Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

James O’Keefe in the pimp get-up he did not wear when he went in to smear ACORN. (Image: Fox News)

Credulous Reporting of Deceptive Propaganda Made Planned Parenthood Attack Inevitable

The attack on Planned Parenthood was probably inevitable after the right saw how well the attack on ACORN was received.

ACORN, like Planned Parenthood, was at the top of the right’s list of most-hated organizations, though in ACORN’s case its chief sin was not helping women control their own bodies but rather helping poor people vote. ACORN was taken off the board by a series of deceptively edited, cunningly marketed hidden-camera videos, shot by right-wing prankster James O’Keefe (with Hannah Giles) and marketed by‘s Andrew Breitbart.

The story that the videos told about ACORN was repeated uncritically by elite reporters like the New York Times‘ Scott Shane (9/16/09), :

The undercover videos showed a scantily dressed young woman, Hannah Giles, posing as a prostitute, while a young man, James O’Keefe, played her pimp. They visited ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, Brooklyn and San Bernardino, Calif., candidly describing their illicit business and asking the advice of ACORN workers. Among other questions, they asked how to buy a house to use as a brothel employing underage girls from El Salvador…. In the footage made public—initially by a new website,—ACORN employees raised no objections to the criminal plans. Instead, they eagerly counseled the couple on how to hide their activities from the authorities, avoid taxes and make the brothel scheme work.

As became clear when the tapes (and accompanying transcripts) were examined by more skeptical eyes, O’Keefe and Giles did not go into ACORN’s offices in outlandish costumes. They presented O’Keefe as a concerned boyfriend trying to protect Giles from a fictional abusive pimp. The “advice” they got on how to evade taxes or set up brothels turned out to be the product of selective editing. (See FAIR Action Alert, 3/11/10; Extra!, 4/10.) In one instance, an ACORN employee called police to report the pair’s suspicious visit (FAIR Blog,7/23/10).

But rather than criticizing O’Keefe and Breitbart for perpetrating a hoax, leading corporate media outlets  suggested apologetically that they should have done more to spotlight the misleading story. New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt (9/27/09) warned that if papers like his miss such stories, they might “wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan.”

Centrist media critics endorsed the deceptive project, with the Columbia Journalism Review (9/18/09) pronouncing, “ACORN got caught on candid camera, and they got caught good.”  The Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz (10/7/09) wrote that the videos “proved to be a legitimate story,” while Slatemedia critic Jack Shafer (9/23/09) claimed that even “critics of Breitbart and the filmmakers don’t really dispute the basic information unearthed by the videos.”

“I have to give you credit for this,” ABC‘s George Stephanopoulos told Breitbart (This Week, 6/1/10); “on ACORN, you did expose people doing things they shouldn’t do.”

With encouragement like that–not to mention that the video attack succeeded in driving ACORN to disband in April 2010–it’s no wonder that O’Keefe and Breitbart continued to use the same unscrupulous techniques against the right’s enemies. In July 2010, Breitbart released a tape of Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod in which she seemed to be boasting that she refused to help a white farmer because of his race. When the full tape of Sherrod’s talk came out, it turned out she was actually talking about how she overcame her prejudices to help the farmer and recognize that “there is no difference between us.” But by that point, Sherrod had already been forced out of her job (FAIR Blog, 7/21/10).

O’Keefe claimed another victim when he forced the resignation of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller after releasing a tape of an NPR fundraiser meeting with a fake Muslim charity (FAIR Blog, 3/11/113/14/11). The tape as edited by O’Keefe  appeared to show the fundraiser making light of Sharia law and asserting that the Republican Party had been “hijacked” by the Tea Party—but an analysis of the full tape found that “several key scenes were edited misleadingly…. Several of the most embarrassing moments were cobbled together or left out context” (Time, 3/13/11).

Why did O’Keefe in this case post the full video when it revealed his shenanigans? Time‘s James Poniewozik had a revealing take:

If O’Keefe hadn’t posted the source video, it would have invited suspicion.

Instead he posted it and took the chance that most people would watch the edited video (or just clips from it on the news); that reporters, pressed for time with a stack of other assignments, would cover the edited video; that blogs (including, I will admit, this one) would link to those reports; and that by the time anyone took the time to go over the full video, the narrative would be established, the quotes stuck in people’s minds and the ideological battle won.

As the resignation of NPR‘s boss indicates, it was a chance well worth taking.

