Is this citizen journalism?
A “pimp” and a “prostitute” enter a federally-funded facility seeking financial assistance for their criminal activities.
The camera is rolling while the person behind the desk blithely counsels the seeming criminals on how to subvert the law. Later the video is posted to YouTube, exposing the federally-funded organization as criminally negligent.
This scenario was acted out to devastating effect by James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles at ACORN offices across the country in September 2009. Congress withdrew its financial support for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a nationwide network of neighborhood groups that assisted low- to moderate-income families in a number of ways, including providing information on fighting foreclosure and running massive voter registration campaigns. A year later, ACORN filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
That’s old news.
On Feb. 1, 2011, LiveAction.org, a California-based anti-abortion group, took a page from O’Keefe’s book and replayed the scenario with a different target: Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey. The image above is from the latest video, posted to YouTube on February 1st, which is certain to have significant consequences for Planned Parenthood, given the footage Live Action captured of Amy Woodruff, office manager at the Perth Amboy clinic, eagerly advising the “pimp” on how to get his fourteen year-old illegal immigrants abortions and how to keep them earning money during their recoveries.
How damning is the video?
Woodruff was immediately fired and security is being beefed up at Planned Parenthood’s offices across the state in response to threatening phone calls. It seems safe to say that Planned Parenthood offices across the country will need to follow suit once the video goes viral, as it certainly will.
Woodruff, a fool of the first order, has singlehandedly set the clock back on a woman’s right to choose decades.
How hard is it to do what Live Action has done?
It’s this easy.
Dress the part.
On Left, Gilles and O’Keefe in the ACORN caper, 2009; on right, the as-yet unidentified pair heading into the Perth Amboy office of Planned Parenthood, 2011
Come up with your outlandish scenario.
Scenario 1: (ACORN) You and your lady are seeking advice about how to get a mortgage without revealing that the house you’re buying is for your stable of hookers. What to do?
Senario 2: (PLANNED PARENTHOOD) You and your lady need help cleaning up your girls to keep you in the money. The girls are underage, illegal immigrants, don’t speak English. What’s the fastest way to get your fourteen year-olds abortions and back out on the street doing tricks?
Take it on the road. Throw it against the wall and see what sticks. Put your pole in the water and land the big one.
O’Keefe’s itinerary with Gilles, July 24-August 17 2009 (Gilles soloed without success in Miami).
Live Action apparently had teams play this scenario out in six that were unidentified states in initial news reports, with eleven different clinics visited.
Stay tuned as the Travels of Live Action clarify
Edit the footage.
Post to YouTube.
Sit back and watch the fur fly.
Step four is where the question of the status of the final product is determined. Is it journalism? Propaganda? A documentary? A piece of fiction?
To make this determination, you need to first consider a different set of questions: What principles guide this process? What relationship do the editors have to the raw footage that has been collected? What’s the hoped for outcome of publication?
O’Keefe has repeatedly run into trouble in this area and, over time, Live Action has clearly learned from his mistakes. For example, to emphasize the problems at ACORN, O’Keefe edited his footage to make it appear that he had sauntered into offices across the country decked out with walking cane, big shades, and raccoon coat, when he actually dressed in khakis and a button down shirt for the visits. He moved the dialogue around to heighten the criminal indifference of the ACORN employees. And when pressed on these issues, he only released the unedited material after being compelled to do so by the authorities. When asked to define himself, O’Keefe uses a set of phrases interchangeably: “progressive radical,” “a journalist inspired by the spirit of C.K. Chesterton,” “an independent filmmaker.”
Live Action is much more focused, having one cause and one cause only. Committed to using “new media for life,” Live Action self-describes as:
a youth led movement dedicated to building a culture of life and ending abortion, the greatest human rights injustice of our time. We use new media to educate the public about the humanity of the unborn and investigative journalism to expose threats against the vulnerable and defenseless.
The founder, Lila Rose, got her start on this project in 2004 when, at the age of fifteen, she began giving anti-abortion talks at schools in California. From 2006 to 2008, she attended four workshops at the Virginia-based Leadership Institute, which “identifies, recruits, trains, and places conservatives in government, politics, and the media.”
