ACORN "pimp" James O'Keefe speaks on arrest

O'Keefe, facing federal charges after incident in Democratic senator's office, defends himself, attacks media

By Alex Koppelman
Published January 29, 2010 5:24PM (EST)

James O'Keefe, the man who came to fame for the taped sting operation he ran on ACORN offices while dressed as a pimp, has now spoken out on his arrest earlier this week. In a post on, the Web site that hosted and promoted his earlier work, he defended his actions in the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., which led to his arrest, and lashed out at the media.

"As an investigative journalist, my goal is to expose corruption and lack of concern for citizens by government and other institutions, as I did last year when our investigations revealed the massive corruption and fraud perpetrated by ACORN. For decades, investigative journalists have used a variety of tactics to try to dig out and reveal the truth," O'Keefe writes in the post, continuing:

I learned from a number of sources that many of Senator Landrieu’s constituents were having trouble getting through to her office to tell her that they didn’t want her taking millions of federal dollars in exchange for her vote on the healthcare bill. When asked about this, Senator Landrieu’s explanation was that, "Our lines have been jammed for weeks." I decided to investigate why a representative of the people would be out of touch with her constituents for "weeks" because her phones were broken. In investigating this matter, we decided to visit Senator Landrieu’s district office – the people’s office – to ask the staff if their phones were working.

On reflection, I could have used a different approach to this investigation, particularly given the sensitivities that people understandably have about security in a federal building ....  We video taped the entire visit, the government has those tapes, and I’m eager for them to be released because they refute the false claims being repeated by much of the mainstream media.

It has been amazing to witness the journalistic malpractice committed by many of the organizations covering this story .... The public will judge whether reporters who can’t get their facts straight have the credibility to question my integrity as a journalist.

O'Keefe also notes that it's been incorrectly reported in the media that he and the three others who were with him were engaged in a scheme to tap the phones in Landrieu's office. (Among other outlets, that detail was also reported here in War Room.) Federal authorities are backing him up on this point, and they the accounts they've given to reporters square with what O'Keefe says here.

There are a couple points to note, however. For one thing, Landrieu's district office may be indeed "the people's office" but it is still federal property, and it is a crime to enter "by any fraud or false pretense ... any real property belonging in whole or in part to, or leased by, the United States." That's one of the laws the four men involved are charged with breaking.

Also, as the Washington Independent's David Weigel notes, while O'Keefe is -- correctly -- criticizing reporters for getting elements of this story wrong, he engages in a little "journalistic malpractice" of his own. O'Keefe implies that Landrieu is personally taking millions of federal dollars in exchange for her vote; that essentially fits the definition of the crime of bribery under federal law. That's not what she did; she took millions of federal dollars for her constituents in exchange for her vote, which may be an unpleasant thing to consider, but it's not at all out of the ordinary: It's how government does business, how laws get passed, how federal and state projects get approved and how politicians get elected.

Finally, O'Keefe refers to himself repeatedly as an "investigative journalist." On the Corner, one of the National Review's blogs, John Hood has done a very good job of explaining why that's not an apt title for what O'Keefe does, writing, for instance, "It does the growing ranks of investigative journalists at conservative organizations a great disservice to invite a comparison of such publicity stunts with the hard, meticulous, and often boring work of exposing government waste and corruption."

That's exactly right -- investigative journalism is typically far more about spending weeks digging through boxes of files than it is the flash people think of. And O'Keefe's own explanation undermines his claim to being an investigative journalist. Saying your phone lines are "jammed" -- that is, often busy because of the number of people calling -- is hardly the same thing as saying they're broken. Filming a video to demonstrate that they're not broken really is a stunt in that case; as Hood aptly put it, "It's Borat, not Woodward & Bernstein."

That's not meant to diminish the value of these kinds of stunts; assuming they're done responsibly and honestly, they can be a great service. But they're just not the same thing as doing real investigative journalism.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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