How Sacha Baron Cohen and James O’Keefe are damaging journalism

Since the premiere of Sacha Baron Cohen’s "Who is America?" on July 15, many have compared the British provocateur comedian to American conservative political activist, James O’Keefe of Project Veritas (see Hank Stuever’s piece in the Washington Post and Sopan Deb’s piece in the New York Times). Their tactics are similar. Both don false identities and provoke subjects to say or do unsavory things on camera. And both violate standard journalism ethics.

By deceptively posing as journalists, Baron Cohen and O’Keefe are further eroding what little trust remains from officials and the public for the media.

But to what extent do audiences understand the difference between professional journalism and O’Keefe’s activism or Baron Cohen’s entertainment exposés? By deceptively posing as journalists, Baron Cohen and O’Keefe are further eroding what little trust remains from officials and the public for the media. Although journalists have long debated the ethics of undercover reporting, the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, an industry standard, instructs reporters to “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” The generally accepted reasoning is that readers and viewers should not be expected to trust a reporter who lied to get the story, without trying traditional methods first.

Baron Cohen duped several politicians and gun advocates into appearing in a public service announcement.

"Who is America?", airing its final episode Sunday, Aug. 26 on Showtime, stars Baron Cohen as a variety of characters just absurd enough to fool people into believing they are real. He’s the founder of a conservative conspiracy theorist website on a motorized scooter who explains to a quietly exasperated Bernie Sanders how to move all of America into the top one percent. He’s a balding, ponytailed bicycler with an NPR T-shirt and pink pussyhat having dinner with wealthy Trump supporters, who politely tolerate his speech about making his daughter pee standing up and “free bleed” onto American flags. The same character leads a focus group in Arizona, seemingly hand-picked for self-proclaimed racists, who repeatedly say they don’t want Muslims in their town. He’s also a high-fashion Italian billionaire who pranks a clueless, former Bachelor contestant (Corinne Olympios) into modeling a hazmat suit for an Ebola-themed shoot and reading a script about how to fund a child soldier. Baron Cohen, as several of these characters, sits for intimate, side-by-side camera interviews with the participants, just like a reporter would.

His most defeated victims are Republican. His most successful character, in terms of surprising exposures, is an Israeli counter-terror expert proposing a “kinderguardian” program where preschool kids would be trained to carry guns to school. Baron Cohen duped several politicians and gun advocates (Philip Van Cleave, Larry Pratt, Trent Lott, Joe Wilson, Joe Walsh) into appearing in a public service announcement for the Kinderguardian program. With the same character, a Republican state representative in Georgia, Jason Spencer, is seen shouting the n-word and mooning and backing into Baron Cohen’s character in “anti-terrorism” training. Amid public pressure, Spencer resigned from office.

Project Veritas welcomes the comparison, tweeting July 25 that “maybe @JamesOKeefeIII should change his last name to Cohen – then the media would LOVE our use of undercover recordings!”

So far, Who is America? does not use undercover recordings per se. Its interviewees know they are being filmed and this is part of the act to shock audiences. The subjects often sit for the camera or look directly into the lens. They are instead deceived by who is interviewing them, which outlet is filming and why.

O’Keefe’s interviewees do not know they are being filmed, as is clear from the camera angles from jackets, purses, water bottles, etc., and the results are not intended for laughs. Project Veritas, a tax-exempt charity, sends undercover operatives posing as different allies, often with months preparation forming relationships. For example, a woman posed as an intern for a Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union, for three months last summer. She obtained access to internal databases and even employers’ desks, and secretly recorded conversations. In May, a federal judge rejected AFT’s request to stop Project Veritas from publishing its undercover findings, citing First Amendment rights. O’Keefe praised the decision as a victory for journalism.

Project Veritas decidedly targets liberal institutions. O’Keefe became well-known in 2009 for publishing undercover recordings of workers from ACORN, a community activism group accused by conservatives of voter fraud. In the video, ACORN workers offer financial advice to Project Veritas activists who posed as a pimp and prostitute opening a brothel. In response to the video, Congress took away some funding from ACORN.

In 2015, O’Keefe again created a buzz in conservative media by publishing edited, undercover recordings from Planned Parenthood clinics. The videos were edited to make it seem that abortion providers were illegally selling tissue from aborted fetuses (and enjoying the profits with Lamborghinis and wine), but later investigations did not find evidence. It’s legal to donate fetal tissue, and the costs of collecting, preserving and processing that tissue can be recouped.

Most states’ privacy laws allow undercover recordings as long as one party consents. California, however, is more stringent. Project Veritas workers are battling felony charges for the anti-abortion videos, accused of violating California’s privacy laws. In 2010, O’Keefe and three colleagues pled guilty to a misdemeanor for breaking into a federal office (Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s) under false pretenses.

Baron Cohen hasn’t responded publicly (as himself and not a character) to reactions to his show, but HBO Showtime has defended the comedian against claims from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Palin, set to appear in the final episode, claims Baron Cohen appeared in a wheelchair as a wounded military veteran. (The same Baron Cohen character told Bernie Sanders in the first episode that he was not disabled and used a motorized scooter to conserve his energy.) He did not wear military apparel. His character posted a letter online that said he “was in the service – not military, but United Parcel, and I only fought for my country once – when I shot a Mexican who came onto my property.”

Roy Moore, a former chief justice and former Senate candidate, is also disgruntled at Baron Cohen, who as his Israeli anti-terror character got Moore to take a “pedophile detection” test on camera. In an issued statement, Moore compared women accusing him of sexual misconduct when they were teens to Baron Cohen and said if Showtime airs a “defamatory attack” on him, he may file a lawsuit.

In the current environment of media distrust, O’Keefe has also begun targeting what Project Veritas sees as liberal mainstream media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. An attempt to deceive Washington Post reporters into publishing a woman’s fake account of sexual abuse by Roy Moore resulted in the Post exposing the organization instead.

Baron Cohen makes no attempt to call himself a reporter, though he rarely appears as himself in public anyway, preferring to appear and respond to critics as one of his pseudo-reporter characters. O’Keefe, on the other hand, considers himself an investigative journalist. He often speaks on journalism ethics and has spoken in venues like the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to promote his work. His book released in January is revealing, titled American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News. An announcement from Southern Methodist University in Dallas last fall welcomed O’Keefe to “share his experience in the field of investigative journalism.”

O’Keefe justifies deception by pointing to those in the “muckracking” tradition like Nellie Bly, famous for posing as an insane patient to expose the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill at the New York City Lunatic Asylum. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World published her exposé in 1887. O’Keefe considers himself a modern muckracker. But the muckrackers saw themselves as activists, writing primarily to immigrants and the working class. They dealt in selling scandal. Many journalists from the same time period did not misrepresent themselves and tried to take a neutral perspective. And journalists lying and misrepresenting themselves is probably not the best way to restore faith in the media (or America).

Those of us who know the gap between professional journalism and farce and deception, no matter our political stripes, should help audiences categorize Baron Cohen and O’Keefe correctly: as political comedy and activism.