MIAMI — The strobes are pulsing. The fog machines are pumping. Three professional dancers wearing haute-couture costumes that appear to be made of newsprint contort themselves on stage to the all-encompassing roar of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. Their dance partners, dressed in blue windbreakers and FBI caps, run their hands lasciviously up these mainstream-media sirens. Behind them, on an enormous screen, graphics emerge through war-zone CGI smoke: the New York Times logo, followed by a “vs.,” followed by: “Veritas. Be Brave. Do Something.”
For once, no one can dispute the truth of a Project Veritas claim. This is, as promised, an unforgettable performance.
I’m standing in the back of the Glimmer ballroom at the La Fontainebleau hotel in Miami with all the other plebs who could only afford the $125 general admission to what Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe billed as “the party of the century.” We are gathered here today to celebrate the release of his latest book. I’m finding out in real time that that celebration will include a 50-minute musical-theater production dedicated to telling O’Keefe’s story in song, dance, and strobe light.
My complimentary copy of O’Keefe’s book, American Muckraker, sits next to me on a cocktail table alongside several empty glasses. The gentleman responsible for half of them, who does not wish to go on record, is enthusiastically telling me that I should consider becoming an undercover agent. I tell him I’ll think about it.
I am probably not going to enlist in the Project Veritas army. Personal convictions aside, I suspect I’m already blacklisted. When the woman at the registration table asked me to stand aside and wait, I began to worry. When two enormous men in suits walked purposefully toward me 10 minutes later, I wondered if I could at least get my money back. Instead, they informed me that they knew who I was and that I would be allowed in anyway. “We welcome all stripes here,” one of them said. He handed me his card and told me to reach out if I wanted a quote. I assured him that I would. After he left, I inspected the card to discover this was not a PR representative, but chief legal counsel: an oblique warning from a notoriously litigious group I have chosen to completely ignore.
The business card is fortuitous, as is my tolerated presence, since I hope to get some answers while I’m here. What, precisely, is James O’Keefe trying to do? The gawky teenager whose early videos include him pretending to marry his male friend for the lulz (and the benefits) and convincing college students to become pen pals with accused terrorists in Guantanamo Bay has, through relentless effort, transformed himself into the mastermind of a political powerhouse whose videos receive hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and serious airtime on right-wing news outlets. What is his end game? What is it for?
And what does it mean for the rest of us, as voting rights take center stage in American domestic politics, that O’Keefe is gaining popularity with a large and growing audience that sees his work as one of few sources of information it can trust?
The book jacket of American Muckraker describes the work as a “seminal work of nonfiction [that] recounts the journalistic mass movement of today,” and it somehow manages to get more self-serious from there. The 264-page tome seeks to mythologize its author, not simply as a muckraking journalist in the style of Upton Sinclair or Nellie Bly, but as a modern-day hero who has suffered deeply for his commitment to the craft.
“In shackles, this muckraker gave up his Miranda rights and spoke to the FBI … in shackles, you’d be surprised at what you’d do,” O’Keefe writes of his single night in prison on Jan. 25, 2010. “The verist simpleton amongst us, drawing on all life’s experience, can gasp out only: ‘Me? What for?’”
Back here at La Fontainebleau, O’Keefe and his fellow troubadors bring his traumatic arrest to life onstage as a backdrop of prison footage plays behind him. “Take him over to Parish prison,” the voiceover booms menacingly as guards force the young and gangly actor playing O’Keefe into an orange jumpsuit. “See if they’ve got any food. If they don’t, don’t worry about it.” A troop of jumpsuited prisoners enter and begin dancing vigorously to “O.P.P.” (Short for “Orleans Parish Prison” in this context). The backup dancer at the center of the lineup is none other than the real O’Keefe, who looks fondly at this youthful representation of his past self as he nails every move with an exuberance I can feel all the way back in the nosebleed section.
One thing is for sure: The muckraker is having the time of his life.
Much like the musical theater playing out before our eyes, Project Veritas operations are ambitious, well-rehearsed, highly choreographed productions that require a large cast and an audience willing to suspend disbelief. The group is also spectacularly well-funded. In 2020, Project Veritas pulled in $22 million in donations: almost double that of the previous year.
It’s a far cry from the $1,300 O’Keefe and friend Hannah Giles used to finance the 2009 ACORN sting that transformed him from a lanky, low-rent Borat knockoff to national celebrity virtually overnight. As he had in previous, less-famous videos, O’Keefe and his compatriot adopted a ridiculous persona: a prostitute and her pimp boyfriend seeking tax advice and housing assistance. Unlike previous videos, O’Keefe chose a politically relevant target: ACORN, the nation’s largest aid organization for low- and moderate-income people. The duo targeted six ACORN locations across the country. Rather than call the police or tell them to leave, the low-level employees they spoke to attempted to help disguise Giles’ income to avoid paying taxes. When Giles began talking about using housing assistance to create a brothel for undocumented underage Salvadorian girls, the employees appeared to be on board with this, too.
