Let’s get something out of the way, right off the bat: I am not a politics reporter.
My name is Jim; I’m a staff writer for Paste. Click on my byline above and you’ll see a lot of random news, essays and list content. Many of those pieces will revolve around craft beer. Quite a few will focus on film. None of them will be in the political arena.
In truth, I often feel blessed to not have to write about such things on a daily basis. I’m not sure how the guys whose daily routine revolves around President Trump’s latest inane tweeting manage to carry on without the weight of the world grinding them down into a pulp. (Politics editor’s note: We don’t. We are pulp.) Better to find yourself in a position that involves evaluating beer and whiskey than one where you’re trying to point out the world’s most obvious flaws in a President who somehow manages to retain the support of 38% of the population, regardless of what he says and does. Typically, I’m happy to be as far away from the politics section of this site as I can be.
But then came yesterday’s bombshell Washington Post story, wherein an inept organization called Project Veritas attempted to “sting” the newspaper by feeding them a fake sexual assault story involving Senate candidate Roy Moore, hoping they would report false information. And by god, I simply can’t allow that one to go by without a little bit of commentary.
Although I may write about entertainment for a living, that doesn’t mean I’ve completely lost all connection to my journalistic roots. I attended the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana’s journalism school with the (somewhat deluded) dream of becoming a newspaper reporter—which I then did for more than four years—before joining up with Paste. I still remember what it is to report a story; to make cold calls; to fact check; to corroborate with multiple sources. I still remember the satisfaction that process yields to anyone who truly cares about journalistic ideals.
And that’s exactly why the Project Veritas story was such a shocking, terrifying jolt to my system. Because it represents an organized, well-funded attempt to brazenly (and proudly) jam a monkey wrench into the gears of legitimate, factual reporting. It’s an organization whose sole goal is to undermine the public’s confidence in a legitimate news organization, leading to them being more poorly informed and less equipped to identify real from fake news in the future. It’s an organization that purports to be a watchdog on left-leaning websites, exposing “bias” while simultaneously holding themselves to none of the basic journalistic and moral standards they claim are absent in their enemies. The mere existence of such an organization offends me as a journalist, and it should be equally offensive to anyone who believes in the responsibilities of the press as the Fourth Estate.
And that’s not even approaching this thing from the moral angle of what Project Veritas’ goal was in this particular instance: To undermine the credibility of WaPo’s ongoing investigation of Roy Moore’s alleged sexual assault of numerous underage women. Or to sum it up in a single, pithy Twitter sentence:
I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that for someone in a position like my own, there’s a great temptation to block out or otherwise ignore these kinds of stories. Why? It’s because we don’t want to admit they’re happening around us every day. The implications are too disheartening; too damaging to the institutions we respect and admire—to the very idea of those institutions. We don’t want to believe that there are entire organizations dedicated exclusively to undermining the work of legitimate, dedicated, passionate, moral investigative reporters, because we’d like to believe we live in a country where the results of their reporting would be convincing and valued by the readers. The idea of an organization like Project Veritas is easy to laugh off, because it sounds like the journalistic equivalent of the Legion of Doom on Challege of the Super Friends. Accepting that it exists means acknowledging the millions of U.S. citizens willing, nay desperate to be fed misinformation, even when it’s coming from an organization proudly admitting to creating fake rape stories. And that is a scary, scary thought.
But what else can we do at this point, if we don’t acknowledge the threat? Project Veritas is all too real. It really is run by one James O’Keefe, who was convicted of a misdemeanor in 2010 for using a fake identity to enter a federal building. It really does employ Robert J. Halderman, who was sentenced to six months in jail back in 2010 after attempting to blackmail David Letterman. It really does offer job postings for people to create fake identities and infiltrate news organizations for the purpose of corporate sabotage. It really is as cartoonishly antagonistic a group as it appears to be—and it can hardly be the only one of its kind. If there’s one group in the mold of Project Veritas out there, then surely there must be many more.
We should be thankful that the primary takeaway from the Washington Post story ultimately ended up being Project Veritas’ incompetence—they tried an underhanded move, and the newspaper’s reporters didn’t come anywhere close to falling for it. They did their due diligence, looked into the source’s background, and followed up every possible lead before confronting her with the inconsistencies in her story in a manner that was both professional and hilariously damning.
But that doesn’t mean the likes of Project Veritas are going to stop trying, and it’s a reminder for every news organization that they need to be doubly aware of the malicious attempts at manipulation unfolding across their industry, and hold themselves to the highest possible standards of verification and journalistic rigor. I typically hate this kind of hyperbole, but I don’t know what else you can write, besides something as broad as “journalism is under attack.” The very idea of journalism is under literal attack, by people who are proud to admit exactly what they’re doing, in service of a consumer base that simply doesn’t care about which unethical tactics are used, as long as the results in some way confirm a preexisting bias. This is the world we live in. This is what 2017 looks like.
God help us. It’s enough to make a guy glad that he’s usually writing about craft beer.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter.