James O’Keefe Plots His Comeback

NEW YORK, N.Y.—It’s rush hour on a Tuesday night, and James O’Keefe is racing through Grand Central Station carrying a black bag with a bulletproof vest inside. We had taken an UberXL into midtown Manhattan hours earlier for a special fitting session: O’Keefe, the undercover sting artist and conservative folk hero, needed a new jacket and shirts to fit over the body armor recommended by his security consultants. But the tailor’s evaluation—in a suite at the posh Lotte New York Palace, nearly 50 floors above street level with sweeping views of Central Park and the Empire State Building—lasted longer than expected. At this time of day, it could take hours to commute by car back to Mamaroneck, the sleepy New York suburb where O’Keefe’s mischievous nonprofit news outfit, Project Veritas, is headquartered. So, O’Keefe, a blur of nervous energy known for quick-twitch decisions, says we are taking the train.

It was nearly a decade ago that O’Keefe snuck onto America’s political landscape with his takedown of ACORN, the liberal community organizing behemoth that was defunded after he and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and prostitute and secretly videotaped employees advising them how to shelter an off-the-books brothel. In the years since, nothing and everything has changed. O’Keefe, 33, is still a leper to the American left and a menace in the eyes of a media complex that frowns on his clandestine tactics. Yet gone is the young, emaciated, caffeine-and-adrenaline-fueled lone wolf whose maxed-out credit card financed the purchase of basic recording devices at Best Buy; in his place is a muscular man who has gained 60 pounds thanks to relentless diet and exercise, who built Project Veritas into a sprawling, high-tech operation, and who last year raised more than $7 million from an expectant donor base that sees O’Keefe as a guerrilla leader on the front lines of America’s culture war.

He has grabbed enough headlines to keep the checks coming. In January, for instance, Project Veritas released an undercover investigation of Twitter that roiled Silicon Valley. The substance was intriguing if not explosive—one former employee touted the practice of “shadow-banning” accounts based on ideological content, while a higher-ranking current official admitted that employees peruse the erotic images exchanged by users—and yet the mere fact that O’Keefe’s outfit had infiltrated the social media giant was cause for celebration on the right. Not every operation has been a hit, of course. Project Veritas was given a dose of its own medicine last fall when, after an ill-conceived and dreadfully executed attempt to sting the Washington Post went south, the newspaper flipped the script on O’Keefe and released its own tape of reporters unmasking his undercover operative.

It was the biggest flop of O’Keefe’s career. Denunciations rained down, including from comrades on the right. He took it hard. Friends describe the New Jersey native as maniacally driven and extremely sensitive to criticism, and several said the botched Post job was the lowest they’ve seen him—lower even than his 2010 incarceration following the failed attempt to discover telephonic misdeeds in the Louisiana office of then-Senator Mary Landrieu. The Post debacle also might have marked a point of no return in O’Keefe’s relationship with the media. A self-described journalist, O’Keefe looks in the mirror and sees a muckraker in the mold of Upton Sinclair or Nellie Bly, taking bold, unconventional steps to expose what no mainstream reporter ever could. O’Keefe spent years courting and craving recognition from those he considered peers. But despite his many objective successes—leading political reporter Dave Weigel to write in Slate that O’Keefe “had more of an impact on the 2012 election than any journalist”—the validation never came. Newsrooms decried his methods, questioned his ethics and summarily dismissed him as unreliable. Spurned, O’Keefe targeted the media itself. With Donald Trump’s ascent offering a unique opportunity to probe for bias in the press, his team spent much of 2017 investigating the pillars of the fourth estate: the New York Times, CNN and, fatefully, the Post.

Aboard a cramped commuter train heading north, O’Keefe bemoans what he believes is a double standard. Critics consider him a villain for “allegedly” making misleading edits to videos, he says, but why hasn’t Katie Couric been branded with a scarlet letter for the deceptive editing in her 2016 documentary about guns? People still read Rolling Stone, O’Keefe complains, even though it published a 9,000-word account of a campus rape that never occurred. People trust the Post, he notes, but it was forced to print a correction after its ACORN coverage initially stated that O’Keefe had targeted the group because it helped African-Americans and Latinos. “Yet because I selectively edit,” O’Keefe says, using air quotes, “I am the most despicable person on the planet.”

Read more at Politico.