The Art of the Sting

A short history of our new sensation, the undercover video takedown.

Scott Walker. Click image to expand.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

The firings at National Public Radio have stopped, for the moment. The channel’s CEO resigned today after an outgoing fundraiser and executive, Ron Schiller, was caught on tape waxing poetic about NPR’s fading need for federal money and its coverage of the Tea Party, Muslims, and environmentalism. (Schiller resigned on Tuesday.) It was a fantastically successful sting for Shaughn Adeleye and “Simon Templar,” two reporters for Project Veritas, the undercover video operation that James O’Keefe launched in the wake of his even-more-successful ACORN sting. (Simon Templar is also the name of the identity-changing hero of The Saint.)

It was also the third news-cycle-throttling undercover political sting of the year. In January, pro-life activists went incognito to embarrass Planned Parenthood and help Republicans build momentum to end its federal funding. In February, a Buffalo alt-weekly writer posed as “David Koch” to sucker Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker into talking about his secret plans for winning the debate over an anti-union bill. If you think these stunts are ramping up, you’re right—the undercover sting has become a certain method for bringing coverage to an undercovered issue and collecting the scalp of some official who hides behind press secretaries.

O’Keefe’s ACORN sting was the first of seven undercover black ops staged by him or his organization so far. Not all have been successful. To understand how to pull off a sting, it helps to know their recent history.

Release date: June 24, 2007
Stinger: Ken Silverstein
Target: Lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
What happened: Silverstein, then the Washington editor of Harper’s, set up a fake firm called the “Maldon Group,” which was looking for D.C. lobbyists to help it build political connections. APCO, Cassidy & Associates, and other lobbying shops quoted him the prices they wanted in order to help the Maldon Group, which claimed to have close ties to the corrupt government of Turkmenistan, get into the halls of power. Silverstein expanded his investigative article into a book in 2008.
Scalps: The firms were embarrassed, but not fatally. In 2009, Silverstein announced that he was fed up with political journalism and took a fellowship at the Open Society Institute and a job at Global Witness.
Rating: 3 out of 10. No one lost his or her dirty business, except Silverstein, who got bored with his.

The ACORN Sting
Release date: September 2009
Stinger: James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles
Target: Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
What happened: O’Keefe and Giles visited eight ACORN offices in the summer of 2009 with a simple ruse: He was an ambitious, clean-cut pimp who wanted to hide his profits and business from the IRS, and she was one of his prostitutes. Most of the volunteers they talked to, especially at offices in Philadelphia and Baltimore, helped them out, although some appeared to think they were helping someone in a rotten situation, not enabling a potential crime.
Scalps: Less than a year after Democrats had robustly defended ACORN from charges of voter-registration fraud, the party couldn’t have abandoned it faster. The House and Senate voted to ban ACORN from receiving taxpayer funds. The group fought back, with support from allies on the left. O’Keefe and Hannah Giles were sued by ACORN over the secret tapes they’d made. A former Massachusetts attorney general probed ACORN and found no criminal wrongdoing. But without funding, ACORN fell apart and filed for bankruptcy.
Rating: 10. The target was destroyed, and a new brand of conservative undercover journalism was born.

The HUD Sting
Release date: March 2010. (Executed the year before.)
Stinger: James O’Keefe and Joe Basel
Target: The Department of Housing and Urban Development
What happened: O’Keefe and Basel got meetings at HUD offices in Detroit and Chicago and asked how, exactly, they could set up a kickback scheme using the Obama administration’s housing credit. In at least one interview, they were told that they could misreport the sale prices of houses on forms. They took the footage to the Detroit Free Press and found no interest.
Scalps: None. After Wired’s Noah Schachtman reported on the forthcoming sting, the videos were not released.
Rating: N/A

The CAIR Sting
Release date: Oct. 29, 2009
Stinger: Chris Gaubatz and P. David Gaubatz
Target: The Council on American-Islamic Relations
What happened: Chris Gaubatz, a young conservative activist, pretended to be a Muslim and got an internship at CAIR. He copied confidential documents for his father, and the results were published with fanfare in his book, Muslim Mafia. The Gaubatzes said they’d found proof that CAIR supported terrorism. Three House Republicans called for an investigation of whether a Muslim intern was able to operate as a spy on the Hill.
Scalps: None. The scandal fizzled. CAIR won back its ill-gotten documents. There was no investigation on the Hill.
Rating: 2. Getting members of Congress onboard was impressive, but the lack of sensational video made this sting a dud.

The Landrieu Senate Office Sting
Release date: None. (Stingers arrested January 25, 2010.)
Stinger: James O’Keefe, Stan Dai, Joseph Basel, and Robert Flanagan
Target: Sen. Mary Landrieu
What happened: The senator had voted for health care reform, and news reports claimed that her office had not been returning the phone calls of angry constituents. O’Keefe and his colleagues intended to show that the phones worked after all, implying that Landrieu simply didn’t want to answer the calls. O’Keefe entered a New Orleans district office and waited for Basel and Dai. When the two men arrived dressed as phone repairmen, security guards stopped all three and arrested them on charges of entering federal offices on false pretenses with intent to commit felonies.
Scalps: The stingers pleaded guilty in May 2010, getting probation, small fines, and 75 to 100 hours of community service. The phones at Landrieu’s office continued to work.
Rating: 0. A disaster in every way but one O’Keefe has used to trip up reporters who lazily misreport the details of it.

