One morning last week, I received an email from David Weigel at Slate: the subject line referred to how I'd been "stung" by James O'Keefe's Project Veritas. Believing it was spam, I sent it to my trash folder. Why would O'Keefe come after me?
Then I got an email from HuffPo's Sam Stein, my former student, who was on the other end of the operation. It turns out a kid who called himself "Lucas Fowler" had posed as a prospective student and surreptitiously filmed me. The appropriately-named Fowler came two times with a hidden camera to my office at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
The O'Keefe piece falsely claims that I said that Sam "gets his sources drunk." What I actually said in the video is that Sam works 12-hour days and often goes out drinking with sources, and from that information flows. I also said that Sam is a better reporter than I am. It's a paean to Sam. The video is worth viewing as comedy.
I had a double reaction: laughter and anger. It wasn't only that I felt personally violated. Something larger was desecrated -- the special nature of an academic safe space, the professor's office.
I give a generous amount of time to prospective students and young journalists who visit my office. With my students anything can be discussed there and the matter never goes beyond those walls. I view that office with sanctity akin to a confessional.
After watching the video, I thought about it all day and decided to bait O'Keefe. I wanted him to ambush interview me. I had a plan for a counter-sting.
I posted a taunting entry on my Facebook page and then sent Project Veritas an email. My salutation referred to O'Keefe and his minions as having heads filled with excrement and I used a common expletive. The last words: "Bring it on!"
The next day, I wondered if I really wanted to take on this battle. I suddenly wanted to just be left alone to finish writing a new book and to teach my students -- what I'd been doing before the invasion of my private office space.
But I was in for the dollar. There was no turning back.
Instead of having the guts to show up, O'Keefe telephoned and asked for comment about my email. I declined to say anything. He posted my Facebook page and email on his site and chortled in his copy.
I bided my time. I hoped he'd be goaded into ambushing me in person. I'd welcome any publicity from him for my new book, Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression. (Actually, my Amazon numbers went up after the video was posted -- thank you O'Keefe!) The book appears to be why O'Keefe sent "Lucas Fowler" my way -- the kid kept asking about Bruce Springsteen, who wrote an introduction to this book that I produced with photographer Michael S. Williamson.
O'Keefe has been on an anti-Occupy Wall Street jag. Two weeks ago he showed up at Zuccotti Park posing as a banker. Also last week, a fake prospective student named "Lucas" secretly taped Jay Rosen's class at New York University, going after what O'Keefe called "the New York Times' strategy to support Occupy Wall Street," among other things.
It's clear that "Lucas Fowler" was after something related to OWS with me. O'Keefe told Neda Semnani of Roll Call that "We kind of stumbled into this," regarding how Stein came up. The failed hit on Sam was mere collateral comedy.
All of this is part of the right-wing attack on progressive populism. It was an attempted assault on my work. In my case, however, there is no "there" for O'Keefe to "get" me on. That's why he didn't post any of that secretly-taped video about my work or what I said about Springsteen. I've spent 30 years documenting American workers -- the 99 percent -- which is the story I tell in Someplace. Springsteen, in many of his songs including two inspired by our work, sings about these same people.
What did O'Keefe expect to get on me or Bruce?
O'Keefe can send another 100 spies with video cameras my way and he'll wind up with the same thing in the end -- nothing.
That's because my work is based on solid reporting and real people who have been affected by the bad economy. The only scandal is that for the past 30 years, we've listened to the acolytes of Ayn Rand, and catered to the bankers that James O'Keefe seems to be doing his kind of "journalism" for when he poses as one. His assuming the role of banker reveals more about him than anything else he has done. I welcome O'Keefe's hatred.
In the past week, I've had a baiting phone call from an unidentified number (the caller screaming that I was a "tenured faggot," and worse), suspicious emails. Were these from O'Keefe? Who knows? But it fits his style of deception. I didn't respond to them. Sorry O'Keefe -- no sale.
I've asked our lawyers at the university to look into the legality of secretly videotaping someone in a private space. In the infamous 1992 Food Lion case, in which the grocery store sued ABC television over an undercover investigation, the issue was not over the secret taping, but the fact that the news crew lied on a job application form. ABC eventually won.
I wonder if anything has changed in the law. If not, all professors are going to have to think about being subjected to what I went through. One colleague asked if this will place a chill on my talking with prospective students or young journalists.
There was fear in her eyes. She was emotional. What happened to me is a violation to all who cherish open and free thought.
I told her this: "No way."
I'm going to continue talking with kids who come to my office. It's what I do. I'm not going to let the O'Keefes of the world win. Heck, I gave that kid "Lucas Fowler" a lot of time and good advice. Maybe someday he'll listen to it and actually practice some real journalism.
I will take one precaution: I'll kindly ask a visitor to place his or her backpack on the floor, not on a chair facing me like that kid did.