Back in September, right-wing activist James O'Keefe told Fox News host Glenn Beck that he was "willing to serve prison time" for his work.
That just may happen.
According to an affidavit from the FBI, O'Keefe and three others were arrested on Monday in connection with an alleged plot to "interfer[e]" with the phone system in Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office. O'Keefe is perhaps best known for the heavily edited and misleading undercover videos he and Hannah Giles shot of low-level ACORN employees while the right-wing duo were dressed as a pimp and prostitute, an escapade that itself may have violated state criminal statutes.
The New York Times reports that "the four men, two of whom were dressed as telephone repairmen, were charged with entering a federal property on false pretenses with the purpose of committing a felony. The crime charged is itself a felony that carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison."
O'Keefe's three alleged accomplices -- Joseph Basel, Robert Flanagan, and Stan Dai -- are right-wing activists as well. Basel was the founder of a conservative campus publication at the University of Minnesota-Morris, which, like the campus publication started by O'Keefe at Rutgers University, received funding from the conservative Leadership Institute's "Balance in Media" grant. Flanagan, the son of acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana William Flanagan, reportedly works at the conservative Pelican Institute in New Orleans, just half a block from Landrieu's office. Dai received $5,000 from the right-wing Phillips Foundation's Ronald Reagan Future Leaders Scholarship Program. Additionally, during his time as a campus conservative, Dai reportedly co-wrote "a satirical work entitled The Penis Monologues, apparently a takeoff on the Vagina Monologues."
News of the four's arrest spread quickly Tuesday.
Because Fox News had showered O'Keefe's undercover video work targeting ACORN with near wall-to-wall coverage, one would have hoped the conservative network would provide comparable coverage of the arrest -- it did not. In fact, a Media Matters study comparing coverage of the day following the release of O'Keefe and Giles' first ACORN tape and the day news of O'Keefe's arrest broke found that Fox News provided 13 times more coverage to the video.
Fox News' first segment on O'Keefe's arrest was as funny as it was disappointing (view it here). During the report, assignment manager Tim Gaughan called the news a "very weird story that probably needs a lot of context and a lot of looking into." Sage advice -- too bad the network often didn't offer ACORN the same deference.
It really shouldn't be much of a surprise that Fox News handled the O'Keefe arrest with such kid gloves. After the release of his ACORN videos, Fox and other media conservatives lavished praise on O'Keefe. Beck called him "courageous." Andrew Breitbart -- more on him in a bit -- said that O'Keefe "is already well on his way to being one of the great journalists" and that he deserved a Pulitzer Prize. Sean Hannity applauded him as a "pioneer in journalism." Bill O'Reilly said he deserved a "congressional medal." Right-wing author Ann Coulter said O'Keefe was "so magnificent." National Review editor Rich Lowry said he deserved an "award for impactful guerrilla journalism." On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace featured O'Keefe as "Power Player of the Week." And when news came that O'Keefe might be sued by ACORN or its staffers over the videos, Hannity and Breitbart led the conservative media fundraising campaign for his defense.
The fact that the right-wing media were so smitten with O'Keefe no doubt accounts for their skittish, measured response to the arrest. The Fox News website Fox Nation even posted a headline that read " 'There's Much More to This Story.' "
Perhaps no one in the conservative media has more to lose over this story than the previously mentioned Breitbart, a protege of Internet gossip Matt Drudge and proprietor of a variety of right-wing websites including BigGovernment.com. After all, he was first to champion the undercover ACORN videos O'Keefe and Giles shot last year.
Breitbart claimed that he was "out of the loop on this" and released a public statement to some in the press saying he had "no knowledge" "or connection to" O'Keefe's actions. Breitbart also admitted during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he pays O'Keefe a "fair salary" so that "when he puts a story out there, it's on the Breitbart sites, the Big sites, that he can tell people what transpired." He reiterated during that interview that he was not connected with O'Keefe's actions in Landrieu's office.
It's been entertaining watching Breitbart lecture others on journalistic ethics when he's shown such little regard for truth in his own work. In fact, according to a report released this week by Media Matters, Breitbart's "Big" websites -- Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism -- as well as his Breitbart.tv website, have in recent months laid claim to many "exclusives," touting controversial and sensationalist storylines that have been picked up by other conservative media outlets, from Fox News on down. However, a closer examination reveals that many of Breitbart's "scoops" have been based on speculation, gross distortions, and outright falsehoods.
Later in the week, Breitbart brought his ACORN video lies and full-throated defense of O'Keefe to MSNBC, where he was subjected to a grilling by David Shuster that was followed up by an interview with Media Matters' Eric Boehlert, who said Breitbart's type of journalism produces "the kind of Johnny Knoxville situation we get down in New Orleans."
Ultimately, Breitbart predicted "there will be tape to vindicate these four pranksters." Yep, the man who previously said O'Keefe deserved a Pulitzer is now calling him a "prankster." How's that for spin?
Breitbart continued to function as O'Keefe's de facto public relations flack as the week came to an end, posting a statement that "[o]n reflection, I could have used a different approach to this investigation" on his websites. Of course, Fox News is doing its part, trumpeting news of an exclusive O'Keefe interview with Hannity coming next week.
So, how on earth could James O'Keefe think for even a minute that these types of actions might be a good idea? The answer to that question can be found in his own words from just two weeks ago.
During an interview with Adam Weinberg of The Centurion -- the right-wing student publication at Rutgers University that claims O'Keefe as a "founding editor" -- Breitbart's protege said, "The more bold you are, the more opportunities will be open to you. The less bold you are, the less opportunities in life will be open to you." He went on: "[T]he more you put yourself out there and you take those calculated risks -- the contrary of what people actually think is going to happen -- you're actually going to get opportunities."
That's the life lesson O'Keefe learned from his relationship with Andrew Breitbart -- the man who made him a right-wing star and Fox News celebrity.
Ultimately, a jury of O'Keefe's peers may decide his fate, but it should be lost on no one that Breitbart and his allies at Fox News share in the responsibility for what has been alleged to have transpired.
Karl Frisch is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, or sign up to receive his columns by email.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more