Not-So-Breitbart and the Story of James O’Keefe

Karl Frisch

By Karl Frisch

Back in September, right-wing activist James O’Keefe told Fox News host Glenn Beck that he was "willing to serve prison time" for his work.

That just may happen.

According to an affidavit from the FBI, O’Keefe and three others were arrested on Monday in connection with an alleged plot to "interfer[e]" with the phone system in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office. O’Keefe is perhaps best known for the heavily edited and misleading undercover videos he and Hannah Giles shot of low-level ACORN employees while the right-wing duo were dressed as a pimp and prostitute, an escapade that itself may have violated state criminal statutes.

The New York Times reports that "the four men, two of whom were dressed as telephone repairmen, were charged with entering a federal property on false pretenses with the purpose of committing a felony. The crime charged is itself a felony that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison."

As Media Matters‘ Eric Hananoki noted, O’Keefe’s three alleged accomplices — Joseph Basel, Robert Flanagan, and Stan Dai — are right-wing activists as well. Basel was the founder of a conservative campus publication at the University of Minnesota-Morris, which, like the campus publication started by O’Keefe at Rutgers University, received funding from the conservative Leadership Institute’s "Balance in Media" grant. Flanagan, the son of acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana William Flanagan, reportedly works at the conservative Pelican Institute in New Orleans, just half a block from Landrieu’s office. Dai received $5,000 from the right-wing Phillips Foundation’s Ronald Reagan Future Leaders Scholarship Program. Additionally, during his time as a campus conservative, Dai reportedly co-wrote "a satirical work entitled The Penis Monologues, apparently a takeoff on the Vagina Monologues."

News of the four’s arrest spread quickly Tuesday.

Because Fox News had showered O’Keefe’s undercover video work targeting ACORN with near wall-to-wall coverage, one would have hoped the conservative network would provide comparable coverage of the arrest — it did not. In fact, a Media Matters study comparing coverage of the day following the release of O’Keefe and Giles’ first ACORN tape and the day news of O’Keefe’s arrest broke found that Fox News provided 13 times more coverage to the video.

Fox News’ first segment on O’Keefe’s arrest was as funny as it was disappointing (view it here). During the report, assignment manager Tim Gaughan called the news a "very weird story that probably needs a lot of context and a lot of looking into." Sage advice — too bad the network often didn’t offer ACORN the same deference.

It really shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Fox News handled the O’Keefe arrest with such kid gloves. After the release of his ACORN videos, Fox and other media conservatives lavished praise on O’Keefe. Beck called him "courageous." Andrew Breitbart — more on him in a bit — said that O’Keefe "is already well on his way to being one of the great journalists" and that he deserved a Pulitzer Prize. Sean Hannity applauded him as a "pioneer in journalism." Bill O’Reilly said he deserved a "congressional medal." Right-wing author Ann Coulter said O’Keefe was "so magnificent." National Review editor Rich Lowry said he deserved an "award for impactful guerilla journalism." On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace featured O’Keefe as "Power Player of the Week." And when news came that O’Keefe might be sued by ACORN or its staffers over the videos, Hannity and Breitbart led the conservative media fundraising campaign for his defense.

The fact that the right-wing media were so smitten with O’Keefe no doubt accounts for their skittish, measured response to the arrest. The Fox News website Fox Nation even posted a headline that read " ‘There’s Much More to This Story.’ "

Perhaps no one in the conservative media has more to lose over this story than the previously mentioned Breitbart, a protégé of Internet gossip Matt Drudge and proprietor of a variety of right-wing websites including After all, he was first to champion the undercover ACORN videos O’Keefe and Giles shot last year.

Breitbart claimed that he was "out of the loop on this" and released a public statement to some in the press saying he had "no knowledge" "or connection to" O’Keefe’s actions. Breitbart also admitted during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he pays O’Keefe a "fair salary" so that "when he puts a story out there, it’s on the Breitbart sites, the Big sites, that he can tell people what transpired." He reiterated during that interview that he was not connected with O’Keefe’s actions in Landrieu’s office.

It’s been entertaining watching Breitbart lecture others on journalistic ethics when he’s shown such little regard for truth in his own work. In fact, according to a report released this week by Media Matters, Breitbart’s "Big" websites — Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism — as well as his website, have in recent months laid claim to many "exclusives," touting controversial and sensationalist storylines that have been picked up by other conservative media outlets, from Fox News on down. However, a closer examination reveals that many of Breitbart’s "scoops" have been based on speculation, gross distortions, and outright falsehoods.

Later in the week, Breitbart brought his ACORN video lies and full-throated defense of O’Keefe to MSNBC, where he was subjected to a grilling by David Shuster that was followed up by an interview with Media Matters‘ Eric Boehlert, who said Breitbart’s type of journalism produces "the kind of Johnny Knoxville situation we get down in New Orleans."

Ultimately, Breitbart predicted "there will be tape to vindicate these four pranksters." Yep, the man who previously said O’Keefe deserved a Pulitzer is now calling him a "prankster." How’s that for spin?

