After arrest, provocateur's tactics are questioned


POSTED: Thursday, January 28, 2010

NEW ORLEANS—Shortly after news broke of his arrest on charges of trying to tamper with the telephones in Sen. Mary Landrieu's district office here, James O'Keefe III posted a brief statement on Twitter: “;I am a journalist,”; it read. “;The truth shall set me free.”;

It is still unclear exactly what O'Keefe and three other men were doing when they were caught on Monday, charged by federal authorities with fraudulently entering a federal building for the purpose of “;interfering”; with Landrieu's phone system. But the episode has raised questions about the nature of the journalism practiced by O'Keefe, even among his past supporters.

O'Keefe is a conservative activist who gained fame last year by posing as a pimp and secretly recording members of the community group ACORN giving him advice on how to set up a brothel.

At least three of the men charged in the episode have backgrounds in campus journalism. Both O'Keefe, 25, a graduate of Rutgers, and Joseph Basel, 24, a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Morris, started conservative newspapers on their campuses, which they saw as counterweights in a liberal campus environment. (Basel actually called his paper The Counterweight.) Stan Dai, 24, was editor in chief of The GW Patriot, a conservative campus newspaper at George Washington University.

The one exception appears to be the fourth man, Robert Flanagan, 24, who was a star pitcher at Rhodes College in Memphis. The son of William Flanagan, the acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, he later worked as an intern for several Republican members of Congress, including Rep. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

On Wednesday morning, O'Keefe, Basel and Dai reported to the New Orleans branch of the federal pretrial services office, an agency that monitors people who are out of jail but awaiting federal trial. They left the office later in the morning, giving no comment to reporters, with plans to return to their homes, all out of state.

Flanagan is a resident of New Orleans, and reported to the office on Tuesday.

They are all scheduled for a pretrial hearing on Feb. 12, but the lawyer representing Flanagan, J. Garrison Jordan, said he expected an indictment or a bill of information earlier than that.

O'Keefe has long espoused a form of journalism that draws attention to itself. He has made prank calls to Planned Parenthood clinics and pulled off a Taxpayers' Clearinghouse stunt—taxpayers were given large fake checks, only to be told the money was for the bank bailout—that would not be out of place in a movie by Michael Moore, the liberal gadfly.

In an interview with a Web site run by the Leadership Institute, which recruits and trains conservative leaders and helped O'Keefe and Basel start their campus newspapers, they espoused a mix of traditional investigation—“;Follow the money trail”;—and more provocative techniques, like recording professors' lectures and printing the transcripts in the newspaper.

This approach led to O'Keefe's most high-profile project, the ACORN tapes, made with an associate, Hannah Giles, who was dressed as a prostitute. The film damaged ACORN's reputation, and prompted a move by Congress to cut off some of its federal financing. But such an approach is risky, as O'Keefe himself has acknowledged, and for now at least, it seems the latest stunt has backfired.

Several commentators on the right have already begun to distance themselves from the misconduct charged by federal authorities. Glenn Beck, on his radio show, said that if it turned out that the group was trying to wiretap the office—which federal authorities have not alleged—it was “;insanely stupid.”;

But others are going further, and cautioning fellow conservatives—who often champion non-traditional approaches to journalism in contrast to a mainstream perceived as biased—about O'Keefe's techniques in principle.

Michelle Malkin, a prominent blogger who has been a strong critic of ACORN and a supporter of O'Keefe's undercover taping of ACORN employees, emphasized that it was too early to make a judgment. “;But for now,”; she wrote, “;let it be a lesson to aspiring young conservatives interested in investigative journalism: Know your limits. Know the law. Don't get carried away.”;

John Hood, on The National Review blog The Corner, speculated that the episode probably looked worse than it was. But he said O'Keefe's “;publicity stunts”; do a disservice to the growing ranks of investigative journalists at conservative organizations trying to expose government waste and corruption.

Former students and alumni of the student publications remembered O'Keefe and Dai, especially, for their aggressive, often prank-filled brand of journalism. At Rutgers and George Washington, both publications have taken a less confrontational approach.

“;James always said, 'Journalism is putting a camera in someone's face until they do something stupid,' “; said Cain Barry, who worked with O'Keefe at The Centurion, a conservative publication at Rutgers, until O'Keefe graduated in 2006. “;A lot of people wanted to follow what he did.”;

Four years later, however, The Centurion has taken a slightly different path. The magazine, which comes out two or three times a semester, no longer makes videos.