Conservative Media Mogul Plays Defense on Racism Story

February 05, 2010 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

James O'Keefe and Andrew Breitbart (YouTube, ZUMApress.com) James O'Keefe and Andrew Breitbart (YouTube, ZUMApress.com)

On Wednesday morning, Salon.com published “James O’Keefe’s Race Problem,” an article by author Max Blumenthal that dug into the past of the 25-year-old activist whose hidden camera sting of ACORN offices devastated the community organizing group. Blumenthal described O’Keefe’s career as “a series of political stunts shot through with racial resentment” and honed in an August 30, 2006 “race and conservatism” forum in Arlington, Va. The guests were African-American conservative activist Kevin Martin, National Review writer John Derbyshire, and white nationalist magazine editor Jared Taylor. According to Blumenthal, O’Keefe had helped “plan” the event with a fellow employee of the conservative Leadership Institute. The main piece of evidence: a cropped headshot of O’Keefe from the event and an account from the photographer, an investigator from the anti-racism group the One People’s Project.

[GOP1] The article trafficked around the web at a moderate pace. Because I attended the event, I wrote about it, and the Blumenthal story, here. Soon, other websites grabbed onto the story and added unsupportable spin. Little Green Footballs, whose editor Charles Johnson has made a splashy departure from the right, linked to the revelation about what he called a “white nationalist conference.” Alex Pareene of Gawker wrote that “James O’Keefe pals around with white supremacists,” a winking reference to an attack Sarah Palin made on Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. Steven Thrasher of the Village Voice wrote that O’Keefe “organized a speaking forum for white supremacists.” Like Blumenthal, they linked the story to Andrew Breitbart, the conservative journalism mogul who ran O’Keefe’s ACORN tapes at his Big Government web site and who subsequently paid the activist for his “life rights” — and who had just finished getting MSNBC and other media outlets to back off on accusing O’Keefe of “wiretapping” the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), while lawyers and O’Keefe claimed he had only attempted to see if the phones were being tampered with.

Seven hours after the Salon story went up, Breitbart went to war. On his Twitter account, he wrote that “ Government, called the One People’s Project and demanded more proof that O’Keefe had done what it and Blumenthal had claimed — that he hadn’t merely shown up, but that he’d organized the event and manned a table of racist literature. They called me for details, explaining that O’Keefe had acknowledged he was at the debate but insisted he was not involved with the planning. Afterward, Breitbart went back to Twitter to announce — correctly — that I’d confirmed that the “manning the table” charge was a “LIE.” Another week of Breitbart defending his reporter — and getting news organizations to retract parts of their stories — had commenced, with Blumenthal as the chief target. One Breitbart ally told TWI that his team was “suiting up for full war on this intellectually dishonest punk.”

By every indication, Breitbart’s full court press against the story — and the quick work he did debunking a key detail — has helped keep it out of the headlines. That pushback, coming in the wake of the Landrieu story, is a role reversal for Breitbart’s media network. The 40-year old mogul has won accolades from across the conservative movement for the aggressive reporting and media criticism engineered by his Big sites: Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Journalism. The impact of the ACORN tapes — which O’Keefe recorded on his own, before delivering the story to Big Government — was such that The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets were forced to explain why they hadn’t done similar investigations. On Friday night, Breitbart will introduce a film at the National Tea Party Convention.

Since that explosive 2009 ACORN story, Breitbart’s web sites have often kept unions and Obama administration officials on their heels. Big Government ran multiple stories about the activist past of Kevin Jennings, the founder of the gay, lesbian and transgender rights group GLSEN who joined Barack Obama’s administration as the “safe schools czar.” Big Government uncovered old brochures from Jenning’s group and linked the man himself to sex scandals. Sites like Media Matters — part of what Breitbart calls the “Democrat Media Complex” — invested time and resources into disproving facts in those stories and taking the air out of them. When O’Keefe became the focus of new media attention for the Landrieu debacle and the “race and conservatism” story, Breitbart was put into the same position, relentlessly demanding that media outlets retract unsupported allegations, and turning the narrative from what his employee was accused of to how the media had slanted and bungled the story.

