Founder of Project Veritas on undercover journalism and holding the press accountable
NEW YORK—A group of journalists at Project Veritas, led by James O’Keefe, has made waves over the years with undercover videos that have covered corrupt officials, voter fraud, and, more recently, media bias at CNN and the New York Times.
“We take the approach we take, a sort of guerrilla approach, because we live in unjust times,” said O’Keefe, and quoted words often attributed to George Orwell: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
In the current state of news, culture, and politics many institutions tasked with informing the public have become what O’Keefe referred to as “Potemkin villages,” a reference to communist tactics of disinformation where people are presented with a false image in order to sway their opinions.
In this environment, many institutions that claim to uphold honesty are themselves dishonest, and many who claim to represent society are oppressing the same groups they claim to represent. In order to hide their actions, these same institutions often attack critics using political labels.
It’s in this environment that O’Keefe has chosen to use a sometimes controversial form of journalism to show the faces behind the facade.
“In order to get the information to the public, we have to use surreptitious means and we have to be guerrilla in how we distribute the information because we’re handicapped; because we’re facing overwhelming forces that are trying to shut us down, suppress the truth, and propagandise the people,” O’Keefe said.
“The only way to distribute the truth in these bizarre times is to use these techniques,” he said.
During the 2016 elections, Project Veritas published a series of undercover videos showing leaders of Democratic organizations plotting to frame incidents around Trump. This included a video of Democratic political organizers Bob Creamer and Scott Foval boasting about starting fights at Trump rallies, in order to paint Trump supporters as violent.
The incident was confirmed by former Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairwoman Donna Brazile in her new book, “Hacks,” where she writes “I watched O’Keefe’s video with a sinking heart, knowing this was something we could not fight back against, not really…The footage of Creamer and Scott Foval boasting about picking fights with crazy people in the line to a campaign rally looked terrible.”
In a video published on June 28, Project Veritas exposed CNN political commentator Van Jones saying that the stories alleging that President Donald Trump colluded with Russia are a “big nothing burger,” and showed through other undercover videos that CNN was pushing the Trump-Russia narrative for ratings.
In a more recent series of videos, Project Veritas showed various figures at the New York Times admitting that the publication has a strong anti-Trump bias. This included Des Shoe, a New York Times senior staff editor based in London, stating some journalists believe if they write negatively about Trump, “then maybe people will read it and be like, oh wow, we shouldn’t vote for him.”
O’Keefe was criticized for the recent videos exposing the establishment media by New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who described the undercover work of Project Veritas as “lying and subterfuge.”
According to O’Keefe, however, the journalistic methods he and others at Project Veritas use are well within the standards journalists are expected to uphold.
The code that many journalists go by is the Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists. It states that undercover methods should be avoided unless “open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” Journalists have a responsibility to “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations,” the code also says.
O’Keefe said, “We would argue that the stories we uncover are of extreme public interest. The reason why the media investigations we’re doing are so important is because the media arguably has more power than Congress—it has more power than the legislature. It informs the culture.”
O’Keefe discussed some topics covered in his new book, “American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News,” about the history and importance of undercover journalism.
He noted that in the 1970s, the Chicago Sun-Times was advancing investigative journalism and winning multiple awards along the way. Eventually, the publication opened a bar in their famous “Mirage investigation,” where they filmed, recorded, and photographed crooked cops, corrupt business inspectors, and other forms of citywide corruption.
After the Mirage investigations, many officials resigned, and the Department of Justice launched an investigation. Yet, in the community of journalists, the methods were criticized as going too far. O’Keefe paraphrased Bob Woodward of the Pulitzer Prize committee, saying, “Hold up, this is a little bit too much.”
“My thesis is that the reason why Woodward said it and people stopped it was because it was so incredibly true, is it was so lethal, to use a metaphor, it was so devastatingly effective in exposing things,” he said.
It also exposed an idea in journalism that exposing corruption may have limits. O’Keefe characterized this as a notion of “let’s just say that a little bit of truth is OK, but you start talking about the whole city is corrupt—crooked officials, crooked mayors, everyone is broken—they said that’s just too much.”
In his view, however, the case showed the power of undercover journalism in exposing corruption on a wide scale. He said that with the work of Project Veritas, “Don’t think that we are inventing a new genre. We’re not inventing anything. We’re bringing it back.”
According to O’Keefe, much of what Project Veritas has exposed points to a deeper problem in U.S. media, where pushing a political narrative has become more important to many news outlets than telling the truth.
“To use the words of Jack Nicholson in ‘A Few Good Men,’ ‘They can’t handle the truth,’ They don’t want the truth. The truth is manifestly damning to their narrative,” he said. “These media conglomerates, they have so much invested in the narratives that are sort of held up on stilts that can crumble at any moment if the truth comes wrecking them down.”
Many of the establishment media are pushing for postmodernist social agendas, which can then be used to push legislation to create new power structures within the government. If anyone questions these agendas, they will often be attacked by the establishment media.
O’Keefe has been all-too-familiar with this fact and has, on many occasions, been the focus of retaliatory character assassinations, legal attacks, and false accusations.
In 2010, while investigating political corruption, O’Keefe was arrested for entering a federal building under false pretenses. He said he was falsely accused, and video that could have been crucial evidence was destroyed by a federal judge. When this happened, he said, “There were no stirring First Amendment op-eds in the Columbia Journalism Review.” Instead, “it was ‘off with his head,’ ‘throw him in jail,’ ‘I hope he rots in hell.'”
The establishment responses to investigations from Project Veritas are often not to address the problems he exposes, but to instead attack him for exposing the problems.
He said for many institutions pushing these agendas, “It’s like nihilism—there’s no value, there’s no morality, there’s no law, there’s no justice. It’s about a specific political objective—and that’s what we exposed in the New York Times investigation, it was a specific political objective and all means necessary to achieve that objective. That’s it.”
Within the postmodernist agenda, its protective institutions often frame their narratives and defenses around what O’Keefe described as their “cardinal virtues” of “race, sex, and class.” Anyone who questions these narratives is then accused of violating these “cardinal virtues.”
Part of O’Keefe’s work, however, has been exposing that the same institutions that manipulate these narratives often do not uphold the values they claim to represent.
He noted investigations Project Veritas has done exposing racism and sex abuse within teacher’s unions: “We’ve done a few investigations already in places like New York and New Jersey. We got the head of the Westchester teacher’s union to resign because she was telling someone off the street to lie about sex abuse.”
O’Keefe compared the tactics used by the establishment media to what F.A. Hayek warned about in his book, “The Road to Serfdom,” where ideas or information that doesn’t advance the targeted policies “are not to be discussed, they’re not to be allowed, they’re to be prohibited.”
“There is an ideology of propaganda that a lot of these things contribute to, and I’ve seen it time and time again,” said O’Keefe.
He approached both the executive and managing editors of the New York Times on video, asking for an interview, and both refused to respond, refusals O’Keefe understands as motivated by this ideology of propaganda.
He said, “there’s so much to say, but what I’ve discovered is it all stems from them wanting to advance a specific social and political agenda, and any facts, or truths, that get in the way of that trajectory are to be prohibited and ignored.”
For O’Keefe, however, the mission to expose these agendas ties to his understanding of the importance of journalism as a foundation of democracy. With media, he said, “I don’t need you to tell me how to think or who to vote for; I need you to show me what’s going on so I can make that decision.”
“Veritas believes in the power of free people,” he said. “If given information about the world they live in, they can make informed decisions.”