And who should Rose meet at the Leadership in 2006 but the newly hired James O’Keefe! He’s there with his freshly minted B.A. from Rutgers and his years of experience both as editor of the campus’ conservative magazine and as the master of on campus undercover filmed exposés. O’Keefe had been hired by the Leadership Institute to serve as the student publications coordinator charged with helping college conservatives start their own publications and he and Rose hit it off.
Together Rose and O’Keefe cook up the idea of going undercover at UCLA, where Rose had just started college. As the fall quarter gets underway, they visit the Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center with camera in tow, Rose posing as an underage girl seeking pregnancy counseling. What she receives is directions to two abortion providers. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In Rose’s own words, from October 2010:
We soon were working together on projects to ‘wake up’ the UCLA campus to the reality of abortion and the lack of pregnancy services for students. James helped me start a pro-life student magazine that January. That magazine—the Advocate—is now published nationally and has a distribution of over 100,000 copies per issue.
When O’Keefe came West again, he and Rose took their show on the road, visiting two Planned Parenthood clinics in Los Angeles, with Rose posing as a fifteen year old girl who had been impregnated by her twenty-three year old abusive boyfriend (O’Keefe). Those videos went up on YouTube and Rose was on her way as the face of the pro-life movement’s next generation of activists: Planned Parenthood threatened to sue her; Bill O’Reilly had her on his show; lawyers rushed to her defense, working pro bono; Planned Parenthood backed down.
Lila Rose goes national May 22, 2007.
What happens next is better for Rose’s career than it is for O’Keefe’s.
Rattled by the threat of a lawsuit, Rose determined “to think even more carefully and work even harder to come up with more projects to expose the dark heart of the abortion industry.” And she and O’Keefe settled on a scheme for bringing to light the implicitly racist agenda of Planned Parenthood–an agenda they believe can be traced back to the organization’s founder, Margaret Sanger, who Rose identifies as “an open racist and eugenicist.” (As is the norm in celebrity journalism, “fact-finding” means finding the facts you are looking for: with Sanger, quotes are lifted out of context; nuance, complexity, and contradiction are erased; and shiny, unambiguous “proof” shoots out the other side of the machine.)*
For this caper, O’Keefe recorded phone calls he made to Planned Parenthood clinics around the country, representing himself as a donor who wanted to make a contribution because he felt there were too many black babies in the world. The press coverage generated by the release of these recorded calls, which featured employees of Planned Parenthood responding with casual indifference to O’Keefe’s statements, ended up costing O’Keefe his job at the Leadership Institute. As the Institute’s founder, Morton Blackwell describes it in an interview with the New York Times, he gave O’Keefe a choice “between pursuing activism or working for his organization, ‘and he said he was committed to the activism.’” (If the Leadership Institute were to be seen as an organization actively working for political change as opposed to a non-profit organization committed to education, it would lose its tax exempt status.)
O’Keefe moved to LA, entered the law school at UCLA, and remained an advisor to Rose’s Advocate, which ran the story on their research into the essential racism at the core of Planned Parenthood in its Winter 2008 edition. And what they captured, according to Rose, is Planned Parenthood at work “(intentionally or not) exterminating the black community.” Selections from two of O’Keefe’s phone calls are included along with Rose’s assessment:
On the opposing page, there’s an article on Sanger, with a cartoon of her offering the antiabortion activists’ favorite quote from her corpus: “We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population….”
Does it matter that the full sentence, which appears in a letter to Clarence Gamble (heir to the Proctor and Gamble fortune), concerns an effort to bring birth control education to the South and that it is preceded by Sanger’s insistence that prominent members of the African American community would need to be involved if there was to be any hope that the project would succeed?
We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.
As I argued in my previous post, this is the character of discussions about race today: context is disposed of; a single word is isolated; and the judgment automatically follows.
In The Advocate’s sixth issue (Winter 2009-2010), with O’Keefe off the masthead, Rose co-authors a brief piece with fellow activist Philip Gerard Johnson that re-emphasizes the link between access to affordable birth control and racism. Above the piece, “Images Make Movements,” Rose provides the visual examples that drive her argument:
The important images for Rose’s argument are the two of Emmett Till: the innocent young fourteen year old smiling and confident; the brutally disfigured, unrecognizable young man in his open casket. Rose quotes Mrs. Till explaining why she left the casket open:
I want the whole world to see what they did to my baby.
