The Fight for Truth in a World of Lies
Quid est veritas? What is truth?
A question pondered by the philosophers and laypeople alike. In the so-called “Information Age,” we have access to more data than any person in all of human history. At the click of a button, anyone can access a near-infinite amount of material on any given topic or event. There is no shortage of information to be consumed in the modern world. The problem is that most people have no way of discerning what information is fact and what is fiction. The truth gets lost in a sea of lies, deception, misinformation, and propaganda. Average everyday folks throw their hands up, wondering if there is any possible way of knowing what is true anymore. Trust in mainstream media outlets is at an all-time low, and it seems to many that the news is anything but.
James O’Keefe’s latest work American Muckraker offers an eye-opening look into the world of undercover video journalism. He shares his insights gathered over the last decade since the founding of his independent journalism enterprise Project Veritas and presents what he believes is the solution to the pitfalls of journalism in the 21st century.
O’Keefe opens the book by reflecting on the state of journalism in the world today. Regarding so-called ‘credible journalists,’ he writes “credible, not by virtue of the evidence they present, but by virtue of their own decree that they are indeed credible, because they say so.” The book’s primary theme is power. Who wields power, and to what end? Corrupt media conglomerates control the flow of information, and they wield their power and influence to line their own pockets. There may have been a time when the slogans of the giants of the American newspaper industry were true, such as the New York Times’ “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Unfortunately, to O’Keefe, what is fit to print these days is what is most profitable, not what is most true. As he remarks on time and time again throughout the book, the pursuit of truth is anything but profitable. He goes so far as to say, “there is a perverse incentive that actually rewards people who don’t speak the truth. The reward for chronic dishonesty could be in the form of a guest spot on CNN, a book review in the New York Times, or a coveted blue checkmark.” Being considered a “credible journalist” to O’Keefe says more about where your allegiances lie than it does anything about your ability to report the truth of any given story.
In Chapter 3 of the book, titled ‘Deception,’ O’Keefe presents one of the more controversial themes of this work — his philosophy (backed by the works of other journalism ethicists) on the use of deception in journalism. Not deception in the sense of deceiving the audience but, rather, deceiving the subjects of Project Veritas’ undercover video reporting. He presents the reader with an intriguing ethical dilemma; does the right of the public to know the truth eclipse the right of an individual to be recorded without consent? Is this practice of undercover video journalism a violation of a subject’s reasonable right to privacy?
For O’Keefe, the answer is clear. He says, “it becomes an issue of relative deception; either the muckraker deceives his audience, depriving the public of access to the truth, or he deceives the subject he is interviewing so that he can share the truth with the audience.”
He goes on to say that the arguments against the use of recording devices are often masked behind a thin veil of concern for the subject’s privacy when in reality, the main concern is the subject’s dignity. O’Keefe cites a ruling from a California judge who stated that videotaping deprives the speaker of the “right to control the extent of his own firsthand dissemination.” This argument does not hold much water for the author. He admits that it is true indeed that the subjects of undercover video journalism may not be aware that they are being recorded, but they are certainly aware that they are speaking to someone. For O’Keefe, this vague concern for the dignity of the subject is irrelevant. If the subject is concerned about being presented in an undignifying manner, they should not say or do undignifying things, regardless of who they are speaking to.
As he mentions several times throughout the book, Project Veritas is undefeated in litigation. While it appears the law would favor his position on the use of deception to capture video evidence for reporting, I have a feeling one’s political proclivities might influence their opinion on such matters. I leave this for the reader to decide. Regardless, O’Keefe uses the controversy of his methods to bolster his justification of them further. He notes that these arguments against the use of hidden camera technology do not focus on the falsity of the actions they expose, only on how the truthfulness of the actions portrays the video’s subjects. To O’Keefe, this only further demonstrates their value.
If someone is caught on video saying something incriminating (whether it be in the court of law or court of public opinion), they have no recourse. One may try to argue the ethics of recording someone without consent, but one thing is not arguable: what is caught on video presents the truth. Unless one can prove the video is fake, the words and actions of the subject are undeniable. For O’Keefe, this is the entire point of the Project Veritas model and a point he revisits continuously throughout the book.
When the bond of trust between the public and the media has been completely severed, it is impossible to approach any kind of information (news or otherwise) with anything but extreme skepticism. In a landscape such as this, seeing is the only sure way of believing.
O’Keefe spends much of the book renouncing the old ways of doing journalism that rely on anonymous sources, unverifiable information, and blind trust in institutions that report the news. He explains, “unfortunately, it is acceptable journalism to report someone else’s assertions, whether or not that ‘someone’ is identified and whether or not the underlying substance of the report resembles the truth.
To O’Keefe, the mainstream media is asking for their audience to trust in their ability to report accurate information without proof that they can be trusted to do so.
As the subtitle of American Muckraker says, O’Keefe is focused on “Rethinking Journalism.” Rethinking journalism, in this case, means adopting the exact opposite model that the mainstream outlets have practiced for so long — one based on evidence, not blind trust. This is the book’s genesis and the central message O’Keefe is trying to get through to his readers. Journalism in the 21st century needs to be about truth communicated through evidence, not truth communicated through broken trust. While O’Keefe’s methods may be contentious or even ethically dubious to some, to him, truth is paramount, and the best way to communicate the truth is to present his audience with evidence to support what they report.
American Muckraker is a fascinating mix of philosophy, history, ethics, and journalism 101. It is not a secret that James O’Keefe is a controversial figure as the founder of Project Veritas. Yet, despite his infamy, one cannot deny the utility of muckraking as an antidote to the blatant deception of mainstream media outlets.
Regardless of one’s opinions on Project Veritas or James O’Keefe, American Muckraker is a must-read for anyone looking to have a deeper understanding of the current state of affairs in modern journalism as well as what O’Keefe believes is a clear path forward in the fight for truth in a world of lies.