The agents of truth are massing. They wear pleated slacks and wire-frame glasses, button-downs and blazers, sensible shoes. They congregate over muffins and oatmeal in a beigeish room on the twelfth floor of a Hilton in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. There are two people of color, but otherwise the agents appear blissfully Anglo-Saxon; some wear tea-party pins. The average age looks to be roughly 63, though that figure would be a few digits higher were it not for the eventual arrival of 28-year-old keynote speaker James O’Keefe, most famous for secretly filming a video that seems to show workers from the liberal community group acorn advising him on how to conceal income from an imaginary brothel. This, among other gonzo YouTube videos revealing alleged liberal misdeeds and hypocrisies, makes him a hero in this room. The agents of truth want to be like O’Keefe, rooting out liberal bias, shining light into the dark corners of corrupt government, and, perhaps most important, getting linked to by Drudge.
And so, on a sunny April morning, here they are at a Citizen Watchdog Summit aimed at training them in the art of citizen journalism, an event sponsored by the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which was created with support from David and Charles Koch. After an opening address, a speaker asks for a little audience participation.
“How many of you are on Facebook?” About half the agents raise their hands.
“How many of you are on Twitter?” About a quarter raise their hands.
“How many of you have done online video?” Two hands rise up from the crowd.
This is a bit of a problem for O’Keefe, who, during his talk, informs the agents that the goal is to “start an information revolution,” not with “pitchforks or guns” but with media. “I think it’s about video. I’m a video guy.”
In fact, O’Keefe’s Project Veritas cranks them out at a rate of about one per month; in the latest, O’Keefe saunters down a sunny sidewalk like the host of some alternate-reality 60 Minutes as he attacks Piers Morgan for not immediately signing a petition asking Time Warner to ban guns from movies. (Oddly, he wanted to “have a read of it first.”) Gonzo video journalism may not always pay brilliantly (“We’re a 501[c]3, so we ask for donations; one guy took a dollar bill and used it as toilet paper and sent it in the mail”), but it’s given him a platform from which to write a book, out in June, and pick up speaking gigs at events like these.
“My life mission is to do nothing but expose facts,” he tells me later. “I don’t feed off controversy. I don’t like hurting people. But I do like watching the catalytic process that forces some type of consequence.”
Hence a presentation of Project Veritas “case studies,” the consequences of which aren’t always easy to decipher. There’s the one in which a random guy goes up to a polling station and is offered, sans I.D., Attorney General Eric Holder’s ballot (“Isn’t that the very definition of journalism? Making the most powerful legal official in the world uncomfortable by posting videos on YouTube?”), and the one in which journalists from the Journal News—the New York paper that in December published details about gun-license holders—are asked by the fake group Citizens Against Senseless Violence to put signs on their lawns saying this home is proudly gun free. In the footage, they all decline. (“We decided to take it to the journalists once and for all by making them live up to their own rules.”) More successful is the one in which an undercover reporter is given an absentee-ballot application after telling an Obama-campaign worker she plans to vote in two different states; the worker was fired. (“One little YouTube video—the consequences are extraordinary.”)
O’Keefe assures his aging army that it’s a daunting task to break through the “media firewall” and portray the truth. There will be suffering, maybe even public disgrace, like what O’Keefe faced when he was arrested at the office of Senator Mary Landrieu after entering the federal property under false pretenses. “You can only imagine what it feels like to be shackled to your waist with a leather belt and chains and a Timothy McVeigh jumpsuit, put on the front page of the New York Times; you can only imagine how difficult it would be to continue. But I continued. Are you willing to make the sacrifices? Are you willing to be slandered and defamed, falsely accused?”
An older woman in a flowered turtleneck shirt raises her hand.
“My husband and I are fighting with our local township,” she says, her voice brimming with indignation. “What they came and did was end the curb so all the road’s storm water runs down our driveway, and in the winter it makes our driveway one solid sheet of ice. And thank you for the YouTube. We have photographs of the icy driveway, and we’ll be working on publishing.”
O’Keefe looks at her a bit blankly. “Well I’m glad you’re … you’re utilizing social media.”
She nods vigorously. “We will be doing that.”
Another woman in another turtleneck shirt (yellow) raises her hand with another non-question. “A place to have a lot of fun is the Washington Post,” she informs the group gleefully. “You can go in there online and comment on all of their articles. And every now and again, I find things like ‘Obama’s living so high on the hog that he needs oxygen’ kind of thing, you know what I mean. I just try to stay to the facts.”
O’Keefe considers this. “I mean, I think that’s good, but you’re still reacting to an existing article. They control the narrative.”
“Well, what I point out is what’s wrong with the article.”
“I would prefer that you write an article, and the Washington Post points out what’s wrong with you. Think revolution for a second.”
The woman does think for a second, maybe two. “But, you know, a lot of people read it, and I see people picking up on things that I have said. Somebody is listening.”
“I’m just—now I’m asking you to take it a step further,” O’Keefe tells her.
“Take it further?”
“Take it even further.”
After his presentation, O’Keefe can be found at a window near the back that looks out over his home state’s highways and warehouses. As a part of his three-year probation, he can’t travel without permission from a judge, a U.S. attorney, and a probation officer, he says.* This makes it hard for him to round up his army of citizen watchdogs, though he tells me that, along with continuing to make his videos, it is “definitely one of the more important things that I do.” Not that the law is the only obstacle. “To be a disrupter, to go against the grain—the hardest part for me is just getting them to do that. They’re all 50-plus. They’re always older. Probably the most frustrating thing about what I do is that people who have lived through a lot can identify more, but once you have a family, a house, you’re entrenched.” He pauses. “People in their twenties are going to be more likely to make sacrifices, but they’re just not there yet.”
*This article has been updated to clarify the terms of O’Keefe’s probation.