Beck vs. O’Keefe

Glenn Beck was almost immediate in his criticism of James O’Keefe’s latest video adventure, and the media is picking up on it this week:

“The problem with this whole thing is does James O’Keefe have enough credibility to continue to do” undercover video journalism? Beck asked his listeners. That kind of journalism, he said, is “just really not something that you necessarily want to get into.

Beck, of course, is a media trailblazer himself, who rose to national prominence through his revolutionary and original radio program.  He created a similarly original television program and online magazine.

With others from the right falling all over each other with admiration for O’Keefe’s NPR sting, Beck stands out as a rare dissenting voice.

But more than that, O’Keefe’s brand of activist journalism is simply more interesting than Beck’s platitudes from behind a microphone.  For months, critics have been crowing about Beck’s flagging ratings.  O’Keefe is a threat to Beck from a pure business standpoint.

After all, if you were Fox News, what would be more likely to get ratings – Glenn Beck’s chalkboard with notes about the GDP or James O’Keefe sending someone with a hidden camera into a government office?

Getting O’Keefed is more than just a camera trick

James O’Keefe will be lauded on the right this week for forcing the resignation of NPR’s CEO; you’ll hear talk about how creative and bold he is to go undercover with hidden cameras to expose left-wing organizations in their own words.  It actually isn’t that simple, though:  O’Keefe does more than simple hide cameras and wait for people to say dumb things.  This week, for example, O’Keefe released his initial video on Tuesday – the one where a former NPR staffer demonstrates outright hostility toward tea partiers and the conservative movement.  It appeared to be a basic case of organizational media bias, though it could have been explained away as a donor relations executive saying whatever he could to raise a donation.

Then came the second video yesterday – where another NPR official discusses ways to “hide” donations from a fictional Muslim Brotherhood front group.  This is much more damning; and combined with the other one creates the perception of a trend.  At the very least, it kept a one-day story going for multiple days.

Erstwhile CEO Vivian Schiller didn’t make it to the second video; in the 48 hours between the releases she resigned.  Jon Stewart couldn’t believe NPR didn’t fight back.  But maybe NPR had been paying attention to O’Keefe’s history of takedowns.

ACORN didn’t collapse under the weight of a single video; O’Keefe released several over time to keep the issue alive through several news cycles.  The same happened with his expose of the teachers unions in New Jersey and other work his organization, Project Veritas, have undertaken.

Rather than try to bash O’Keefe’s reporting, NPR allies have been quick to decry the comments heard on the tapes.  That’s significant – not only do they recognize what what was said was bad, they know that there may be even more to come.

Is Maxine Waters about to be James O’Keefe’s next YouTube star?

Mr. ACORN pimp himself, James O’Keefe, announced via Twitter today that Rep. Maxine Waters would be the subject of his next series of videos.  Here’s the preview:

Two things are evident: O’Keefe still understands the power of online video, and he still understands the power of timing.

The ethics charges flying around various Democrats are starting to look like a trend – much like Republican scandals leading up to the 2006 election painted the picture of a power-happy party inviting a rude awakening at the hands of voters.  Getting Waters on camera in a sting operation like this could make the ethics violations very real to voter and underscore the broken promises of Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008.

But on top of that, you can’t say enough about O’Keefe’s media-savvy release strategy, either.

By releasing a teaser, O’Keefe capitalizes on this week’s news cycle about Waters and her ethics charges.  After controversy surrounding his presence in a Senate office earlier this year (and the storm surrounding his associate Andrew Breitbart’s role in the Shirley Sherrod affair), he can expect that this initial release will lead to a round of denouncement from left-leaning talking heads; for a while the story will be that James O’Keefe has a Waters video.  The Congresswoman’s office will likely be asked to comment; maybe she’ll even say something embarrassing and unwittingly drum up more coverage.

True, O’Keefe could have gotten just as much coverage this week by releasing a completed video.  But what about next week?  This strategy allows O’Keefe, after the initial frenzy, to drop a second video and get another round of coverage.  And, the vile and hatred he receives from the left this week may make the release of the full video that much more newsworthy.

If it sounds familiar, it should – it’s exactly how O’Keefe and Breitbart set up ACORN to take itself down.

Why ACORN cracked

ACORN is closing up shop and may have to file for bankruptcy.  There’s no mystery as to why: donors have refused to write checks to the organization since the now-infamous “pimp videos” featuring James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles.  The ensuing controversy that made ACORN radioactive had as much to do with the organization’s response as it did with the actual content of the videos.

A Wired article on Andrew Breitbart – whose Big Government was a platform for the videos – details the strategy behind the tiered release of the videos:

Breitbart initially released only the video from Acorn’s Baltimore bureau, which the group dismissed as an isolated incident. The next day, he posted a video of O’Keefe getting similar results in Washington, DC. Oops. Acorn stepped on the rake again, claiming the videos were doctored. Then Breitbart posted more — from New York City, San Diego, and Philadelphia. Congress started pulling Acorn’s funding, and The New York Times flagellated itself for its “slow reflexes” in covering the story.

A less savvy operative might have released all the videos at once to illustrate the scope of the problem.  They would have received some coverage, but the media would largely have dismissed the story.  After all, how many government and non-profit offices would you really have to walk into if you wanted to catch someone saying stupid on camera?

By releasing the videos in slow drips, O’Keefe and Breitbart established a pattern.  With each new video, the story became a bit bigger, and more media outlets paid attention.  This strategy also allowed ACORN to be dismissive of the first few releases, making them look all the more foolish when the “isolated incident” proved to be anything but.

On its own, video of O’Keefe and Giles would have told a compelling story about ACORN.  Handled smartly – as it was – this information became a tangible result.

Good journalism, bad journalism, and Mary Landrieu’s office

Very few people actually know what happened last week in Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office.  That didn’t stop multiple news outlets of dropping the phrase “wiretapping” around liberally (no pun intended) when reporting that James O’Keefe, Stan Dai, Joe Basel, and Robert Flanagan were arrested.  Of course, that meant echoes of Watergate coloring the commentary – even though the official documents make no such accusation.

Watergate makes for an interesting comparison here – not in any crimes perpetrated, obviously, but in reporting.  Anyone who has read All the President’s Men – or, like me, simply seen the movie – knows that Watergate was exposed by tireless investigative journalism by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.  They spent months digging, to prove their case.  They did not print half-truths and echo reports from the AP.

Beyond the statement made by O’Keefe, I know nothing about this case.  I am a fan of O’Keefe’s and Dai’s work from their days at Rutgers and George Washington, respectively, which I got to witness when I was working at the Leadership Institute.  I have a strong suspicion that whatever information they were looking for probably would have been politically – but not personally – damaging to Sen. Landrieu.

But to make any allegations beyond that would be wrong for me and certainly wrong for anyone who considers themselves an actual journalist.  MSNBC and other outlets showed no such restraint.

In fact, one might argue that these arrests – like the Watergate arrests – are the beginning, rather than the end, of the questions.  These guys were looking for something – O’Keefe says that Landrieu’s constituents were calling the office but couldn’t get through, and he thought they were ignoring calls.

If citizens are trying to participate but can’t, isn’t that a pretty big story?