Breitbart and O’Keefe: The Legacy

Last week, News with a View, an anthology of essays edited by Burton St. John and Kristen Johnson appeared. In it is an essay of mine, “The Pride and Reward of Falsification: Post-Objectivity as Post-Responsibility,” an examination of some of the “journalism” of Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe. Two weeks and a day before publication of the book (on March 15), Brietbart died unexpectedly. O’Keefe, though still alive, now seems completely marginalized, a 90-minute wonder destined only to be a reminder of the craziness of an earlier era.

As internet possibilities for publicity and for “citizen journalism” hit their stride about seven years ago, a number of people tried to use the web to muscle their way past the traditional gatekeepers and methodologies of journalism. Some of them saw, correctly, that the profession had calcified, was too self-satisfied to respond adequately to the new digital age. Others simply saw an opportunity not being taken, and reached in for their own benefit.

The result has been a changed media landscape, of course. One with new powerhouse “publications” (such as The Huffington Post) and an entirely new way of work for journalists–who, in response to the blogosphere, have had to adapt or leave the profession.

Many of the “new” journalists, like Brietbart and O’Keefe, had no real interest in the ethics of journalism–or even in the profession. Journalism, to them, was nothing but a means to a political end. No one, within the traditional elements of the profession, knew how to deal with them, for no one like them had managed to have a major impact on reporting since the days of Walter Winchell. The overtly political had been moved aside, given space on op-ed pages, on television talk shows, and on the radio–but it was not seen as active in day-to-day reporting and investigation.

The profession, also, had fallen into a lazy, self-protective pattern of pretended objectivity, of presenting two “sides” of an issue as a means of deflecting any accusation of advocacy. The dangers of this, an attitude of ‘false equivalency,’ was one of the things that opened the door for the Breitbart’s and O’Keefe’s of the last five years. News organizations, however, have finally opened their eyes to this, the latest being National Public Radio.

Though the journalism profession was blindsided by people willing to take advantage of the quest for ‘fairness’ that ‘false equivalency’ fostered, it has now learned not to assume that people presenting stories are themselves trying to be honest and objective. Taking things out of context, setting up false but attractive narratives, and blustering accusation by these “new” journalists led more timid and less skeptical traditional journalists to both back down and accept what the Breitbart’s and O’Keefe’s were presenting. That no longer happens… or does, but much more rarely.

As time and time again, the stories that Breitbart and O’Keefe created proved specious (even the Anthony Weiner “scandal” had little real substance–just a man behaving like an idiot) and the two acted more and more strangely (Breitbart yelling at protesters; O’Keefe trying to embarrass a CNN anchor), journalists were also waking up to the possibilities for abuse that these two–and others–had taken advantage of. The profession was learning to institute new safeguards, new vetting and fact-checking–not only internally for its own stories (see the Stephen Glass imbroglio at The New Republic), but in the profession as a whole. No statement, any longer, is taken at face value–even if by someone else in journalism (that ‘professional courtesy,’ of necessity, has now disappeared).

Today, for example, Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University, blogs about his own interactions with O’Keefe, one of his workers, and his organization Project Veritas. Seife wanted verification of the PV’s non-profit status, but could not get it (because, it turns out, it did not exist). O’Keefe, in retalization, targeted Seife, using a woman named Nadia Naffe to conduct the sting. It failed, and now Naffe and O’Keefe have fallen out, neither looking quite so good as a result. Summing up his experience, Seife writes:

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.

It takes a clear ethical base to be a “real” journalist, something neither Breitbart nor O’Keefe ever had. Only now, however, is the profession beginning to demand this of its practitioners–even of the ones outside of the mainstream.

It’s about time.

The legacy of Breitbart and O’Keefe? Probably a better and more self-conscious body of journalists–and one that will no longer allow its own lapses to create means for the likes of these to join in and pretend to be one and the same as the professionals. On the other hand, it may also teach the professionals to have a little more respect for amateur journalists and to take them seriously. If Breitbart and O’Keefe had been taken seriously from the beginning, instead of being scoffed at (as they often were) by “real” journalists, they would never have managed to create the controversies they were responsible for.

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