Fake News HQ
Phil Reisman shares the time Project Veritas came knocking on his front door.
illustraton by brian taylor; photograph by stefan Radtke
James O’Keefe came to my door once, though I wasn’t home at the time.
The Conservative provocateur — he prefers the term “guerrilla journalist” — was with a small group of accomplices from Project Veritas, an outfit O’Keefe founded whose raison d’être is to embarrass the mainstream media, left-wing politicians, and progressive organizations by means of undercover stings. Project Veritas is headquartered in a nondescript building on the edge of Mamaroneck’s industrial sector, across from the Metro-North railroad tracks on Hoyt Avenue.
The Veritas formula is simple: Pretend to be someone you’re not; win the confidence of unsuspecting targets; record their verbal blunders with a hidden camera; edit the video for maximum effect; post it online.
When they appeared on my porch in Yonkers, O’Keefe and his gang masqueraded as anti-gun activists, claiming membership to a group called Citizens Against Violence. Each wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a semiautomatic rifle inside a circle with a slash running through it.
This was just after the December 14, 2012 shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. The killer was a 20-year-old loner with mental-health issues and a messed up family life who fired a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle (which is similar to the AR-15, the semiautomatic weapon of choice in many mass shootings). Immediately after the Sandy Hook tragedy, The Journal News responded with a story on gun ownership that included an interactive map on the newspaper’s website, which, with the click of a mouse, revealed the names and addresses of Westchester County citizens who possessed a handgun permit.
Many people believed that the newspaper had accomplished nothing more than a public shaming of thousands of law-abiding citizens. Lost in the scrum was a legitimate issue: the proliferation of semi-automatic rifles, which can be bought without a permit. The story was ill-conceived and unfocused — and the blowback was on a national scale.
The ridicule was intense. Subscriptions were cancelled. Advertisers bailed. At all hours of the day and night, crank calls from across the country came to Journal News employees — many of whom had nothing to do with the gun map or even knew of its existence.
A connoisseur of low-hanging fruit and, like all culture warriors, a committed practitioner of confirmation bias, O’Keefe piled on. His plan was to go to the homes of several Journal News editors and reporters (I was a columnist for the paper in those days) to get them to accept a yard sign declaring that they lived in a gun-free residence.
Polite to the point of obsequiousness, the pranksters ultimately failed to get anyone to take one of their signs. In fact, most of the people who answered the doorbell were easy marks — unsuspecting spouses, parents, and children of the newspaper employees. But that didn’t stop O’Keefe, who, in the snarky tradition of Candid Camera and Michael Moore, kept his low-rent camera rolling — and then posted the amateurish result on YouTube.
I’m not sure what O’Keefe was trying to prove.
Incidentally, I was in New York City when Project Veritas came to my house. This was probably to their good fortune, as well as mine, since I might have been tempted to set my psycho dog on them. My younger son answered the door and correctly stated that he didn’t think his father would want one of their signs, no matter his feelings, one way or the other, on guns.
O’Keefe, 33, says he is on a mission to expose the truth, hence the Latin handle Veritas, derived from the Roman goddess of truth, who was said to be so elusive, she hid in a well. He says his efforts to uncover the truth are a service to the “masses” — a word he frequently uses. Last December, a vandal scrawled the words “Fake News HQ” on the wall of his Mamaroneck outpost.
I tried to interview O’Keefe on my WVOX radio show. It did not go well. He was trying to plug his recently published book, and he said I was too negative, so he cut me off. About a week later, Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
So here we stand, once again, at the mythical well, waiting for the next revelatory, righteous moment of truth. I’d love to know what “truth” Project Veritas has planned for the masses this time.
The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think: email email@example.com