Filmmaker James O'Keefe III is 25, meaning he was born about 13 years after five men were arrested for trying to bug the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate complex in Washington. The subsequent scandal, which led to the resignation of the burglars' boss, President Richard M. Nixon, was fodder for history books by the time O'Keefe was old enough to read them. Chances are, he didn't.
O'Keefe, the Internet "journalist" who became an overnight sensation after his undercover reports revealed unethical behavior by the liberal activist group ACORN, now finds himself in the middle of his own bugging scandal. He was arrested Monday in what the FBI alleges was a plot to "interfere with a telephone system" in the office of Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary L. Landrieu in New Orleans. According to federal court records, O'Keefe admitted that he worked with three accomplices, two of whom entered Landrieu's office posing as telephone repairmen while O'Keefe recorded them with his cellphone camera. If convicted, the four face up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
It isn't clear what the men were after or why they targeted Landrieu, who is one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate. But the fact that they tried to access the office's telephone closet, where the wiring for the system is located, suggests that they may have wanted to tap Landrieu's phone network.
O'Keefe was in legal trouble before now. When he and fellow conservative activist Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and a prostitute and secretly videotaped conversations with ACORN employees last summer, they may have been violating laws in several states, including California, that forbid surreptitious recordings. That didn't excuse the behavior they uncovered at ACORN, nor the organization's subsequent efforts to deflect blame and avoid taking responsibility for its internal problems. But it did mark the ascent of a new brand of online journalism employing methods that are at best unethical and at worst illegal.
In an era of citizen bloggers and media fragmentation, old-fashioned standards of ethics and objectivity are breaking down. The right and left alike -- but especially conservatives -- celebrate that turn of events; resentment over a perceived bias by the "mainstream media" has sent them flocking to partisan news outlets and turning the likes of O'Keefe into folk heroes. Yet his latest stunt less resembles legitimate investigative journalism than the kind of illicit political dirty-tricks campaign that brought down Nixon. O'Keefe's fellow ideologues will no doubt continue to defend him, but embracing such methods won't improve his credibility, or theirs.