- - Wednesday, July 31, 2013



James O’Keefe III may not be a household name, but his work has made headlines in the past few years.

Mr. O’Keefe, 29, and his band of citizen journalists, known as Project Veritas, have investigated organizations such as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (better known by its acronym, ACORN), Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio. I often write in this column about what’s wrong with journalism. Mr. O’Keefe and his colleagues provide an example of what’s right about the craft. Unfortunately, much of the media don’t think so.

In a recent book, “Breakthrough: Our Guerrilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy,” he outlines the tactics, trials and tribulations of being a citizen journalist and a conservative. The book soared to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list in only a few weeks. (A book review in The Washington Times can be found at bit.ly/18xwOUI.)

“Journalism is a means to an end and that end is getting information out,” Mr. O’Keefe told me. “What we do is closer to journalism than just about anything out there.”

For example, Mr. O’Keefe and his cohorts have gone undercover to secretly record the loopholes in voter identification systems in Minnesota, New Hampshire and Vermont, and even used the name of U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to request a ballot in the District of Columbia. The material then goes up on YouTube — often in cooperation with a news outlet.

The investigations have resulted in people losing their jobs and laws being passed, but Mr. O’Keefe and his colleagues have attracted the ire of critics from the mainstream media, who constantly criticize the group for using edited versions of its audio and video material. Mr. O’Keefe and his team send out an edited version and a full version — something virtually no major news outlet does on a consistent basis — so people can determine whether the edited version is accurate and complete. As a former television producer, I found the edited material from Project Veritas accurately reflects the interviews the group has conducted, something I cannot say for much of the mainstream media. Many journalists “want me silenced and shut down,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “They don’t want to let people into their cartel.”

What makes the mainstream media so uncomfortable? Mr. O’Keefe and his team get their hands dirty with undercover techniques used by the original muckrakers like Nellie Bly, the pen name for Elizabeth Cochrane, who checked herself into a women’s insane asylum in 1887 to document conditions there.

Mr. O’Keefe and his colleagues ran afoul of the law in Louisiana during an attempt to record material surreptitiously in the office of Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu concerning complaints that she ignored inquiries from constituents about President Obama’s health care program. Mr. O’Keefe pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 2010 for entering a federal building under false pretenses and was sentenced to three years’ probation, which made it difficult for him to travel outside of his New Jersey home. Undaunted, he has continued to put together teams to document abuses that make headlines.

When his probation ended, Mr. O’Keefe headed down to New Orleans last month to confront Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney whose office brought the charges. He didn’t get any answers from Mr. Letten, who teaches at Tulane University, only an official notice to leave the campus.

That’s what Mr. O’Keefe does. He confronts the powerful, asks them questions and often gets shocking answers. He has also done far more serious journalism than many Washington reporters. It is unlikely he will gain their respect, but it is likely more people will look for his stories after his book on guerrilla journalism.

Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at The Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at [email protected] Twitter: @charper51.

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