The Kid, the Pimp, and the Spineless Media

Swimming along in the shark-infested waters of Washington conservative politics, James O’Keefe is, at best, a tiny piranha.

Think of the old childhood favorite Swimmy – with teeth. As Scholastic Books intones, "Through teamwork and cooperation, a little fish and his friends triumph over the BIG fish."

O’Keefe, 25,whose high tide came in September when he was hailed as a right-wing hero for dressing up like a pimp to nail ACORN in a handful of heavily edited videos (we’re still waiting for the raw footage) ran aground two weeks ago, when he was busted by the FBI for entering Sen. Mary Landrieu’s district office in New Orleans with three other crusading cons to tamper with the phones, which is a felony. O’Keefe, who is from New Jersey, not New Orleans, claims he was not there to wiretap the good senator’s phones, but to figure out whether she was deliberately avoiding her constituents’ phone calls.

He may be a self-described "progressive radical and investigative journalist," but raising him up as the next-gen gonzo activist – and now, in some circles, some kind of martyr – is gratuitous. And silly, considering he’s tap-dancing in the shadow of an already established line of political hucksters, in which much greater giants have oozed and swaggered: Lee Atwater, Charlie Black, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, and Roger Stone to name a few. Where O’Keefe’s feel for the zeitgeist is spot-on in that he understands it’s about the instant gratification of gotcha "guerrilla journalism" (he reportedly once said journalism was all about putting a microphone in someone’s face long enough for them to say something stupid), he appears too immature to weave the patient and elaborate but deadly Machiavellian schemes it requires to leave one’s mark.

In other words, O’Keefe may have the benefit of YouTube, a swell agent, and a belly full of insolence, but it’s going to take a lot more than dressing up like Huggy Bear and David Hodo from the Village People to live up to the aforementioned bizarro Justice League, members of which have whitewashed African dictators, impeached a president, ruined political aspirations, and delivered us into a nearly decade of bloody war.

All that aside, there has been something about O’Keefe’s current flirtation with national notoriety that bears further inspection. But it’s more about the way the media has covered O’Keefe than about the young man himself. Let’s call it an anatomy of the spineless post-9/11 corporate news and how it got us into war, kept us in war, and helped the government gnaw away at our civil liberties.

Since before even Ronald Reagan’s time, the conservative movement has complained about "liberal media" bias, and to be fair, there is no shortage of valid evidence for that. The House impeachment of President Bill Clinton was a game-changer in that right-wing activists now had their own powerhouse cable television network (Fox News) and were slowly but tenaciously figuring out how to harness the real capabilities of the Internet. In fact, I would argue that the right wing was the first to recognize how to cow and manipulate the "old media," something they – and the real Left – had been trying to do for decades.

After 9/11, this was imperative. The Net and burgeoning blogosphere had been well-tested during the contentious 2000 presidential campaign, and the Right formed a united front that stood tall well through this last presidential campaign in defense of Sen. John McCain. This army, which included the force of the most popular cable news network in the country, was effective in framing, selling, and protecting President Bush’s national security polices after the 2001 terrorist attacks. This includes the passage of the PATRIOT Act and other assorted security crackdowns on Americans, the run-up to war, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the so-called "Global War on Terror," the pursuit of sanctions on Iran, the illegal wiretapping of Americans, foreign prisoner renditions, and extreme detainee interrogation practices.

How did it work? Its simplicity should not be underestimated.

The invasion of Iraq was easy. Bush wanted to convince the populace that Saddam Hussein was "an imminent threat." His surrogates seized on the bloodlust of many Americans (at least half of the electorate) and helped to make preemptive war a matter of strength and patriotism. The corporate media masters, sensing their ratings were bound up in this emerging narrative, decided resistance was futile and gladly sent their reporters off as embeds, blindly cooperating during Pentagon PR stunts like the Jessica Lynch fabrication and the Pat Tillman cover-up and standing down on those stories that demanded real reporting, like Abu Ghraib, the growing use of hired guns in the war zone, and Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

When it was clear that there were no WMDs in Iraq to begin with and the intelligence was all wrong, the right-wing blogosphere, now mature and disciplined, made sure it developed as a story about competing politics, for which different things could be read into the official investigations, like Robb-Silberman and the Senate Intelligence Committee report, based on the heightened partisan perspectives of the day.

