It is fitting that Battleground Texas officials first learned that they were being targeted by James O’Keefe, the wunderkind of undercover video, thanks to a chance act of eavesdropping. It was mid-September on a New York commuter train when a passenger found himself sitting near “a weirdly familiar-looking character” conversing with a companion.
The commuter recognized the character as activist James O’Keefe, and he emailed a warning to the general Battleground Texas mailbox: “I could not hear exactly what he was talking about, but it seemed to me he kept mentioning `videography’ and `Battleground Texas.’ It was definitely him, and I wish I could give you more details but the train was pretty loud. I am sure you guys are in his sights.”
The tip was on target, and the months since have seen an elaborate cat-and-mouse game across Texas between O’Keefe’s Project Veritas and Battleground Texas, a Democratic effort to turn heavily Republican Texas into an electoral battleground.
O’Keefe, who first drew national attention for the 2009 undercover videos that brought down the community organization ACORN, has sought to ensnare Battleground in his Web videos, and Battleground has sought to keep 10,000 volunteers from saying or doing anything that might play into O’Keefe’s hands.
On Thursday, O’Keefe released his latest undercover video, which shows Battleground Texas volunteers discussing whether Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s disability will affect the Republican’s campaign for governor.
It is what O’Keefe characterizes as “guerrilla citizen journalism,” founded on the precepts of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” which is the bible for modern community organizing, though a seemingly incongruous choice as a guiding text for a hero on the right. (Newt Gingrich, among others, has described former community organizer Barack Obama as a “Saul Alinsky radical.”)
“I don’t necessarily identify myself as a conservative,” O’Keefe told the American-Statesman, adding that “conservative” aptly describes a distrust of government power that he believes all journalists should share.
“Alinsky is about restoring power to the people and taking it away from the haves, the establishment,” said O’Keefe, quoting a favorite bit of Alinsky wisdom: “The basic tactic in warfare against the haves is a mass political jujitsu: the have-nots do not rigidly oppose the haves, but yield in such planned and skilled ways that the superior strength of the haves becomes their undoing.”
To Jenn Brown, Battleground’s executive director, what O’Keefe is up to is nothing but straight-up right-wing agitprop — a mission to scuttle her organization’s efforts to register new voters and bolster Democrats’ chances in a state with notoriously low electoral participation.
“This is part of the Republican strategy,” Brown said. “He’s one of them.”
Before long, Brown was getting reports from Battleground organizers in Austin, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio about odd and eerily similar encounters at meetings at which a supposed “volunteer” — really, they concluded, an O’Keefe agent provocateur — would suggest ways Battleground could cut legal corners in registering voters, in the apparent hope of catching on a hidden camera someone else at the meeting seconding the nefarious notion, which could then be “sliced and diced” into an incriminating video.
“By the time it actually becomes a video, it’s not the truth,” Brown said.
“He should get zero ink in any respectable newspaper or website,” said Jeremy Bird, the former national field director for Obama’s re-election campaign — now a Chicago consultant — who founded Battleground Texas almost a year ago.
“We are talking about an admitted criminal,” Bird said. “Someone who has clearly doctored tapes and spends his entire career trying to take down people that are registering voters and doing other patriotic duties. We shouldn’t be wasting any time talking about his work.”
But there is no gainsaying that O’Keefe — six months shy of 30 and only now moving out of his parents’ home in suburban New Jersey to strike out on his own in Hoboken — has a canny understanding of the power of video and how to deploy it to sometimes devastating effect.
Undercover reporter or partisan operative?
Thanks to O’Keefe’s videos, ACORN, a long-lived community organization, was defunded by Congress and crippled. Both the CEO of NPR and the president of the NPR Foundation were forced to resign after a Veritas operation. And his newest effort in Texas led to the sacking of several Affordable Care Act navigators and the resignation of Chris Tarango, the Austin-based Texas communications director for Enroll America, dedicated to encouraging people to enroll in coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
“The difference between me and most journalists is that I get almost everything on videotape showing exactly what people said,” O’Keefe said. “Until I release the video, everyone is going to make denials and call me names and call me a liar, but when the video comes out, it’s on tape so that’s sort of how I do it.”
Undercover reporting — including video — has a rich if controversial history, said Glenn Frankel, director of the University of Texas School of Journalism. Think of Mike Wallace, among many others.
“James would like to put himself in that great tradition and claim the mantle of journalism,” Frankel said. “But it’s pretty clear James has a very strong ideological agenda.”
While there is not an agreed-upon definition of a journalist, Frankel said, “I still cling to the notion that the best journalism, the most effective journalism is even-handed and bends over backwards to talk to everyone possible and is honest in its news-gathering techniques and its presentation and tries hard to be fair-minded and independent of ideology as much as possible.”
But Frankel doesn’t dispute that O’Keefe displays a certain genius and that his work “reveals the tripwire nature of the modern media age … about the ways to get a good lynch mob going in 2014.”
O’Keefe also has a theatrical side.
Most famously, he and his female confederate dressed up as pimp and prostitute for their ACORN sting — he wore his grandfather’s hat and grandmother’s chinchilla shawl — but only for purposes of embellishing their video and not for their actual visits to ACORN offices, which turned to be a source of tremendous early confusion in the coverage of what they had done.
