Campus Right Unbowed by O’Keefe Scandal

Created: February 03, 2010 06:00 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

James O'Keefe and the cover of a recent issue of his old college magazine James O'Keefe and the cover of a recent issue of his old college magazine (YouTube, The Centurion)

When James O’Keefe applied for a grant to fund a conservative newspaper at Rutgers University, he appealed to people like Sarah Longwell. As the senior program officer at the Collegiate Network, she toured campuses across America to help conservative and libertarian students start newspapers or keep their publications running. She “read basically every conservative college paper,” and got to know the sort of people attracted to the unpaid work of right-leaning campus muckraking.

“You always knew when you met a James O’Keefe,” Longwell told TWI. “When I watch the television, and watch him say things like ‘the truth will set you free,’ I think: there’s a certain type of person who’s so obsessed with being in-your-face contrarian, and being famous for it, that he does it without thinking of the consequences. I certainly met people like him in other places.”

[GOP1]Few conservative activists went on to achieve the fame O’Keefe did for the 2009 sting he pulled with fellow activist Hannah Giles, posing as a pimp and prostitute inside ACORN offices, and secretly taping the advice they received. In the week since O’Keefe and three colleagues were arrested for apparently tampering with phones in the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), national reporters have trained their eyes on organizations like the Collegiate Network and the Leadership Institute. The CN also gave a grant to the Patriot (George Washington University) and The Counterweight (University of Minnesota-Morris), where O’Keefe’s accomplices Stan Dai and Joseph Basel, respectively, had worked in college. The Leadership Institute employed O’Keefe for a year to train conservative activists; while there, he formed a friendship with Ben Wetmore, another veteran campus conservative who put up the four activists at his home before the Landrieu escapade. But any attempt to make them the faces of conservative college journalism, argued Longwell, would be off-base.

“From what he’s said and what he’s doing, O’Keefe strikes me as an ideologue,” said Longwell. “To use him to define conservative campus journalism is silly.”

Longwell has gained some perspective on this. In 2005, she left the Intercollegiate Studies Institute–the umbrella organization that runs CN–for Berman and Company, a free-market public relations firm in Washington that aggravates liberals with dogged, smart-alecky campaigns against their causes. Also joining Berman was Justin Wilson, once the editor of CN’s paper at the University of Michigan, then another program director at CN. Both later worked with Bret Jacobson, formerly the editor of the CN’s paper at the University of Oregon. (Before she came to CN, Longwell worked at a CN paper at Kenyon College.) In the years since, all three of them helped out with a punchy campaign against the Employee Free Choice Act–legislation that would make it easier for workers to form unions–at Berman’s Center on Union Facts. That campaign included ads that portrayed union organizers as thugs and undercover videos–conducted with more subtlety than O’Keefe, who would pose in costume–that captured union strategists shifting their strategy. One measure of how successful Berman and Company was at frustrating Democrats came when the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) angrily ripped up one of the firm’s anti-EFCA newspaper ads in front of a cheering crowd of union workers.

According to activists who spoke with TWI, the experience of campus conservatives who went on to Berman is more representative of the movement’s investment in college journalism than the trials of James O’Keefe, Stan Dai, Joseph Basel and Ben Wetmore. It’s the sort of work that the three latter activists were doing until last week, using their training and connections to become players in the intelligence industry or in conservative activism. For the Leadership Institute, the Collegiate Network, and the National Journalism Center run by Young Americans for Freedom–just three of the conservative training organizations that have operated for more than a generation–the Landrieu debacle was a distraction from a project that had been going quite well. Conservative activists and journalists who’ve come out of those training programs have had a larger, but quieter, impact than O’Keefe. (Disclosure: I edited a CN paper, The Northwestern Chronicle, from 2002 to 2004, and I held a CN fellowship at USA Today from 2004 through 2005.) They’re well-funded–ISI, CN’s parent organization received, $8.3 million in contributions in 2009–and while they don’t release the names of donors, their trustees include American Spectator publisher Al Regnery (ISI), Heritage Foundation president Ed Fuelner (ISI), and GOP strategist Frank Donatelli (LI).

“Every two years or so, somebody writes a story about how conservatives on college campuses have suddenly discovered journalism,” said John J. Miller, an editor at National Review who came there from the same conservative UM paper as Berman’s Justin Wilson, and who hires summer interns from the CN roster. “Still, if you took people under the age of 40 or 45, right-of-center journalists–however you want to categorize them–a lot of them came from these conservative campus newspapers.”

While O’Keefe’s experience with the Leadership Institute has received more attention than his CN grant–and more than the internship Hannah Giles had at the National Journalism Center–the path from campus conservative journalism to D.C. influence is reliable. Before Marc Thiessen wrote speeches for George W. Bush, he was editor-in-chief of the Vassar Spectator. Before the Chamber of Commerce’s James Gelfand was tripped up for an email asking if it was possible to fund a study that would discredit health care reform, he was an editor at the Northwestern Chronicle. They place yearlong fellows at Roll Call, The Hill, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, and USA Today. Last year, the CN’s program expanded to the Raleigh News & Observer in North Carolina. John McCormack scored a Collegiate Network internship with Miller on the strength of his work with the GW Patriot–the same paper that produced Stan Dai. From there he got the CN fellowship at The Weekly Standard, and was hired full-time after his fellowship ended. In October 2009 and January 2010, he shifted the momentum of elections in New York’s 23rd congressional district and in Massachusetts by hounding candidates who were blowing off his questions, prompting them to overreact–and suffer from the ugly headlines that resulted.

This doesn’t take much money. The Leadership Institute’s contribution to college papers consists of Balance in Media Grants–once $500, recently raised to $750–to offset the cost of the first issue of a new publication. The Collegiate Network gives out annual grants up to several thousand dollars based on a number of factors, including frequency and quality of publications, and pays stipends for its media fellowships. Media organizations who hire CN fellows are pleased by the results, and not bothered by the O’Keefe story.

“We’ve been quite happy with our CN fellows over the years,” said John Siniff, executive forum editor at USA Today. “Does the O’Keefe story change the way I think about interns from the CN? No.”

In the months after O’Keefe’s ACORN story, he was embraced by the conservative journalism network. He gave a short, well-received speech to the annual Collegiate Network conference, held last year in San Antonio. The Leadership Institute trumpeted O’Keefe’s experience with the group. Since the Landrieu debacle, the praise has mellowed but not disappeared.

“There was a fairly universal celebration that he gave ACORN a black eye,” said Steven Sutton, who manages the college journalism program for LI. “I don’t think it marks a milestone or launch date — we’re not going to be having James O’Keefe Day dinners to mark the day that he busted ACORN.”

“This kind of ‘stunt’ journalism requires skill, like an acrobat,” said Dinesh D’Souza, the conservative author whose work at the Dartmouth Review in the early 1980s set the tone for decades of conservative campus journalism. “It’s pretty easy to fall off the ropes if you’re stupid about it. The ACORN story ‘worked,’ because the masquerade proved a point about ACORN, but trying to tap a senator’s phones–well, there’s a point where you are breaking the law, and no one is above the law.”

Among conservatives, there’s a consensus that the work of campus journalists, and the connections that the network can give them, won’t be touched by O’Keefe’s scandal. Berman’s David Martosko–who attended Dartmouth with D’Souza, but did not work for the Review–told TWI that campus conservative papers continue to produce smart “contrarians” with exactly the reporting skills and sense of humor that Berman needs.

“For every James O’Keefe,” said Sarah Longwell, “there are 50 serious journalists coming out of these programs.”