From ACORN to NPR: We Rate O’Keefe’s Fake, Sadly Effective Stings

No matter how badly he bungles it, his so-called journalism keeps getting the smear-job done.

By Channing Kennedy Mar 16, 2011

Today the Republican-majority House of Representatives begins its effort to defund NPR, in the wake of–well, let’s be honest, they’ve been wanting to hold this vote since before they were a majority, so it’s not really "in the wake of" anything. But on-the-record, it’s in the wake of the newest James O’Keefe sting operation, in which some dudes posed as Muslim Brotherhood members, secretly videotaped a two-hour conversation with some NPR higher-ups, then got home and realized they didn’t have anything especially incriminating. An edit session followed, and the resulting video O’Keefe released–heavily butchered and swiftly debunked–did exactly what it was supposed to do: triggered some knee-jerk firings at NPR, and gave the GOP an excuse to move forward on defunding their least-favorite news outlet.

How did O’Keefe, a protege of consistently-debunked, never-disavowed Andrew Breitbart, know that a plan this dumb would work? Experience. In commemoration of the O’Keefe-Breitbart method’s continued success at making impressions triumph over facts, we rate the four biggest "stories" "broken" by the James O’Keefe school of journalism–and the reactions from the targets and the media.

Sting on ACORN, September 2009

A white kid in a frat-Halloween "pimp" costume walks into an organization vilified by the right for its advocacy of poor people, and asks for help with his child prostitutes. And everyone accepts it at face value. Don’t bother looking into this, New York Times; it smells totally legit. And the edit job, well–ACORN spokesman Kevin Whelan, in addition to pointing out how intentionally butchered the released video was, also claimed that O’Keefe didn’t even actually wear that pimp costume into the offices. Come on, son! At least rock the duds you rented.

• And When It Was Debunked… Despite the Congressional Research Service’s report that ACORN had broken no laws, the damage was done; ACORN was already defunded and disbanded, and the world is once again safe for voter suppression.

OVERALL RATING: A full 4 out of 4 sweatshop-labor zebra-print fedoras for this rousing success!


Botched Phonetap at Sen. Mary Landieu’s Office, January 2010

This might be the saddest of the stings in this list, if only for the details available: some bros "dressed as telephone company employees, wearing jeans, fluorescent green vests, tool belts and hard hats" attempt to film themselves bugging the phones in Sen. Landrieu’s office, right in front of staffers. They get arrested. Half a point for, uh, style: When O’Keefe was released from custody, he reportedly yelled, "The truth shall set me free!" We may never know what stupid headlines these brave modern LARPers would have surely netted with this shenanigan.

OVERALL RATING: This sophomore slump nets O’Keefe and company a mere one-and-a-half phoned-in Village People jokes.


Out-of-Context Remarks by Shirley Sherrod, July 2010

This one’s an Andrew Breitbart joint, not O’Keefe’s, to be clear. And as such, it’s got that dash of nuance and dignity that comes from not putting on a fake moustache. So it’s only stupid if you know anything about Shirley Sherrod, or the history of race in America…which Sherrod’s employer, the USDA, didn’t. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilseck actually called Sherrod on her Blackberry and made her pull over to the side of the road, so anxious was he to fire her.

• And When It Was Debunked… Within days, the full video was dug up, in which Sherrod was saying the opposite of what Breitbart claimed. Also, the two white farmers mentioned in the original clip came to her defense. Shirley Sherrod has had the best strategy of any target to date–instead of fruitlessly waiting for the mainstream media to do its job, she’s refusing to back down and taking legal action against Breitbart.

OVERALL RATING: Two Shirley Sherrod side-eyes. One. Two. Go sit down, you look ill.


Sting on Planned Parenthood, January 2011

This gets called an "ACORN-style sting" today, but to be fair, hard-working disingenuous people have been targeting Planned Parenthood for decades. Anti-choice group Live Action, founded by O’Keefe associate Lila Rose, sent a dude out to clinics claiming to be a sex trafficker; Planned Parenthood smelled a rat and didn’t hesitate in calling the FBI.

• And When It Was Debunked… In the absence of a proper sting, mere rumors were enough as Congress worked to defund Planned Parenthood, along with anyone else offering poor women of color control of their bodies.

OVERALL RATING: You get one Jezebel post with funny pictures of Speaker Boehner. Now get out.


And finally, National Public Radio, March 2011

NPR’s an odd duck on this list, because it’s the only big target that doesn’t mostly serve to benefit poor people of color. Even Tea Party members say their coverage is fair. So why target them? Still mad over their reporting on how SB1070 was written by prison contractors?

• And When It Was Debunked… More noteworthy is who debunked it: Glenn Beck and crew, in a successful grab back at headlines. Meanwhile, the defunding effort proceeds though Congress unchecked, and Vivian Schiller is out of a job. Seriously, how do you run a massive media organization and not know that you should count to ten before offering to resign in the wake of an O’Keefe sting video?

OVERALL RATING: Five out of five totebags, or as many as you can grab on the way out. Just kidding! Those are a major revenue stream now. Hope you like fundraisers!


HONORABLE MENTIONS: The time James O’Keefe secretly videotaped some teachers saying mean things about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; the time James O’Keefe tried to get his mack on with a CNN correspondent as a sting of some sort. Ick.