Mullins: The Embodiment of Fake News
We’re all tired of the bad faith speakers.
I was planning to publish a column this week about free speech. In it, I intended to argue, among other things, that the core of conservative student groups’ complaints about the free speech climate on campuses is correct — that being in the minority opinion can be frustratingly hard in college today.
I still hope to write that column eventually, but the College Republicans’ decision to bring James O’Keefe to campus — as announced via campus-wide email Friday, April 15 — threw me for a loop. Notably, this isn’t the first time that the group is bringing a controversial speaker to campus: O’Keefe will be the latest in a long line of unserious, lie-peddling provocateurs — Dinesh D’Souza and Rep. Madison Cawthorn come to mind — who contribute little to anyone’s understanding of politics, society or real conservatism. The group’s decision to bring him to campus appears to be another example of trying to “own the libs,” proving that they are more interested in self-victimization than in a free dialogue about conservative ideas.
Let’s back up. O’Keefe is the founder of Project Veritas, an activist group that specializes in secretly recording people — usually progressive activists, staff of major media organizations or government officials — and then selectively, deceptively editing the clips to make the subjects look bad. They claim that this is groundbreaking journalism.
Take it from me, the former editor-in-chief of this newspaper: It is not. Good journalists do not lie about their status as press; they declare it openly. Good journalists do not selectively edit recordings to push an agenda; they represent their sources faithfully and, when they get it wrong, issue transparent corrections. Good journalists do not — under any circumstances — lie to their readers; they seek the truth and report it, pointing out misinformation when it rears its ugly head.
Project Veritas and James O’Keefe do not follow these basic precepts of journalism, and they give the profession a bad name.
An example: In 2017, allegations of sexual misconduct — some involving underage girls — swirled around former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore, who was running in a tight race to fill an open Senate seat. The Washington Post first reported four of the women’s stories. In an effort to discredit the Post’s reporting, an operative apparently linked to O’Keefe and Project Veritas came to the paper with a inflammatory — and false — claim that Moore had engaged in a sexual relationship that led to an abortion with her when she was 15. The Post reporters — doing the routine fact-checking that all good journalists do — found numerous red flags and inconsistencies in her lie, discovered her walking into Project Veritas’ New York offices and eventually reported that she was part of a weeks-long effort to cast doubt on the other women’s claims. O’Keefe and Project Veritas were roundly criticized across the political spectrum for their horrendous attempts to falsify a sexual misconduct allegation, and the Post won a well-deserved Pulitzer.
This incident would be scandalous enough to shut any self-respecting outlet down. But for Project Veritas and O’Keefe, it was just the latest in a long line of trickery and lies. Over the years, they have promoted voter fraud conspiracies, smeared an NPR executive and amplified anti-vaccine misinformation via selectively edited videos and other deceptive tactics. O’Keefe even reportedly tried to lure a CNN correspondent onto a sex toy-laden boat, where he planned to “seduce” her and film the whole thing on hidden cameras. Classy.
James O’Keefe is not an “investigative journalist” who is “fighting fake news,” as the College Republicans claim in their flyer advertising the event. No, he is a deeply partisan bad faith actor, a grifter who rejects the very concept of truth in reporting. He is the embodiment of fake news, and attempting to portray him as anything else is insulting to both good journalism and the intelligence of Dartmouth students.
Now, we all know how this event is going to go. O’Keefe will come to campus. There might be protests. Videos, some selectively edited, will go viral on conservative media sites paired with glowing quotes from College Republican leadership. Audience members will ask tough questions, and some will dramatically get up and leave the event. The result? The College Republicans once again get to claim victimhood at the hands of a “left-wing mob” and everyone goes home feeling angrier and more self-righteous than before.
I’m not surprised by any of this. Two years ago, the College Republicans invited a conservative Senate candidate to campus, botched the logistics of the event, canceled it and blamed the reversal on made-up threats from “left-wing campus activists,” allowing the Senate candidate to fundraise on censorship that never happened. O’Keefe, a fake news generator, will fit right in.
But I am exhausted by it, because this isn’t how events have to go. Prominent conservatives routinely visit campus and engage with students with no problems at all. Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar ’88 visited campus in February. Trump’s ambassador to Italy Lewis Eisenberg ’64 visited in September 2021. Trump’s defense secretary James Mattis visited in September 2018. A February panel about abortion with pro-life and pro-choice student speakers went off without a hitch.
The College Republicans could, if they wanted, host speakers who actually have useful, interesting ideas to offer. Instead, time and time again, they choose trolling and then cry “Free speech!” when they’re called on it. To be clear, the College Republicans have every right to bring whoever they want to speak on-campus, and as a journalist and a believer in liberal values, I will defend their First Amendment rights. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t do better.
Kyle Mullins is the former editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth. He is now a member of the Opinion staff and his views do not necessarily represent those of The Dartmouth. He is also a public programs assistant at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, which hosted some of the speakers referenced in the article.