Former Dem Aide Stephanopoulos Lectures James O'Keefe: 'You're More of a Political Activist Than a Journalist'

June 1st, 2010 12:35 PM

Former Democratic operative turned journalist George Stephanopoulos lectured James O'Keefe on Tuesday, deriding, "And some of your critics say that you're more of a political activist than a journalist..." [Audio available here.]

The Good Morning America host, and former aide to Bill Clinton, quizzed the conservative investigative journalist and dismissed, "So, you're a conservative activist, not a journalist."

Stephanopoulos, who also worked for Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, repeatedly chided O'Keefe over an aborted undercover investigation into Senator Mary Landrieu.

(O'Keefe eventually plead guilty to entering federal property under false pretenses and was sentenced to community service.)

The morning show host grilled, "You would do it again? You would commit a crime again?...But you committed a crime."

It's a little odd for a representative of ABC to be deriding the work of undercover journalists. After all, in 1994, it was a show on the very same network that used fake credentials given to by union groups to attack the supermarket Food Lion for using unsanitary meat.

The Media Research Center's Brent Bozell wrote on January 28, 1997:

What do you call it when an undercover reporter working for a national television network, investigating the sanitation of a grocery store with a hidden camera, films a dirty meat slicer and then mutters obscenities when an employee ruins the fun and cleans it up? Or when, posing as a worker in the store's meat department, puts what she knows to be spoiled chicken on sale and then instructs a cameraman to film it? Or when her network airs footage of an employee talking about cooking out-of-date chicken, but edits out the part where she says her manager instructed her to throw the chicken away?


The ten minute national television story purported to show serious sanitation problems at Food Lion; Food Lion responded with a lawsuit and in the discovery phase was able to acquire the 45 hours of footage ABC had compiled undercover, footage which showed the producers actually staging events in order to show Food Lion in the worst possible light. The food chain chose not to sue for libel - proving malice is next to impossible - instead opting to charge the network with fraud and trespassing. A jury agreed with the complaint, and slapped the multi-million dollar fine on ABC.

Stephanopoulos even hammered O'Keefe with a Salon hit piece that the online magazine had to issue corrections on: "But, one other point your critics make is they say you're animated by resentment over race. They point out that you've attended at least one conference where white nationalist literature and speaker were promoted."

Finally, the network journalist repeatedly touted Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown as an expert on O'Keefe's investigation of ACORN. He recited, "But, critics like California Attorney General Jerry Brown have called him a partisan showman, who uncovered no illegal activity and revised reality for political gain."

Later, Stephanopoulos repeated, "On ACORN, you exposed people doing things they shouldn't do. Although, Jerry Brown shows you didn't show legality by ACORN."

A partial transcript of the June 1 segment, which aired at 7:30, follows:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But, now, we turn to our exclusive interview with the man who has been called a guerrilla videographer and who has called himself a conservative activist out to, quote, "create chaos for glory." James O'Keefe gained national attention last year with his video expose of the community organizing group ACORN. But, in January, he got arrested and was sentenced last week for trying to pull off another hidden camera operation. He's going to join us in a moment. But, first, a look back at his brief but already controversial career. James O'Keefe became a media sensation after he and a friend posed as a pimp and prostitute and secretly recorded ACORN workers giving them advice on how to cheat on their taxes.

JAMES O'KEEFE: Sex is kind of like dancing, right?


STEPHANOPOULOS: Those videos turned into a massive political backlash, forcing ACORN to shut down. O'Keefe's work was hailed by conservatives.

O'KEEFE [giving speech]: This is no joke. We are called to do this and we're going to devote our lives to doing it.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But critics like California Attorney General Jerry Brown have called him a partisan showman, who uncovered no illegal activity and revised reality for political gain. This winter, at the height of the health care debate, O'Keefe went back under cover. But this time, he made news before he ever filmed anything. On January 25th, O'Keefe and three friends were arrested at the New Orleans offices of senator Mary Landrieu. Two were dressed as telephone repairmen. O'Keefe was carrying a camera, disguised to look like a cell phone. Their plan: To videotape staffers they believed were refusing to field calls from opponents of health care reform. Last week, all four pled guilty to entering federal property under false pretenses, a misdemeanor. And were sentenced to community service and probation.

O'KEEFE: What I do is I stand up to power. My mission is to just expose truth. And Americans can play judge and jury.

STEPHANOPOULOS: O'Keefe says he has found his next target, the Census Bureau. In May, he and his friend Sean Adeleye signed up to work for the Census in New Jersey and Louisiana. They each attended paid training courses. O'Keefe earned $18.25 an hour. Adeleye made $13.25. During that training, they said they were paid for some hours they didn't work. And they quit after a few days. And joining us now, James O'Keefe, and Andrew Breitbart, the publisher of James, let me being with you. And I do want get to the new project. But, first, let's set the record straight. You did commit a crime, correct?

