When Templar and Adeleye had lunch with the NPR executives on Feb. 22, O’Keefe’s brief career was at a low point. He had gained wide attention by posing as a pimp and videotaping ACORN staffers making incriminating remarks about underage prostitution (though it turned out the tapes were edited). But O’Keefe was later arrested for infiltrating Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office and given three years’ probation for entering federal property under false pretenses. And then he was caught trying to lure reporter Abbie Boudreau, then with CNN, onto a boat laden with sex toys and pornography in an effort to embarrass her.
“I was always struggling to pull him away from his shtick of walking into an office with a bizarre pretense and taping some secretary or low-level worker,” says Templar. “I wanted him to think much bigger.”
Templar grew a beard and dyed his hair dark for the sting. After the lunch, Templar and Adeleye wanted to stick with the plan of approaching other media outlets and academic institutions to expose their purported hypocrisy.
But Templar says O’Keefe told him the video had to be released within three days because he was in touch with sources in Congress and a vote was about to be taken on a budget resolution that could eliminate federal funding of NPR. O’Keefe said he had been assured that "this story would push it over the edge,” according to Templar.
“James was insistent … My position was that trying to beat that deadline was not only futile but irrelevant, even if the desire was to directly prompt the defunding of NPR,” Templar says. “The only result would be an extremely slipshod product.”
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“I came to learn how desperate he was in terms of money and needing to rehabilitate his reputation.”
In an interview with me in March, O’Keefe maintained he was trying to do good journalism, not damage NPR. He defended the deception by saying that “people are not going to be honest” if you approach them with a notebook. “I think reporters do a lot of stenography in this country,” O’Keefe said. “They do a lot of damage control, they do a lot of punditry. But real investigative reporting is showing things for what they are.”
In any event, the team wound up delaying release of the videotape for two weeks. The undercover footage, made public on March 8, had an immediate impact. Vivian Schiller was forced out of her job. NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation), was also forced to quit after being secretly recorded as saying that Republicans are “anti-intellectual” and Tea Party members are “racist.”
The next day, according to Templar, O’Keefe and others on the team held a conference call with conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie, whose firm was retained to send out financial appeals for O’Keefe’s nonprofit group, Project Veritas.
The dispute between the collaborators is also an argument about who receives recognition for the scandal that rocked NPR. O’Keefe’s face is now too well known for him to carry out stings himself. He has recently had colleagues conduct more modest stings aimed at reporters and journalism professors.
Templar, who maintains that he “literally handled every inch of this story,” says he feels “exploited.” He had, for instance, written an opinion column on the affair that was intended for The Wall Street Journal. But the public-relations firm working with O’Keefe’s group insisted the piece had to carry O’Keefe’s byline.
“Give us the credit we’re due, that’s all we asked,” Adeleye says. “It was hijacked to his own purposes, to a degree … James is just, unfortunately, someone I cannot work with anymore.”
Says Templar: “He needed the story to be that Shaughn and I were both just actors he hired to carry out his master plan. Otherwise, he wouldn’t get his ‘comeback’ or his ‘redemption,’ and it wouldn’t help his ‘business’ nearly as much.”
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Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN’s weekly media programReliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.
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