James O’Keefe, conservative provocateur and the orchestrator of dozens of undercover gotcha! videos, will speak at SMU Wednesday on behalf of a student group known as the Young Americans for Freedom. On Monday, the country learned of O’Keefe’s role in a scheme to hoodwink a Washington Post reporter into thinking she was talking to a woman who had been impregnated by Republican Senate hopeful Roy Moore at the age of 15. The woman, Jaime T. Phillips, alleged that Moore drove her from Alabama to Mississippi and paid for the abortion. Phillips asked the reporter again and again about the political impact of such a revelation. The reporter didn’t bite. Phillips fiddled with the placement of her purse. Her story began to contradict itself in places. The Post did its job.
Phillips was caught after the newsroom found what appeared to be her GoFundMe page, which included her full name and this sentence: “I’m moving to New York! I’ve accepted a job to work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceipt [sic] of the liberal MSM.” It was further confirmed after a reporter spotted her walking into the New York office of O’Keefe’s nonprofit, Project Veritas, which has funded and executed similar ventures against organizations like ACORN, Planned Parenthood, NPR, and The New York Times.
On Wednesday, he will come to SMU. According to the Eventbrite, his speech, titled “Stopping Bias in American Media,” will see O’Keefe “share his experience in the field of investigative journalism.”
“In a time fraught with fake news,” reads the university’s event page, “come hear from a man seeking to bring Truth to light.”
Young Americans for Freedom is a group of about 25 students that launched in the fall of 2015. It is one of more than 400 chapters at universities across the country; its national chapter is a nonprofit 501(c)3 located just outside of Washington D.C., which puts on an annual conference and helps organize nationwide university tours for conservative speakers like Ben Shapiro and Dinesh D’Souza. Grant Wolf, the founding chairman of the SMU chapter, said several of the group’s board members heard O’Keefe talk at one of these and felt that his message would be a good one to bring to campus. The university did not organize the event.
“Protection of free speech is bedrock at SMU. This speaker was invited to campus by a student organization, and we respect our students’ right to do so,” said Kim Cobb, SMU’s director of media relations. “Please do not misinterpret our support for that freedom as an indication of official University agreement on any particular issue.”
The timing of the event coincides with O’Keefe’s loudest fall. Project Veritas used its spurious assumption that The Washington Post produces biased and lazy reporting to try and smear the nine women who have come forward to accuse Roy Moore of sexual misconduct and assault. It also, on its very face, did the exact opposite of what it set out to: It proved that the reporters and editors at The Post did their jobs thoroughly, that they did not publish unverified allegations. It also swims with the very sort of “fake news” that O’Keefe and his followers rail against: The idea of a bogus scenario being published by a news organization to influence a political race, party, or candidate.
“We are not endorsing Mr. O’Keefe’s methods,” Wolf says. “What our perspective is, is that his experience in the field of investigative journalism is interesting and it is worth contribution on our campus for people to get to hear what he has to think and to get to question and challenge him. He is a relevant figure right now.”
Both the local and the national chapters have tried to separate themselves from O’Keefe’s methods. The national spokesman, Spencer Brown, told me that “we as an organization have never encouraged our student activists to pursue undercover-style investigations, but O’Keefe has shown that they are useful at times to expose bias or wrongdoing in an organization.” But his methods are intrinsic to his relevance.
Brown and Wolf both said they admired O’Keefe’s 2009 sting on ACORN, which found employees at numerous branches throughout the country advising him on how to skirt the law while running a brothel, including advice on tax evasion and human trafficking. The videos were heavily edited and sometimes disingenuous (O’Keefe incorrectly claimed that he had been dressed like a pimp during the undercover shoots), but even The New York Times admitted “the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.” It led to ACORN’s shuttering. Years later, after government investigations, O’Keefe agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement to a fired employee who sued for invasion of privacy.
Two years later, he taped an NPR fundraising executive blasting the Tea Party.
But then came the blunders, which haven’t stopped: Last year’s voicemail to a George Soros affiliate that ran too long and wound up revealing the scam; the guilty plea to trespassing after entering a federal building with a fake name; the time he tried to register a dead person to vote but the individual wound up being alive; the time he tried to impersonate a Detroit Free Press writer at the voting polls to a worker who knew the real writer. Even prominent conservative writers, like the aforementioned Ben Shapiro, have criticized his methods. This time, after the reveal, O’Keefe responded with another secretly-recorded video of a different Washington Post reporter essentially explaining the difference between the news and editorial operations of a newspaper.
“As the president of my chapter, I can’t, I’m not in the place to make a value judgment on Mr. O’Keefe’s methods at this moment. But I do think there are individuals who are on the right that have expressed concerns about the integrity of this particular instance,” Wolf said. “If people think his methods are regrettable or laudable, there can be an open discussion and I think that kind of conversation is in the long term beneficial in an academic environment.”
The event lasts from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Hughes-Trigg Student Center-Theater. It’s open to the public. Something tells me you’ll want to stay for the Q&A.