O'KEEFE: Yes. A misdemeanor.

STEPHANOPOULOS: A misdemeanor. Entering federal property under false pretenses. But you sounded pretty defiant on the steps of the court. Do you think you did anything wrong?

O'KEEFE: I would do it again. I might do it differently. But, corruption exists inside federal buildings.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You would do it again? You would commit a crime again?

O'KEEFE: No, I might do it differently. But, I don't regret what I did. Corruption exists in federal building.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, you committed a crime.

O'KEEFE: Senators are corrupt. Politicians are corrupt. These people have to be investigated.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, you would commit a crime again?

O'KEEFE: No, like I said, I might do it a bit differently.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you would try to stay within the letter of the law next time?

O'KEEFE: Of course. Yes. Yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So, you do regret that?

O'KEEFE: Oh, yeah. But like I said, these people need to be investigated. And they're not immune from investigative journalism. Do you know what I mean?

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the judge said you were a journalist. But he said you crossed the line. And some of your critics say that you're more of a political activist than a journalist, including your political colleagues and allies. Morton Blackwell, respected conservative said that he let you go from your work at the Leadership Institute because you wanted to do a sting operation. He said our group doesn't do that kind of work. "And Blackwell told O'Keefe to choose between his job and the activism. He said he was committed to the activism." And, by your own admission, on your own website, you say, "Chaos for Glory: My Time With ACORN." You say it's time to emulate the work of ACORN. These are your words. "It's time for us to be studying and applying their tactics, many of which are ideologically neutral. It's time for conservative activists to create chaos for glory." So, you're a conservative activist, not a journalist.

O'KEEFE: No. I consider myself an investigative journalist. This is- These are tactics journalists have been doing for decades. Going undercover, confronting subjects, posing as characters. This is something- we're rebranding it. We're revitalizing it. We're resurrecting a genre that's existed. But, this is not a left or right thing. This is just about exposing corruption.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, except you write you're a conservative activist trying to create chaos for glory. That sounds like it's got an ideological agenda.

O'KEEFE: Chaos for glory. It's like- It's like destroying corruption. It's another way of sort of tackling, taking on power. Because, that's what this is. It's about speaking truth to power. Standing up. And shining a light behind closed doors.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I want to get to the Census. But, one other point your critics make is they say you're animated by resentment over race. They point out that you've attended at least one conference where white nationalist literature and speaker were promoted. And they point to a time in college at Rutgers when you were kicked out of a dorm for using racist slurs.

O'KEEFE: That's outrageous. I mean, that's been completely disproven on the internet. I'm not even going to address that.

ANDREW BREITBART: That was debunked. That was a Max Blumenthal hit piece at Salon where they had to issue retractions. And so-

STEPHANOPOULOS: This is his diary. This is James O'Keefe's diary.

BREITBART: This is the type of journalism we do is to counter the false narratives and the slurs that happen from political operatives, like Max Blumenthal, like Joan Walsh at Salon who use journalism as a platform, to slur James O'Keefe. It's not true.

O'KEEFE: When you take on corruption-

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, this is your diary that points it out.

O'KEEFE: When you stand up- When you stand up to institutions, people are going to come after you. They're going to use character assassinations. Well, we're going to rise above that. This is not about me. I'm creating a movement of investigative journalists across the country. And they're not going to stop us with character assassination and innuendo.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But, you don't deny that this was your own diary that pointed this out?

O'KEEFE: They're not going to be able to stop that.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You don't deny that?

O'KEEFE: No. What I'm saying is when you stand up to powerful individuals, they're going to try to destroy you and smear you. But, this is not about me. This is about the truth. They can't stop us with that type of stuff.

STEPHANOPOULOS: As you know, and you did. I have to give you credit for this. On ACORN, you exposed people doing things they shouldn't do. Although, Jerry Brown shows you didn't show legality by ACORN.

BREITBART: Is it legal to set up a prostitution ring in every single office? If that isn't illegal, then, maybe, perhaps we should create some- they get federal money. They get federal money. Al Franken voted against ACORN. The Census was de-linked by the White House, by way of the Treasury Department as part of the executive office. What he exposed caused a lot of damage. And there are- they have political enemies that want to send a message to citizen journalists around the world, not to join the James O'Keefe bandwagon.

STEPHANOPOULOS: I was one of the few, if not the only journalist, who actually asked President Obama about the ACORN case.

BREITBART: Why- journalists not interested in that story? That's why we do what we do. The media is hesitant to cover certain narratives that don't fit with the political orientation.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, As I said- as I said I did cover it. I did ask the question. So, I hold no brief for ACORN.