“This is a monumentally hurtful, libelous, hurtful hit piece,” Breitbart told TWI. “There is no basis for any journalism here.”

Breitbart’s efforts to defuse the Salon story were met with some success. Interviewed by TWI, two of the key players in the story said that the most damaging parts of the original piece — that O’Keefe had organized the event, and that he’d helped peddle racist tracts — were unsupportable. Marcus Epstein, the controversial conservative activist who ran the Robert Taft Club — the conservative group that planned the event — told TWI that O’Keefe “did not collaborate” in putting it together.

Isis, the photographer who attended the event for the One People’s Project — she uses a pseudonym, she said, to protect herself from blowback from extremist groups — told TWI that her original characterization of O’Keefe’s involvement, cited by Salon, was not true.

“I don’t believe O’Keefe planned the event,” said Isis. “What I believe is that O’Keefe was there as a compatriot of Epstein’s and was sort of helping out with the event, sort of like when you go to a friend’s party and you decide to help them out.”

Epstein and Isis disagreed about whether O’Keefe had manned a table of racist literature — Epstein said he didn’t, while Isis said he did. She provided Blumenthal with a photo of the table, with copies of American Renaissance magazine (headlines included “The Genetics of Race” and “Black Racist Consciousness, Part I”) splayed across it. On Thursday, Blumenthal stuck by the story.

“O’Keefe admitted that he was there,” Blumenthal told TWI. “He has had a career marked by racial obsession, and this highlights that dimension of his career. Breitbart, who pays O’Keefe, has been exposed. Is anyone surprised that he’d freak out and muddy the water without facts?”

When the Landrieu story broke, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) — who’s sponsored a congressional resolution honoring O’Keefe for the ACORN story — told TWI that “if recent events conclude that any laws were broken in the incident in Senator Landrieu’s office, that is not something I condone.” Asked for comment on the “race and conservatism” story, neither Olson nor the offices of other Republican congressmen who sponsored the resolution responded. And while a Pew study found that MSNBC spent fully 12 percent of its broadcast time covering the story of O’Keefe’s botched investigation of Landrieu during the week that the news broke, the network has barely touched the “race and conservatism” story. Reached by TWI, several liberal and conservative bloggers who had covered the Landrieu story said that doubts about the details of the Salon story — such as the headshot of O’Keefe that Salon pasted onto a cartoon body — kept them off the trail.

“That article claimed in its subhead to have photographic proof,” said Ed Morrissey of HotAir.com, “and then used an obviously Photoshopped image beneath it. I’m curious as to why that didn’t raise more red flags.”

For Breitbart, the pushback was personal. He has explained in the past that Democratic attacks against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas were the spark that made him a conservative. When Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) died, Breitbart unleashed a stream of tweets attacking him for what he said about Thomas. “Doing to the reputations of Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork what he did to [Chappaquiddick victim Mary Jo] Kopechne,” wrote Breitbart in The Washington Times, “only reinforced his value to the Democrat Media Complex as the memory of his brothers’ more authentic Camelot began to fade.”

On Thursday night, with the doubts about the latest O’Keefe story apparently killing its traction in other media, Breitbart started to have more fun. When the Landrieu story broke, Big Journalism introduced a “senior editor” named Retracto, the Correction Alpaca, a pseudononymous poster who matter-of-factly asked for retractions from organizations that accused O’Keefe of “wiretapping.” In an on-air interview, Breitbart got MSNBC’s David Shuster to retract the charge. And after another day of battling back on the Salon story, Breitbart warned web sites that had mentioned Salon’s story — like The Daily Beast — that the alpaca was making a comeback.

“Tina Brown,” wrote Breitbart, “Retracto is walking down the hillside…”