Changing the World by the Time He’s 30

James O’Keefe Discusses His Undercover Videos and Acorn’s Fall

(photo: Courtesy of James O'Keefe)

Investigative journalist James O’Keefe III is a key player in exposing corrupt practices within Planned Parenthood and in the demise of the community-organizing group Acorn.

Acorn, the scandal-ridden Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, plans to close April 1. Political observers like Glenn Beck of Fox News call this move a “shell game” and charge that the same players are regrouping under new names.

In any case, Acorn’s funding dried up in September 2009 — shortly after O’Keefe’s hidden-camera videos surfaced online.

The videos show community activists advising O’Keefe, who posed as a pimp, and his 20-year-old associate Hanna Giles, who posed as a prostitute, on how to set up an international under-age prostitution scheme.

Although most major media outlets tried to ignore the 25-year-old filmmaker’s work, Acorn came under increasing public scrutiny as O’Keefe’s videos went viral on the Internet. Congress soon voted to defund the organization, which was already under investigation for voter registration fraud.

O’Keefe’s earlier undercover work also exposed apparent instances of illegal and eugenics-based racist practices within Planned Parenthood. In 2007, he and pro-life activist Lila Rose, then 18, taped interviews at two Los Angeles businesses. Rose claimed she was 15 and had been impregnated by a 23-year-old man, portrayed by O’Keefe. By law, clinic workers should have contacted authorities to report suspicion of sex between adults and minors. Instead, O’Keefe said, “they counseled Lila to figure out a birth date that would work for her.”

A Rutgers University graduate from New Jersey, O’Keefe founded its Centurion student newspaper and a dozen other campus publications nationwide while working with the Washington-based Leadership Institute.

He talked recently with Register correspondent Gail Besse.

With the exception of Fox News, the media tried to ignore and discredit your Acorn exposés. What led to its finally being publicized?

The first video from Baltimore Acorn was the No. 1 viral video on Sept. 10, 2009. That same day, CNN said it was the video “everyone was talking about,” but they wouldn’t show it. The U.S. Census Bureau cut ties with Acorn before CNN would show the video; then Congress voted to defund it by overwhelming margins before The New York Times assigned a reporter to the story.

When Census said Acorn was too toxic to be associated with, I think it really forced the media to start telling people what they were covering up. The government acted faster than the mainstream media reporting on it because they knew it had such huge liability. President Barack Obama, a former Acorn attorney, even said the content of the tapes was “inappropriate.”

The Times still chose to cover the tapes as a “political story” instead of news, writing a profile piece on me nine days after the first tapes were released, without a single quote from the video. To this day, most mainstream outlets have yet to actually discuss the outrageous content from any of the eight tapes we released.

You and Lila Rose exposed Planned Parenthood’s complicity in covering up what they were told was statutory rape. You also recorded conversations in which they accepted donations earmarked to abort unborn black children. Although these revelations haven’t led to the abortion giant’s losing any federal funding, do you think this work will eventually bear fruit?

Content is king. Planned Parenthood’s success lies in their operating in total darkness. Their friends in media and government have protected them. But soon there will be an army of Lila Roses who will shine light on unthinkable abuses behind closed doors, which will shock the consciences of most Americans.

I agree with [Denver] Archbishop [Charles] Chaput’s recent assessment: “Many of the traditional, mainline media are losing influence. But blogs, social networks and YouTube channels are thriving. They offer huge pro-life opportunities.”

And yet, has YouTube censored some of your work?
YouTube banned the Planned Parenthood racism videos after Drudge linked to them in 2008. They were taken down Aug. 31, the night of Obama’s speech to the Democratic National Convention. We were told it constituted a “terms of use violation” due to “inappropriate content.”

YouTube also banned from our account a video I made showing UCLA student health center employees giving me 75 condoms when I said I was going on an “orgy boat ride to Catalina Island.” Meanwhile, thousands of pornographic videos on YouTube have yet to be banned.

I’ve heard that you call G.K. Chesterton your “guiding light”?

I first read his book Orthodoxy at a time when I was living on a sailboat in a quiet creek off the Potomac River right after college graduation. He seemed to view faith as a romantic adventure and the universe as a wild fairy tale. Chesterton looks at the world in the most beautiful way. He was also a journalist and philosopher who wrote an essay on “The Tyranny of Bad Journalism.” He died long before online video, but I think he would advocate new, creative methods to revolutionize the practice of journalism.

What prompts you to act to redress social wrongs?

My mother will tell you I was complaining about the media since I was 10 years old. Then there was this passion for justice, a sensitive conscience, a frustration with the media’s distortions, and a creative/performing arts inclination. Solzhenitsyn said to “not live by lies” and, as I realized a variety of truths, it became impossible to continue living amongst so many lies.

Does your faith inspire your work?
I did not grow up in a particularly religious household. It’s been the people I’ve met in my travels over the last five years that brought me closer to faith; most of these people have been Catholic. Faith gives me a concern for others and the courage to take action.

How has your family reacted to your notoriety?

My father is a man of principle; he understands. My mother is concerned I’m getting enough food and sleep. When you break a huge story, it can be very difficult for you to remember your body’s most basic needs.

And your next goal?

To change the world by the time I’m 30. I seem to have found a niche in new media, blending satire and investigative journalism, so hopefully I will be able to continue. I’m doing what I was born to do.

Gail Besse writes from Boston.

To contact O’Keefe: [email protected]; Facebook: JamesOKeefeIII; Twitter: JamesOKeefeIII