And that’s the hook.
Emmett Till, visiting Mississippi from Chicago, is accused of whistling at a white woman; the woman’s husband and his half-brother show up the next day, pull Till out of the home he is visiting; beat him to death; sink him in the Tallahatchie River. Images of his body, recovered three days later and returned to Chicago, contribute to the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement.
The anti-abortion movement needs to find a similarly compelling image of what mothers are doing to their babies, an image that will turn the tide against birth control, just as Till’s image turned the tide against racism.
Unlike those who bravely showed images from steel factories and the Civil Rights Movement, many are reluctant to show images of the victims of abortion. The result is a widespread ignorance of the magnitude of this “silent genocide,” but we must not remain silent any longer. If the world were to see the victims of abortion, would so many still be willing to tolerate it?
Of course, the medium for social change is no longer the still image.
Is it the viral video that captures a soulless fool behind a desk offering advice about how to keep fourteen year old hookers making money while they are recovering from abortions?
Does Planned Parenthood’s press release calling for an FBI investigation into a possible multi-state sex trafficking ring, which preceded the posting of the Live Action video by a full week, have a chance against such damning footage?
The January 24th press release stated that over a five day period the preceding week clinics in six states had been visited by individuals seeking information “about health services Planned Parenthood could provide to underage girls who were part of a sex trafficking ring.” The press release goes on to note that Planned Parenthood subsequently learned the identity of one of the visitors, an unnamed young man associated with Live Action. Consequently, the organization believed the visits were:
likely a hoax by opponents of legal abortion seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood, which delivers preventive health care and abortion services to three million women each year.
The press release closes with a quote from Planned Parenthood’s Vice President for Communications, Stuart Schear, shaking his fist at the 2.0 brigands who have pushed their trojan horse into the center of his compound:
If these visits are part of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign, they must be condemned. Falsely claiming sex trafficking to health professionals to advance a political agenda is an astoundingly cynical form of political activity.
That’s the best you’ve got?
Your enemies are fighting a Holy War with the portable devices of the 21st century; they’re wrapping themselves in images of the Civil Rights Movement; and you respond with moral indignation about “an astoundingly cynical form of political activity”?
What are the stakes with regards to being literate in the composing technologies of the twenty-first century? It should be clear that the very definition of civil society is at stake.
As we’ll see in greater detail in the next post, the bankrupting of ACORN dramatizes the futility of generating retroactive vindications that counter the impressions left by viral videos. After the videos have confirmed the prejudices of opponents and incited indignation in all but the most diehard believers, learning that the effects were concocted during the editing process comes too late to make any sort of dent in the public’s memory of the scandal. And, as we’ll also see, Rose and her team learned a great deal about pre-emptively disarming criticisms of editorial improprieties from O’Keefe’s mistakes with his handling of the ACORN videos.
Planned Parenthood may well find itself fighting for its survival, having been outmaneuvered by a handful of twenty year olds and a couple of thousand dollars worth of computer equipment.
It’s not citizen journalism. It’s war by other means.
This is the third in an evolving series on Citizen Journalism. It may be read on its own or as part of the series, which begins with “My Brush with Celebrity: The Other Side of Cyber-Spying.” A summary of each section of the series may be found here: Citizen Journalism and the Case of James O’Keefe (Table of Contents).
*A nuanced assessment of Sanger’s involvement with “The Negro Project,” which aimed to provide education to poor, Southern blacks, may be found here. And, as it happens, you can access the bulk of Sanger’s writings via the Life Dynamics website, under the heading, “Archives of the American Apocalypse.” Life Dynamics is the offshoot of Mark Crutcher, whose phone-calling campaign against Planned Parenthood in the mid-nineties inspired Rose and O’Keefe’s own phone-calling campaign.
The Leadership Institute’s mission statement may be found here.
Information on Lila Rose is drawn from here
Lila Rose in her own words may be found here.
The 3rd edition of The Advocate may be found here.
The 6th edition of The Advocate may be found here.
The Star Ledger report on the video may be found here.
Planned Parenthood’s January 24 press release may be found here.
The Live Action video is proliferating on the web. One place it may be found is here.