The Census Sting
Release date: May 2010
Stinger: James O’Keefe
Target: The U.S. Census
What happened: O’Keefe was hired as an employee of the U.S. Census. He did not use a fake name. He showed up for work, grinded out 16 hours on the job, then filed paperwork claiming to have done 19.5 hours. He also videotaped the trainers telling new employees that this was the way to do it and that they’d be paid for lunch breaks. When someone expressed surprise at this, he was told, jokingly, not to “open up a can of worms.”
Scalps: None, really. Census directors claimed that they’d stepped up security. “No hire will be allowed into the field without passing a fingerprint process,” Census Director Robert Groves said, after the stories broke. “Any name check that discovers a mismatch between name, date of birth, sex, or Social Security Number will stop processing of applicant.” They didn’t change the payment process.
Rating: 2. The story got huge play—it broke on Good Morning America—but there was no great outcry to reform the Census-taking process, which at this point was starting to wind down.

The CNN Sting
Release date:
Sept. 29, 2010
Stingers: James O’Keefe, Izzy Santa, Ben Wetmore, Jonathon Burns
Target: Mainstream Media
What happened: CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau was covering James O’Keefe for a report on conservative activism. On Aug. 10, O’Keefe suggested that Boudreau meet him alone. On Aug. 17, Boudreau came to the agreed-uponlocation but was warned by Santa that she was going to be the victim of a sting, with O’Keefe letting her onto a boat with—according to a leaked planning memo—”condom jar, dildos, posters and paintings of naked women, fuzzy handcuffs.”
Scalps: None. Plenty of humiliation for the alleged conspirators, however, even though they said they’d scrapped the seduction plan.
Rating: -1. A backfire that made CNN look good.

Teachers Unions Gone Wild!
Release date: October 2010
Stingers: James O’Keefe, Christian Hartsock, Shaughn Adelye
Target: The New Jersey Education Association
What happened: The videographers saddled up with hidden recording devices and partied with teachers at a boozy conference. They were caught in vulnerable moments. Alissa Ploshnick was caught riffing on how it was impossible to fire tenured teachers. NJEA Associate Director Wayne Dibofsky alleged voter fraud during the 1997 Jersey City mayoral election.
Scalps: Gov. Chris Christie cited the videos as proof that teachers unions, whom he’d been grappling with in a long-running battle, were out of control. Ploshnick was suspended for nine days and denied a salary increment for her comments on the video, and returned to work on Nov. 12.
Rating: 4. No long-term damage, but it strengthened conservatives’ hands as they went after teachers unions in New Jersey and other states.

The Lila Rose Planned Parenthood Sting
Release date: February 2011
Stingers: Lila Rose and Live Action
Target: Planned Parenthood
What happened: Anti-abortion activist Lila Rose got two actors to pose as sex traffickers, who secretly taped their interactions with clinic managers. They asked about medical care for prostitutes as young as 14 (who didn’t exist) and about treatment for STDs. Planned Parenthood, warned about the possible stings, asked law enforcement to look into whether a sex trafficker was actually doing this.
Scalps: One Planned Parenthood manager was fired. The organization announced that other employees would be retrained to deal with people asking for advice on illicit behavior. The Republican House added a rider defunding Planned Parenthood to its spending bill, but only 10 Democrats voted with them—a far cry from the wobbliness after the ACORN sting.
Rating: 3. Too much of the same to attract media attention.

The Koch Sting
Release date:
Feb. 22, 2011
Stinger: Ian Murphy of the Buffalo Beast
Target: Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin
What happened: Murphy posed as David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, and spoke with Walker on the phone for 20 minutes. (Walker would later say he’d never met Koch, but the fact was that Koch employs thousands of people in the state and the Koch Industries PAC had donated $43,000 to Walker’s campaign.) “Koch” egged Walker on to talk about ways to end the protests againsthis union-weakening budget repair bill. Walker listened and promised that he wouldn’t cave and might try to tempt Senate Democrats—who’d fled the state to stop a vote—into returning early.
Scalps: Wisconsin Democrats used a protracted debate over the Assembly’s version of the budget bill to rip into Walker. State Democrats filed an ethics complaint about Walker’s statements during the call, which is pending.
Rating: 5

The NPR Sting
Release date: March 7, 2011
Stinger: James O’Keefe, “Ibrahim Kasaam,” and “Amir Malik”
Target: NPR
What happened: Two men, Shaughn Adelye and “Simon Templar” posed as members of the “Muslim Education Action Center,” a charity founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, looking to donate $5 million to NPR. They met with NPR Foundation President Ron Schiller and executive Betsey Liley, and secretly taped a two-hour, free-wheeling conversation during which the NPR brass talked about Tea Partiers (“racist”), Jewish influence in the media, climate change, and other topics. Schiller said he was “taking off my NPR hat” before saying much of this.
Scalps: Ongoing. Ron Schiller resigned from NPR and will not take a job he was offered at the Aspen Institute. Vivian Schiller (no relation) resigned as CEO of NPR. Additional NPR and Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding had already been cut from the House’s version of this year’s spending package; Democrats, led by the White House, want to add it back in, but there’s a considerable amount of scrambling going on in the wake of this.
Rating: 7. The goal of the sting was to get NPR brass to share their opinions of Muslims, Tea Partiers, and others, since they’d let Juan Williams go for saying (on Fox News) that he was occasionally fearful of Muslims. That succeeded completely. The goal of Republicans who are talking up the sting is to build momentum for defunding NPR. It remains to be seen whether the Schillers’ scalps will change that.