACORN employee who, through the magic of editing, appeared in the finished product as a willing collaborator in illegal sex trafficking. But the damage had already been done: in the wake of O’Keefe’s video, the non-profit — which had operated for more than 40 years — lost its nonprofit status and almost all of its funding.
Emboldened by his success, O’Keefe continued his particular brand of “exposé” reporting. Some of his stings — such as his 2011 sting on NPR, which led to the resignation of the network’s president — have placed their targets in uncomfortable positions of their own creation. But while speaking truth to power is indeed a vital function of the press, that’s not what O’Keefe wants. Despite what he claims, O’Keefe’s main loyalty is not to the truth — he simply wants to destroy any individual or institution he believes is a threat to American conservatism.
In his pursuit of that goal, O’Keefe finds “liberal” targets and attempts to discredit them or otherwise embroil them in scandal, in the hopes of weakening these institutions or individuals. And when he can’t uncover any damning information, he just makes it up — as the old saying goes, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” By the time the video is debunked, it’s usually too late: Project Veritas’ audience will believe anything if the lie aligns with the way they view the world, and even if the record is corrected after the fact, the perception that something is going on is nearly impossible to shake.
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That anyone still believes Project Veritas has any allegiance to the truth or that James O’Keefe is a serious journalist with serious ideas beggars belief. Had O’Keefe pulled his ACORN stunt at any mainstream outlet with any semblance of journalistic standards, he would have been fired and most likely blackballed from the industry.
So how is it that a serial liar who willfully and intentionally misleads his audience continues to be employed? Because the people who write his checks – mostly GOP and conservative donors — are unconcerned with journalistic standards, or the truth. They and O’Keefe are interested in one thing: winning the culture war against the “libs,” by any means necessary. It’s why they’re not particularly interested in hard evidence, and why they have no compunction about making it up if need be: all that matters is public opinion.
I wish I could say that this latest high-profile embarrassment is bound to be his last, that he has finally used up what remains of his credibility, and that we can finally dispense with the idea that O’Keefe is anything but a purveyor of anything but whole-cloth, tabloid-sensational bullshit. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.