The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Tracing the showbiz roots of James O'Keefe's NPR sting

March 18, 2011 |  4:30 pm

Okeefe The news media haven’t figured out what label to pin on James O’Keefe, the wily troublemaker whose hidden-camera sting could be the smoking gun that leads to a cutoff of further federal funding from NPR.

The press has resorted to all kinds of fanciful descriptions, dubbing O’Keefe a conservative activist, guerrilla documentarian, gonzo journalist, modern-day muckraker, independent filmmaker, citizen journalist, daredevil videographer and video sting impresario. Oh, and did we mention a sneaky little punk who cheats context to destroy careers?

Whatever you call him, he’s become the most controversial newsmaker in the land, having nabbed a top NPR fundraiser badmouthing the “tea party,” leading to the resignation of the public radio network’s chief executive. That undercover operation followed O’Keefe’s use of similar techniques to expose wrongdoing at the community group ACORN in a sting where he dressed as a pimp, accompanied by a young woman posing as one of his prostitutes.

O’Keefe, 26, has gone after liberal-oriented institutions but cites as a major influence the famed left-wing activist Saul Alinsky, saying he has adopted Alinsky’s strategy of making “the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” But perhaps O’Keefe’s biggest influences come from the la-la-liberal world of show business, especially the comedy playbook of Sacha Baron Cohen, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. One of O’Keefe’s partners in the NPR sting even went by the name of Simon Templar, which surely reveals a bit of showbiz inspiration, since Templar was the secret agent Roger Moore played in the ’60s TV series “The Saint,” a character, like O’Keefe, with a penchant for disguise.

Like O’Keefe, whose confederates in the NPR sting posed as members of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organization, Cohen is a masterful provocateur. He made his name as a brash British comic on the TV series “Da Ali G Show,” where he posed as a gold-chain encrusted hip-hop dunce who goaded a variety of government officials and civic leaders into making all sorts of inappropriate remarks, terrified of appearing less than cool in front of such a cheeky hipster.

Prodded by some leading questioning on the show by Cohen, James Broadwater, a conservative Republican congressional candidate, was inspired to say that Jews would go to hell if they didn’t follow Christianity. After he was roundly criticized by various Jewish organizations, Broadwater demanded that the FCC exert more sway over “the liberal, anti-God media” and proclaimed himself a “proud friend of Israel.”

Cohen’s best-known character was Borat, a clueless, vaguely anti-Semitic visitor from Kazakhstan who ended up starring in “Borat,” a huge hit movie. In the film, Borat goaded boozy frat boys (playing themselves) into complaining that minorities ran America and persuaded the patrons of a redneck bar to happily croon “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”

Just as the Ali G and Borat characters were born out of the comic assumption that many people, especially in a famously decorous country like England, would feel obligated to play along with Cohen’s characters, no matter how clueless or bigoted, O’Keefe’s NPR sting was based on the expectation that an NPR fundraising executive, at lunch with two potential big-time donors from a Muslim Brotherhood-style organization, would indulge his guests by trashing the "tea party" and denying any Jewish influence over NPR coverage, noting that they “own newspapers obviously.”

Cohen’s victims, like O’Keefe’s, often claimed they were entrapped. But as Cohen told me several years ago, he simply created a character that would help expose people’s real behavior and beliefs, which is exactly what O’Keefe has attempted to do with his sting operations.

Colbert The whole art of pretending is a staple of modern political comedy. I doubt that O’Keefe would admit to watching Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” since conservatives view Stewart and Colbert as part of the despised liberal media, but both shows could have been a big influence on his theatrical escapades. When “The Daily Show” correspondents report a story, their segments are often set up as stings, as with a recent piece by Aasif Mandvi, who confronted the head of a Nevada union after he discovered, while interviewing men on a picket line, that the union was paying temporary workers nonunion wages to man a picket line demanding better pay from Wal-Mart.

Mandvi’s shock was almost certainly pure pretense, since “The Daily Show” clearly discovered the news long before they dispatched Mandvi to Nevada, but that sort of fiction is now built into the show’s comedy. The same goes for “The Colbert Report,” which casts Colbert as a Bill O’Reilly-style blowhard, allowing Colbert to satirize the way conservatives react to news of the day. You might also say that NPR was “Punk’d,” in memory of the Ashton Kutcher-hosted MTV series that used many of the same hidden-camera techniques seen in O’Keefe’s stings to play pranks on unsuspecting celebrities.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing in media circles over the ethics of O’Keefe’s work, with all sorts of old-school journalists dinging him for using deception to get his scoops. Even though the damage is already done, his NPR story has taken some lumps, most surprisingly by Glenn Beck’s website, the Blaze, which revealed that O’Keefe, as he has done before, took the NPR fundraiser’s remarks out of context, using deceptive editing.

But why has the mainstream media treated O’Keefe’s provocative pranks as major news stories? After all, when Ali G and Borat used almost exactly the same technique to embarrass people, it was treated as clever satire. It just goes to show, as Jon Stewart has often said, that there’s little difference between real news and fake news anymore.

 --Patrick Goldstein

Photo: James O'Keefe. Credit: Bill Haber / Associated Press

Photo: Stephen Colbert. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times