The same went for "Plamegate" and the revelations that National Security Administration (NSA) under Bush had been illegally spying on an unknown number of Americans in supposed terror investigations. The formula let the corporate media off the hook: report the story as a partisan volleyball match and there’s no need for gumshoe reporting or brave editorial decisions. If and when media outlets attempted to pursue a potentially embarrassing story, right-wing talkers did their best to intimidate the mainstream into submission, launching fierce mini-campaigns online and on-air until the preferred narrative was adopted.

The only exception came when it became clear that George Bush had become one of the most unpopular presidents in history, and that Barack Obama was going to win in a Democratic landslide in 2008. The new climate allowed networks like MSNBC to take new risks, unleashing contrarian anchors like David Shuster, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow and letting them roll, openly attacking Fox and the Right and engaging in liberal spin that would have been entirely unacceptable to the corporate bottom-line view a year before.

Not anymore.

Obama’s election has not only emboldened but reinvented the right-wing information army, now a populist wall of resistance under the "Tea Party" moniker. Fox’s ratings are sky high. Much of this is natural – the forces in power, i.e., liberals, are no longer the aggrieved, so their rants and protestations now sound tin-eared and whiny.Thus Keith Olbermann’s tanking ratings. Even iconoclast Jon Stewart has taken to bashing him and preferring to sit across from Bill O’Reilly these days.

And then there’s the ongoing corporate shuffle. MSNBC’s paymasters (Microsoft and NBC Universal, 80 percent of which is owned by General Electric) obviously have their finger up to the foul wind and are squirming and shushing appropriately. If they are the last holdouts, the fate of journalistic integrity is in for another dark age.

Which brings us right back to O’Keefe. When O’Keefe’s patron Andrew Breitbart first posted the now infamous pimp-n-hooker ACORN video on his uber-popular Drudge Report spinoff site in September, the Right was quick to bully the mainstream into covering it – quite generously. How dare the New York Times wait days to cover this; why was the fourth estate falling down on the job?

The mainstream complied. But now that the proto-Geraldo has been arrested in a juvenile rendering of the Watergate burglaries, the mainstream is starting to buckle again, this time, being browbeaten by the Right for covering it too much.

Sure, even the most hard-core sensed O’Keefe’s case was weak – prompting Glen Beck and Michelle Malkin to make gratuitous statements clearing themselves of any culpability (ironically Malkin had long encouraged O’Keefe’s style of ambush journalism, including a 2008 action to expose Planned Parenthood, in which O’Keefe was reportedly a cameraman and phony donor).

But then something funny happened.

As the right-wing defense got into full gear, the new emerging O’Keefe narrative shifted away from his alleged felony to a more existential conversation about whether his brand of gonzo journalism is appropriate, invoking tedious chronological recountings of his college days, his conservative activism, and his champions in places like National Review and the Weekly Standard.

Suddenly, it becomes a boring inside-baseball yarn about a nerdy, nutty post-collegiate partisan, a story that only hard-core online bloggers like David Weigel have the stamina to cover. Sure, O’Keefe’s alleged ties with creepy conservative white supremacists are now being explored, but the story is so in the weeds now that the original charge – the fact that a cock-a-hoop prankster who was lionized by members of the U.S House of Representatives for bringing down a 40-year-old public interest institution with one dubious video ambush is facing felony charges for a phone-tampering caper– is nearly lost.

Just the way O’Keefe’s defenders want it to read. And we wonder, after nine years, $1 trillion spent, nearly 5,000 dead, and 90,000 injured, why we are still afraid to call for an end to the war overseas. At least "Swimmy" took on some leadership. Sadly, we cannot say the same about the mainstream media – which still remains, remember, the primary source of information for most Americans – playing the tiny, toothless prey, falling pathetically behind.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.