Breitbart continued to function as O’Keefe’s de facto public relations flack as the week came to an end, posting a statement that "[o]n reflection, I could have used a different approach to this investigation" on his websites. Of course, Fox News is doing its part, trumpeting news of an exclusive O’Keefe interview with Hannity coming next week.

So, how on earth could James O’Keefe think for even a minute that these types of actions might be a good idea? The answer to that question can be found in his own words from just two weeks ago.

During an interview with Adam Weinberg of The Centurion — the right-wing student publication at Rutgers University that claims O’Keefe as a "founding editor" — Breitbart’s protégé said, "The more bold you are, the more opportunities will be open to you. The less bold you are, the less opportunities in life will be open to you." He went on: "[T]he more you put yourself out there and you take those calculated risks — the contrary of what people actually think is going to happen — you’re actually going to get opportunities."

That’s the life lesson O’Keefe learned from his relationship with Andrew Breitbart — the man who made him a right-wing star and Fox News celebrity.

Ultimately, a jury of O’Keefe’s peers may decide his fate, but it should be lost on no one that Breitbart and his allies at Fox News share in the responsibility for what has been alleged to have transpired.

Other major stories

Right-wing media and the State of Dis-Union

President Obama’s first State of the Union address provided a wonderful opportunity to assess the state of conservative media. The result? It’s not looking good.

Following up on a host of assertions that Obama had little to show for his first year in office, Hannity kicked things off by offering a pre-buttal on Monday and Tuesday, referring to the upcoming speech as "propaganda" not once, but twice. On Wednesday, Beck promised his audience that he would watch the address, even though he said that the thought made him "want to hang" himself. John Stossel, also now part of the Fox family, helpfully suggested that the president use his time to apologize for his arrogance, while Neil Cavuto (yes, he’s with Fox too — spot a trend?) predicted that Obama might deliver the longest State of the Union in history. Soon, right-wing comedian Dennis Miller had accused Democrats of acting like the Menendez brothers. Newly minted Fox News contributor Sarah Palin was even beamed in live from Wasilla, Alaska, to remind viewers not to be fooled: Despite his words, the president still planned to "fundamentally transform this country." And then the speech started.

At least everyone was keeping an open mind.

During the remarks, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg took the high road, tweeting that "Pelosi’s got a really weird, glassy-eyed, Bride of Chucky thing going." NRO’s blog The Corner also objected to Joe Biden’s behavior after the vice president had the audacity to clap while other people were clapping. "It’s not about you," wrote John Hood. "It will never be about you. Just relax and try not to distract attention from your boss by whispering under your breath or mugging for the camera." Appropriately, a short time later, the president chided "TV pundits" for "reduc[ing] serious debates to silly arguments."

As soon as Obama had concluded, the thoughtful reviews came pouring in. "The president looks like a jerk tonight," opined Hood. Stossel said Obama "certainly didn’t sound humbled," as he should have. RedState’s Erick Erickson thought that Obama’s jokes during the speech "were cocky and snide," adding that the remarks constituted a "declaration of war on the free market." CNN hosted Erickson to discuss Obama’s address. Fortunately, Roland Martin was there to offer a fact-check for Erickson’s words — the kind of balance Fox couldn’t bring itself to entertain when assembling its guest lists.

The next day, conservative media figures were, in a word, grumpy. Beck revisited the theme of Obama’s arrogance (a common refrain) and accused him of lying, as did many on the right. He compared Obama’s relationship with the America people to that of a husband cheating on his wife (he doesn’t respect us, in case you were wondering). He even called the president a "punk" for his criticism of a recent Supreme Court decision lifting limits on corporations’ ability to make certain election-related expenses (Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Matt Drudge also attacked Obama’s Supreme Court criticism, even though Obama’s comments were in line with the views of four justices). Beck derided Obama’s "enemies list" and suggested that the chiding of TV pundits was all about him. (Who’s arrogant now, Glenn?) Then, feeling guilty, he toned it back and tried to be the bigger person, inquiring as to "how many children could be fed" with the money "in plastic surgery" between Pelosi and Biden.

Rush Limbaugh compared the remarks to "a speech by Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro" and likened Pelosi, who also clapped during the speech, to "a trained seal at Sea World." He accused Obama of dividing the country by bringing up equal pay for women and said that passing legislation with a majority of votes in Congress is "what dictators do." And finally, not to be outdone, America’s Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, voiced his dismay about the fact that Obama never said "war" during his remarks. (The claim was false, and Fox News’ Steve Doocy had to offer a correction.)

It’s worth noting that one significant problem persisted even outside of the conservative media constellation. Despite reports that "don’t ask, don’t tell" would be tackled in Obama’s State of the Union address, the initial lineup of cable and broadcast network hosts and commentators offering analysis immediately following the speech included only one openly LGBT figure, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

The state of the media is, well, not very good.

This week’s media columns

This week’s media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert asks if Fox News’ coverage equals a GOP campaign contribution; Jamison Foser looks at Sally Quinn’s Washington (it isn’t pretty); and Karl Frisch discusses the shadowy world of corporate media policy governing political and issue-advocacy commercials.

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This weekly wrap-up was compiled and edited by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube or sign up to receive his columns by email.