Even more loathed on the right than ACORN or NPR, of course, is Planned Parenthood, and O’Keefe’s methods were naturally applied to going after the reproductive health clinics. In fact, O’Keefe targeted anti-Planned Parenthood before he targeted ACORN—makingundercover videos at Planned Parenthood clinics in 2007 and 2008 with one Lila Rose, who went on to found a group called Life Force making similar videos for a group called Live Action. Live Action, in turn, was where David Daleiden, who made the more recent Planned Parenthood videos under the nameplate of the “Center for Medical Progress,” learned his techniques. Daleiden calls O’Keefe a friend (NPR,7/22/15).

Given the connection, it’s no surprise that the Planned Parenthood videos used the same bag of tricks that O’Keefe had employed to such success: deceptive editingfalse framingmisrepresented visuals. And it’s also not a surprise that corporate media—concerned about seeming “clueless” but even more worried about appearing “partisan”—gave plentiful newshole to  Daleiden’s claims, and to right-wing politicians who echoed him, generally in a “he said/she said” format. As Janine Jackson put it on CounterSpin (8/7/15):

As long as reporters feel that they have to report every politicians’ claim basically credulously, to give weight and attention to baseless assertions because they were in fact made by a person who’s running for office, then there’s always a benefit to saying the most inflammatory, distorted thing, because even if it’s criticized, the journalists’ rule requires still require going back to that person to credulously entertain whatever cockamamie thing they say next.

The most inflammatory, distorted thing you could say, of course, is that Planned Parenthood is “selling baby parts”—which the videos provided no evidence of, and in fact edited out numerous instances where Planned Parenthood representatives explain in no uncertain terms that they can’t and don’t do that. Nevertheless, the videos provoked a deluge of coverage revolving around the question, “Does Planned Parenthood sell baby parts?”—until, predictably enough, three people were murdered  in a Planned Parenthood clinic by someone exclaiming “No more baby parts!”

In the aftermath of the killings, media still couldn’t seem to get past the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand mindset to say that Planned Parenthood had been targeted on the basis of unfounded allegation. Thus Reuters(11/29/15):

Conservatives have accused Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit that provides a range of health services, including abortion, of illegally selling baby parts, an accusation it has strenuously denied.

Or you take the route of the New York Times (11/27/15), where the “selling baby parts” lie was left out, leaving it entirely unclear why Planned Parenthood was “criticized”:

The shooting came at a time when Planned Parenthood has been criticized because of surreptitious videos made by anti-abortion groups of officials discussing using fetal organs for research.

Then the Times (11/29/15) can cast blame on both sides–for “foment[ing] political passions”:

Congressional supporters and opponents of Planned Parenthood were uncharacteristically subdued over the weekend as they awaited more information about the shooting…. But considering the extent to which Planned Parenthood has fomented political passions on both the left and the right in Washington, that restraint seems unlikely to hold.

In fact, there is blame to be shared for fomenting murderous passions—not between reproductive health clinics and those who smear them, but between the right-wing propagandists who create the smears and their corporate enablers who through credulous pseudo-journalism transmute the smears into “news.”

© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas

Jim Naureckas is editor of EXTRA! Magazine at FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting). He is the co-author of  "Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error," and co-editor of The FAIR Reader. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:

Science Museum Just Killed Its 'Own Reputation,' Says Greta Thunberg After Docs Reveal Gag Clause With Shell

"It essentially creates a 'chilling effect,' where museum staff must refrain from speaking openly about the reality of Shell's activities."

Andrea Germanos ·

With New Guaranteed Income Bill, Omar Proposes Sending Most People in US $1,200 Per Month

"We as a nation have the ability to make sure everyone has their basic needs like food, housing, and healthcare met," said the Minnesota Democrat.

Kenny Stancil ·

On Medicare's 56th Birthday, Activists Deliver 125,000+ Petitions Urging Congress to Expand the Program

"The 56th anniversary is as good as any other occasion to expand Medicare to cover more people, to do the work that has not been done for generations."

Jake Johnson ·

'A Very Serious Threat': CDC Document Warns Delta Variant Is as Contagious as Chickenpox

"People need to understand that we're not crying wolf here," said the CDC director. "It's one of the most transmissible viruses we know about."

Jake Johnson ·

As Biden Refuses to Act, Dems Make Last-Minute Push to Extend Eviction Moratorium

"If the administration won't act to extend the national eviction moratorium that expires on Saturday, we must," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Jake Johnson ·