The Media Today

The media today: WaPo flips the script on an attempted ‘sting’

November 28, 2017

It’s been a rough time for journalists. Public trust is near an all-time low, the President of the United States regularly rages against our work, and a financial reckoning is always one dismal earnings report away. But every now and then, a story breaks that makes every honest, hardworking scribe in the industry revel in a moment of well-earned delight.

ICYMI: Startled by that wild WashPo story? Here’s an article you might also want to read.

And so it went yesterday afternoon, when The Washington Post’s Shawn Boburg, Aaron C. Davis, and Alice Crites revealed, in painstaking detail, how a woman working for James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas had attempted to mislead reporters into printing the false accusation that she had an abortion at age 15 after Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore impregnated her. O’Keefe’s bumbling operative was exposed on camera by Post reporter Stephanie McCrummen, who showed up to their meeting with receipts in the form of a GoFundMe page the woman had created in which she claimed she had “accepted a job to work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceipt [sic] of the liberal MSM.”

Special credit goes to WaPo researcher Alice Crites, who unearthed the document, but the entire Post team, from Executive Editor Marty Baron on down, deserves praise. After reporters had nailed down the story, Baron decided to print the woman’s off-the-record comments because the paper felt no responsibility to honor an “agreement that was solicited in maliciously bad faith.” The video of McCrummen’s encounter with the Project Veritas operative (posted at the top of the WaPo story) is worth watching in full.

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ICYMI: NYTimes editor apologizes after article sparks outrage 

Journalists celebrate victories like these because the sort of malevolent behavior O’Keefe traffics in deserves to be exposed, but the reality is that his underhanded efforts make reporting harder. It’s difficult enough to confirm details of sexual assault allegations from decades past without bad actors attempting to muddy the waters. When O’Keefe and his crew of nihilist saboteurs enter the game, resources get diverted from reporting on honest stories.

O’Keefe tried to spin his failure as a victory, claiming a video of Post reporter Dan Lamothe accurately explaining the difference between hard news and the editorial pages represented some sort of admission that the paper had a liberal agenda. For honest observers, the episode demonstrates the meticulous work and rigorous fact-checking real reporters do as part of their jobs. But for O’Keefe’s supporters, who are already distrustful of the mainstream media and won’t see the Post’s report, the spin will be all they consume. They’ll continue to back his disingenuous efforts, and good journalism will only become more difficult to execute.

ICYMI: A simple way to remember who vs. whom

Below, more on the Post’s reverse sting.

  • Exposing newsroom rigor: The Post’s Callum Borchers writes that a plot “designed to embarrass the media by exposing recklessness demonstrated the media’s care instead.”
  • Follow-up: Post reporters filmed an encounter with O’Keefe himself outside the Project Veritas office. O’Keefe released an edited version of the tape, but the paper’s Marwa Eltagouri breaks down what really happened.
  • Only the latest dirty trick: After the Post broke the news of allegations against Moore, an imposter pretending to be a Post reporter called people in Alabama, offering thousands of dollars in exchange for damaging claims against the candidate.
  • Preparing for bad actors: Earlier this year for CJR, Elizabeth Toledo looked at how journalists can avoid an O’Keefe-style sting.
  • Newsroom context: The Hill’s Will Sommer offers “A brief history of James O’Keefe self-owns, in light of today’s WaPo story.”


Other notable stories

  • For The New York Times Magazine, Matthew Shaer has a deep dive into Sean Hannity’s unrelenting defense of Donald Trump.
  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram looks at the complicated relationship between digital media companies and venture-capital funding.
  • Splinter’s Anna Merlan and Brendan O’Connor found some details about Tony Hovater (for example: not his full name) that were missing from The New York Times’s piece of the “Nazi next door.”
  • I missed this over the weekend: The NYT’s Bret Stephens interviewed AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson about the Justice Department’s effort to stop his company’s takeover of Time Warner. “I have no evidence that there’s been inappropriate behavior,” Stephenson said. “What I have is a really peculiar timeline.”
  • After President Trump criticized CNN International—whose reporters work to provide news from some of the world’s most dangerous locations—the network responded, reports Politico’s Jason Schwartz.
Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.