The low point of O’Keefe’s career was a botched escapade in U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office, which led to his pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering a federal building under false pretenses, three years probation, a $1,500 fine and 100 hours of community service. But he followed that with a “Landrieu Dance” music video in which he sang and danced with a mock Landrieu in an elaborate production number.
Spliced into his video on the Texas health care navigators is a scene in which O’Keefe, in cowboy regalia, strides into a bar and orders a cranberry juice. At the end of the video, O’Keefe proclaims, “There is a new sheriff in town.” The YouTube video has more than 600,000 hits.
“Part of it is showmanship,” Frankel said of O’Keefe’s mix of genres. “And it’s kind of brilliant.”
“There are all different types of journalism,” O’Keefe said. “If you can go on TV and talk and be a stenographer, those people are considered journalists. What we do here is journalism, exposing information. … We sing, we dance while we do the videos. We whistle while we work.”
He quotes his late mentor, Andrew Breitbart, describing his oeuvre as, “Morley Safer meets Borat.”
Ultimately, said John Fund, the conservative columnist for the National Review who wrote admiringly of O’Keefe’s work in his book on voter fraud, O’Keefe’s journalistic credibility can be measured in the body count.
“If people get fired, something’s up,” Fund said. “People only fire people if they feel the people who are caught on the tape did something wrong. They don’t fire them if everything’s fine and kosher.”
‘Give them enough rope to hang themselves’
O’Keefe professes disinterest in the fallout from his work.
“We expose the truth about the nature of things. If the American people, if the people of Travis County, don’t have a problem with what we expose, that’s fine. If they do have a problem with it, then that’s fine,” he said. “I don’t really care.”
And he doesn’t believe he’s entrapped anyone.
“You can’t con an innocent man, isn’t that what W.C. Fields once said?” O’Keefe said, an apparent reference to the comedian’s 1939 film, “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.”
Wade Rathke, the founder of ACORN (though he left before the O’Keefe sting) and still chief organizer with ACORN International and United Labor Union Local 100, was on the lookout for O’Keefe.
Local 100, representing low-wage service workers, is collaborating with Affordable Care Act navigator programs in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, and, from the start, Rathke said, “We’ve been warning that anything that is out of plumb likely was mischief.”
As Rathke writes in the most recent issue of the journal “Social Policy,” with all the antagonism to the Affordable Care Act on the right, “it is unbelievable that any organization involved in enrollment would not have gone into immediate, def-con four preparation to be ready for O’Keefe and his team. It was inevitable.”
Local 100, Rathke wrote, “instituted weekly staffwide calls for all of organizers. We put out instructions and guides on how to identify possible O’Keefe acolytes. We set up an early warning system in all of our offices for any suspicious characters or questions that seemed inappropriate. We did office-by-office training sessions on how to handle O’Keefers. We required a minimum of a weekly role play session with all staff with an organizer being an O’Keefe and walking each organizer through how to handle him or her.”
Rathke recalls a scene in which one such “O’Keefer,” unmasked while filming undercover, fled to a waiting getaway car.
Several weeks later, Rathke said the same man was on Fox News as the undercover guy in the first of O’Keefe’s navigator exposes.
If so, that would be Lawrence Jones III, a 21-year-old conservative activist from Garland (he ran for the school board at 19), and a pre-law student at the University of North Texas, who was introduced to O’Keefe by a mutual friend as Project Veritas was launching its fall campaign in Texas.
“I don’t know anything about that, man,” said Jones of the chase scene described by Rathke, though he admits to some heart-pounding moments.
“The whole undercover stuff I think is every child’s dream,” said Jones, who has been amazed at what people have said to him with only the least prodding.
”It’s almost like you’re talking to children — you give them enough rope to hang themselves,” he said.
After his identity became known, Jones said Battleground sent supporters a warning email with his photo and O’Keefe’s. He knows that, he said, because a sympathetic person within Battleground told him so.
“There are some good people in Battleground Texas,” he said.
New video expected soon
Late last year, O’Keefe and Jones turned their attention to Austin, approaching the Battleground Texas office, the office of Travis County voter registrar Bruce Elfant, and the First Unitarian Universalist Church, where every Saturday Elfant trains and deputizes deputy voter registrars who can help potential voters register – nonpartisan training that is open to anyone but has included many volunteers with Battleground Texas, which now has about 5,000 deputy voter registrars statewide.
This time, O’Keefe, Jones and a third person with a camera rolling, arrived as themselves, not undercover.
“I thought he was a college kid doing a project. He asked if I knew who he was,” recalled Elfant, a Democrat. “I didn’t know who he was. He said, ‘I’m the guy who brought down ACORN.’ They seemed disappointed that I didn’t know them.”
Elfant said O’Keefe intimated some wrongdoing by Battleground Texas — a “veiled allegation with no meat on it” — having to do with Battleground distributing tan voter registration cards, intended for deputy registrars, to the general population, instead of the white cards intended for anyone, which, Elfant said, isn’t the practice of his office, though he doesn’t think it violates any law.
Elfant asked O’Keefe for evidence, but, “he didn’t give me anything to get my teeth around.” Afterward, Elfant called Jenn Brown to tell her of the encounter.
A spokeswoman for Project Veritas said a new video will be released this week or next.
Elfant and Brown said they have no idea what it will purport to show.
But, said Elfant, “I have no desire to be a bit player in a right-wing documentary.”