The Truth About Conservative “Journalism”

Conservative organizations are investing millions to overturn the media’s “liberal bias” and subverting the media’s professional standards in the process, writes Eric Alterman.

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Andrew Breitbart, center,  flanked by James O'Keefe III, left, and Hannah Giles, takes part in a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbar)
Andrew Breitbart, center, flanked by James O'Keefe III, left, and Hannah Giles, takes part in a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbar)

While we may never find out just who plotted the break-in by James O’Keefe and his comrades of Senator Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) district office or why, we may be certain it was no accident or “misunderstanding.” It was the culmination of a long-term investment strategy by conservatives to rewrite the rules of professional journalism. Organizations like The Leadership Institute, the Collegiate Network, and the National Journalism Center—an arm of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative youth organization—have been funneling millions of dollars into college newspapers and training programs designed to overturn what they believe to be a liberal bias on the part of the mainstream media. In doing so, they are also working to subvert the media’s professional standards.

As TPM Muckracker notes, The Leadership Institute, where James O’Keefe was employed to train young activist/journalists—and where he met Ben Wetmore, who put up the alleged criminals in Louisiana—claims on its website to “prepare conservatives for success in politics, government, and the news media.” So far, the organization boasts, it has trained more than 79,000 students since its inception in 1979. It claims assets of $11.8 million and a staff of 58.

And as Dave Wiegel reported in The Washington Independent, O’Keefe and his accomplices, Stan Dai and Joseph Basel, worked as undergraduates at newspapers funded and founded by funds from the Collegiate Network. The Collegiate Network’s parent organization, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, enjoyed $8.3 million in contributions in 2009. Hannah Giles, O’Keefe’s partner in the ACORN scam, enjoyed an internship at Young Americans for Freedom’s National Journalism Center.

In one respect, this money has been almost entirely wasted. As the antics of O’Keefe and company conclusively demonstrate, the right has failed to train or inspire many genuine journalists. (In addition to his infamous pimp performance in Washington’s ACORN office and his TV repairman gig in Louisiana, O’Keefe and Wetmore also tried to travel the country to stage a series of phony gay marriages in order to claim benefits.)

But while the conservative investment has not paid off in terms of actually training journalists, it has reaped dividends in its ability to undermine the standards of mainstream media organizations and their willingness to swallow the conservative line. In a previous column, I looked at the manner in which mainstream media organizations fell over themselves to credit the “reporting” of O’Keefe and company regarding ACORN.

Considerable credence was given, for instance, by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, when he spoke to Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander in September 2009. Rosenstiel said that the ACORN story demonstrated the liberal bias on the part of journalists that the right-wingers are always professing to detect. “Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by nonideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms,” he said.

Alexander himself, who had been planning to write about the conflicts of interest of The Post’s conservative media critic Howard Kurtz that week, switched gears at the last minute to address this issue in his own voice, adding, “traditional news outlets like The Post simply don’t pay enough attention to conservative media or viewpoints.” The view received additional support from Post executive editor Marcus Brauchli, who worried, “We are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view.”

And New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson complained, in the wake of the ACORN scandal, that the paper of record was showing “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio.” I am saddened to say that even the great Jon Stewart joined in this orgy of self-flagellation, wondering, “Where were the real reporters on this story?”

In fact, the O’Keefe stunt that succeeded in entrapping those awful ACORN employees caught on tape was merely the tip of the iceberg of a concerted campaign by conservatives to define ACORN as an evil organization and try to tie it to President Barack Obama. Fox News has repeatedly attempted to paint Obama as a tool of the organization and to credit the organization with allegedly stealing the election for him. They succeeded to the point that George Stephanopoulos thought it worth asking the president about it during a short interview. (Obama, amazed, and moved on to discuss Afghanistan.)

But as Peter Dreier of Occidental College and Christopher Martin of the University of Northern Iowa demonstrated in a detailed study entitled “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN was in the News and What the News Got Wrong,”this has long been an obsession of the right and they have succeeded in framing the issue for much if not all of the mainstream media.

The simple fact of this story is that O’Keefe and company were never doing real journalism. They were lying and dissembling in order to make the ideological points they believed to true, ignoring all the actual rules that professionals are proud to uphold. If you go over to Media Matters for America’s website and type in the word “O’Keefe,” you’ll find hundreds of examples, the vast majority of which involved some type of dishonesty on the part of O’Keefe or one of his conservative defenders.

Here are just two:

  • O’Keefe’s friend Liz Farkas said she “grew disillusioned” with his tactics after being asked to doctor a transcript of a past film for him. A September 18, 2009 New York Times article reported that Farkas, a college friend of O’Keefe’s while at Rutgers University, said O’Keefe asked Farkas to help deceptively "edit the script" of a video involving a nurse at the University of California at Los Angeles.
  • O’Keefe falsely claimed an undercover video campaign was a “nationwide ACORN child prostitution investigation” that implicated many ACORN employees. In fact, the claim that videos show employees at many ACORN offices willing to aid child prostitution is false.Giles and O’Keefe released heavily edited videos of their encounters at eight ACORN or ACORN Housing offices. In at least six of those instances, the activists did not clearly tell the ACORN employees that they were planning to engage in child prostitution or the ACORN employees refused to help them, were deliberately misled, or contacted the police following their visit.

It is perhaps not so surprising that some on the right find this kind of behavior endearing. Ann Coulter called them “so magnificent.” National Review editor Rich Lowry said they deserved “an award for impactful guerilla journalism.” Glenn Beck called Giles “courageous.” Bill O’Reilly thought they deserved “congressional medals.” Sean Hannity thought they were “journalistic pioneers.” Andrew Breitbart, for whom O’Keefe worked, insisted that they “deserve a Pulitzer Prize.”

Perhaps O’Keefe will get what he apparently deserves, which is prison time. And by embracing these tactics, the apparatchiks at Fox News who pretend to play journalists on TV demonstrate how little they understand the true meanings of words like “fair” and “balanced.” But what, other than pure panic, can explain the eagerness of the once-confident guardians of journalistic standards and integrity to embrace the same scoundrels and their willingness to ignore the rules of honest information gathering and reporting? At long last, have they no shame?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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