Late on Monday, the Washington Post published a remarkable exposé of a failed exposé plotted by conservative troublemaker James O’Keefe and his organization Project Veritas. Veritas had planned to trick the Post into publishing a false assault allegation by a woman named Jaime Phillips against Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, joining the continued efforts by some on the right to discredit the accusations against Moore, the first of which were published in the Post earlier this month. The plan collapsed spectacularly:
In a series of interviews over two weeks, [Phillips] shared a dramatic story about an alleged sexual relationship with Moore in 1992 that led to an abortion when she was 15. During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public.
The Post did not publish an article based on her unsubstantiated account. When Post reporters confronted her with inconsistencies in her story and an Internet posting that raised doubts about her motivations, she insisted that she was not working with any organization that targets journalists.
That “internet posting” was a GoFundMe page aimed at helping Phillips raise money to “combat the lies and deceipt [sic]” of the mainstream media. On Monday, Post reporters spotted Phillips outside of Project Veritas’ offices and confronted O’Keefe himself as well for a video deliciously and intentionally reminiscent of his own stings. He refused to answer questions before returning with a cameraman and a set of unrelated questions for the Post’s reporters in an attempt to salvage the encounter.
All this prompted a round of jubilant taunting from journalists on and off social media. At New York magazine, Jonathan Chait placed the incident within the context of Project Veritas’ other blown operations:
… the people who are dumb enough to believe these conspiracy theories are not generally smart enough to carry out a competent entrapment scheme. O’Keefe attempted to impersonate a Detroit Free Press columnist at the polls, and failed, in part because the poll worker knew the Free Press writer personally. An elaborate effort to sting the League of Conservation Voters failed clumsily because the operatives left their recording devices sitting around. The “Canadians” who tried to entrap Hillary Clinton staffers into accepting “foreign” donations all gave the same phone number, which turned out to be from “Students for a Conservative Voice.” O’Keefe’s attempt to register the vote of a dead person accidentally used the identity of a voter who is completely alive. His attempt to impersonate a Hungarian donor to the Clinton campaign floundered when its catfisher forgot to hang up the phone and accidentally recorded a long message explaining the details of the operation.
But far from being cowed by the latest addition to this CV, O’Keefe seems to be rolling with the punches. Project Veritas posted a video on the Post to YouTube not long after the paper’s story on the scheme broke. “Today, the Washington Post is floundering — they’re spending a ton of time and money trying to turn the tables on Project Veritas, talking about an imagined sting,” O’Keefe says in an intro. “But why are they so afraid? What are they so afraid of? What are they guarding against?”
The answer, the video goes on to suggest, is the other material O’Keefe’s minions did manage to record surreptitiously—conversations with Washington Post staffers like director of product Joey Marburger, who was caught on tape saying that covering Donald Trump is good for traffic. Scintillating, damning stuff.
There’s no mention at all in the video of the attempted Moore accuser charade. Reviews of O’Keefe’s work are already coming in on YouTube: “FUCK THE WASHINGTON POST. FUCK JEFF BEZOS. MAGA. GREAT JOB VERITAS!” reads one representative comment.
Unfortunately, the majority of people with the above sentiments are never going to read the Post’s preemptive debunking of O’Keefe’s sting. Many who do will nevertheless find one reason or another to discount or disbelieve the Post’s story and will do so with the ease with which they’ve already discounted or disbelieved Moore’s accusers and the Washington Post without O’Keefe’s help. O’Keefe emerged at a time when Americans discovered that millions of Republican voters considered it plausible that shadowy forces had worked, possibly for decades, to conceal Barack Obama’s origins as a Kenyan Muslim—thanks in part to the man who ultimately succeeded him. Anyone who’s spent the past two years diligently preparing fact-checks and explainers at the Post and elsewhere aimed at dispatching Trump's lies knows that what was routinely and contentiously called “epistemic closure” on the right back then—an imperviousness to narrative-challenging facts, if not to reason itself—has gotten much worse. This makes it dubious to suggest the Post’s story is a real setback for O’Keefe, who has cultivated his large following on the right with broad claims about the mainstream press’ dishonesty.
In the wake of the Post’s story, some journalists argued that distrust and animosity is, in part, the product of confusion about how the mainstream press works—as though Veritas’ stings are a genuine effort to demonstrate how fact-based journalism ought to be done. “This is the problem with outfits like Project Veritas and Breitbart,” the Atlantic editor Christopher Orr tweeted after the Post’s story. “They (and, alas, their audiences) literally don’t comprehend what journalism is or how it is performed.”
Perhaps O’Keefe really did believe he was observing journalistic best practices when he sent Phillips to the Post, or when he selectively edited his sting of former NPR CEO Ron Schiller in 2011, or when he promised CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau an interview with the actual intention of seducing her and embarrassing her on tape with dildos and fuzzy handcuffs in 2010. It seems more likely, though, that O’Keefe and his peers are aware that lying to their readers and viewers is wrong and do it anyway to advance a political agenda.
Project Veritas receives a few million dollars from anonymous conservative donors each year; if they’re put off by O’Keefe’s “reporting,” the failures listed by Chait, or the $317,000 salary O’Keefe’s siphoned off for himself, it has yet to show. They find Project Veritas worthy of investment for a reason. After all, it only took one later-debunked sting to convince Congress to defund ACORN, the now defunct low-income voter-registration and community-advocacy group, in 2009. That episode didn’t merely knock off a group that registered hundreds of thousands of marginalized voters in 2008 alone; it helped fuel claims about mass voter fraud that continue to incense conservative voters and motivate restrictive voting laws to this day. Not a bad haul for donations that amount to a small fraction of what wealthy conservatives give to various campaigns and causes annually. The James O’Keefes of the right are going to keep at this for as long as that money continues to roll in. Hats off, though, to all those still earnest and patient enough to believe, in 2017, that the truth can meaningfully hurt the conservative press. That’s a fight worth fighting, even if it can’t be won.