American Pravda (James O'Keefe)

HOW TO MANUAL – In this, his second book, James O’Keefe provides an informative and hard-hitting update on Project Veritas, an investigative journalism group that he founded and continues to lead. The “American Pravda” title is a play on the name of Pravda (meaning truth in Russian), a long-term Communist Party publication in the Soviet Union, which implies that the US mainstream media is churning out its own version of “the party line.”

The subtitle is “My fight for truth in the era of fake news,” and the core of the book’s coverage is a series of stories about Project Veritas operations during the 2015-16 election campaign action and start of the Trump administration (cutting off in the 4th quarter of 2017). Coverage is fast-paced, instructive, and covers investigative journalism from every angle.

Strategic issues: What does investigative journalism seek to accomplish (establish truths that the people/groups concerned wouldn’t normally reveal), are there precedents for this kind of activity (yes, going back to “muckrakers” like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens & Ida Tarbell), how are investigative targets selected (talk to lots of people, pursue leads that promise to be productive), why are audiotapes and video footage important (provide impact and defuse denials), how should the information be publicized (report that big revelations are coming, tell stories vs. simply reporting facts, phased vs. one-shot release), how will embarrassed individuals/groups react (from “selective editing” claim to hardball litigation), how do you know that investigative efforts have made a difference (key players resign or are fired, policy changes), what are the benefits for society (truth will set us free)?

Tactical issues: What kind of people make good investigative journalists (smart, hard working, bold, resourceful), how do they select investigative targets (talk to lots of people, pursue leads that promise to be productive), how do they avoid detection (stick to their cover stories, avoid acting too anxious), what should they do if someone “makes them” (disengage quickly and return to base)?

While other interesting projects are described in the course of the book, I found the stories about voting fraud to be the most interesting. For all the claims that voting fraud is exceedingly rare, etc., it would be difficult to read these stories and not conclude otherwise. So heck, yes, voters should have to show voter ID when they vote if we want the results of elections to fairly reflect the wishes of the voting age population.

What about the ethics of investigative journalism? Misrepresenting one’s identity and getting people to admit things that they had no intention of disclosing to the general public” does not seem exactly admirable, so Mr. O’Keefe’s advocacy of such methods boils down to an argument that “the ends justify the means.”

Thus, the acknowledgments section includes a surprising (coming from a conservative) plug for Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” This book, is “profoundly misunderstood,” says O’Keefe, and “the Alinsky framework showed me how to punch up and win.”

In sum, this book is a well-crafted manual for investigative journalism, but there may be better antidotes for deceptive official information and “fake news.”

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