“James, do whatever you want to do.”

That’s how NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen responded to James O’Keefe in 2011. Given the context, it seemed an appropriate response.

Personally, I was a little annoyed by the timing: My article on O’Keefe and fellow right-wing pseudo-journalist Andrew Breitbart was already complete and ‘typeset’ for News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism edited by Burton Saint John and Kirsten Johnson. It was too late to change it. The book, with my essay “The Pride and Reward of Falsification: Post-Objectivity as Post-Responsibility,” would appear a few months later.

It seemed to me at the time that O’Keefe had no future. He and Breitbart (who died in 2012) had been so openly skewered as media manipulators that no one could take them seriously.

Apparently, I wasn’t reading my own article carefully enough. The fact of being a fraud is irrelevant to O’Keefe (as it was to Breitbart). The point is to make other look like frauds, if even for a moment.

Twice, now, O’Keefe, through his ironically named “Project Veritas,” has used the trusting nature of higher education to try to bring its representatives down. In the first instance, O’Keefe or one of his “operatives” posed as a potential student and asked to sit in on Rosen’s class:

As I said, when someone asks to sit it on my class, I say “come on in.” But my students are now shocked and angry that their learning environment has been invaded by a trickster like O’Keefe. I need to prevent that from happening again. But the only way I can do so is by closing my classroom to all outsiders, or by looking into the background, motivations and character of potential visitors, which is creepy and offensive. O’Keefe has struck at a pedagogical strength–the openness of my classroom–and changed it into a weakness. In that precise sense, and no other, he is like a terrorist.

Disruption–and self-aggrandizement and profit–that’s O’Keefe’s game. And Rosen depicts him accurately.

O’Keefe does not care if he, through misrepresentation, is attacking one of the pillars of higher-education pedagogy, its openness. He doesn’t care about anything but publicity, having taken to heart the concept whose creation is sometimes attributed to P. T. Barnum, “There is no such thing as bad publicity.” It is all good for him, no matter what happens. That it may be bad for someone else is merely icing on the cake.

O’Keefe’s latest foray into the land of higher education led to this response, from David Skorton, president of Cornell University:

Project Veritas, the organization behind this shoddy piece of “journalism” has been repeatedly vilified for dishonest, deceitful activity. It is shameful that any individual would pose as a student facing racial discrimination at another university, ask leading questions on hidden camera about Cornell’s tolerance for differing viewpoints and backgrounds, and then conveniently splice together the resulting footage to smear our assistant dean and our University. After speaking with Assistant Dean Scaffido, I am convinced that he was not aware of what he was being asked.

Jeff Stein, writing for Salon, tells what happened:

On Tuesday, conservative stuntman James O’Keefe released a video purporting to show a Cornell official expressing support for the formation of a student group that backs ISIS. The video shows nothing of the kind, but it quickly gained traction in right-leaning (and even some mainstream) media outlets. Before long, the Ivy League school was forced into the bizarre position of issuing a statement to say that, no, it does not in fact condone violence or the establishment of Islamic caliphates.

What possible chain of events could lead Cornell to make such a remarkable disclaimer? In O’Keefe’s hidden camera video, released through his platform, “Project Veritas,” Cornell assistant dean Joseph Scaffido is shown first saying that he would welcome a “humanitarian group in the Middle East, northern Iraq and Syria.” He is then shown politely answering follow-up questions — from what he assumes to be a prospective student — clearly unaware that the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” to which the “undercover journalist” refers, is in fact a terrorist group.

The way the faux-student’s question was posed hid the fact that he was naming ISIS and not simply using a phrase. Also Joseph Scaffido is an Assistant Dean of Students for Student Activities. His job is event and event-planning support. He supports what students are doing on campus; it is not his position to act as gatekeeper. What O’Keefe was trying to do to him and through him never rises about the reprehensible.

It may once have been possible to shrug off the likes of O’Keefe, or to laugh them off. Once again, though, his antics are harming innocents, just as those of terrorists do.

3 thoughts on ““James, do whatever you want to do.”

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.