The fallout was enormous, immediate, and devastating. Congress froze funding to the group almost immediately. The census cut all ties. Before the sting, ACORN helped 25,000 low- and moderate-income families file their taxes per year through an IRS tax-assistance program. After the videos aired, the IRS disqualified ACORN from participation.
Only a few weeks after the first video dropped, however, the narrative began to fall apart. Juan Carlos Vera, who appeared to help plot ways to smuggle underage prostitutes across the Mexican border, in fact called the authorities the moment the duo left his office. It did not save his job, and it did not save ACORN either. Six months later, in March 2010, the organization disbanded. A vital resource for America’s most vulnerable citizens vanished overnight. It was never replaced.
In his onstage production here, O’Keefe has spared no expense to commemorate the group’s demise. As “Dead and Gone” by T.I. plays, four dancers in nothing but lingerie and fishnets perform erotic chair dances while actors portraying O’Keefe and Giles walk onstage. They wear costumes similar to those used to film B-roll for the series: a ridiculous chinchilla stole and enormous sunglasses for him, a short sarong and gold bustier for her.
O’Keefe’s success after the ACORN sting did not last. A failed attempt to gain access to Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu resulted in the traumatic arrest immortalized in both book and stage production. O’Keefe pled guilty and escaped jail time, but he caught three years’ probation that confined him to the state of New Jersey. It seemed O’Keefe’s career as a traveling undercover journalist had ended almost before it began.
To get around this limitation, O’Keefe found volunteers willing to go undercover in his place. Two such volunteers executed the group’s next successful sting, in which NPR fundraising executives appeared willing to accept funding from a group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. By the time O’Keefe’s probation ended, Project Veritas was no longer merely a vehicle for his videos but a national network of undercover journalists ready to go to any lengths to reveal what they saw as the truth. This band of not-so-merry pranksters grew increasingly serious over the years. In 2015, O’Keefe claimed to have arranged an all-company training with ex-CIA agents. Two years later, Erik Prince arranged for an ex-MI6 agent to teach tactics. The agent, Robert Seddon, eventually helped run at least two Project Veritas stings. (These training sessions did not make the cut for O’Keefe’s musical performance.)
Despite this training, potential targets began to get wise to the group’s tactics, and agents began running into legal problems. As he fended off lawsuits and dealt with diminishing returns, O’Keefe realized life would be far easier if he could find someone already on the inside willing to wear the wire. In January 2019, Project Veritas put out a call for brave insiders to step forward, make the sacrifice, and do the right thing.
A new era dawned for Project Veritas. Election whistleblowers, cable-news whistleblowers, Covid-vaccine whistleblowers, each with their very own fundraiser on GiveSendGo — the pantheon grows steadily with almost every project. For the very last act of his musical extravaganza, O’Keefe calls them to the stage by name to riotous applause. They dance to the music, beaming. Jodi O’Malley — a nurse whose undercover footage features claims that the Covid vaccine causes myocarditis — seems especially radiant as she basks in her newfound glory. Against the backdrop of trained dancers and whirling spotlights, they all look shockingly average. Anyone, it seems, can be a hero. Anyone can be part of O’Keefe’s big show.
Once upon a time, back in 2009, the big show seduced the mainstream media as well. Two slightly absurd yet plucky underdogs armed with nothing but a hidden camera and moxie had peeled back the curtain to show everyone the prurient rot beneath. How could any self-respecting news outlet resist interviewing the kids who brought down ACORN?
And then, slowly, the establishment woke up to the reality of the situation. Vera won a $100,000 settlement from O’Keefe. A court review of the raw footage found ACORN innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. In their excitement, the media had failed to sufficiently vet the video: O’Keefe had embarrassed them. Worse yet, the would-be journalist displayed terrible judgment and the prankster’s penchant for cruelty. When a Project Veritas employee warned a CNN reporter of a plan to lure her onto a boat filled with assorted sex toys and hidden cameras, even O’Keefe’s mentor Andrew Breitbart thought he’d gone too far.
O’Keefe’s musical extravaganza skips breezily over almost everything Project Veritas did between 2011 and 2016, perhaps because very little happened aside from O’Keefe’s long, slow slide toward obscurity. By 2015, only fringe conservative sites had any interest in the filmmaker’s various hidden-camera hijinks. His 15 minutes seemed to be ticking down to nothing.
And then Trump showed up. Like O’Keefe, Trump holds absolute fealty to the truth of his own convictions, whatever they might be. Anything that supports these convictions is real journalism. Anything that does not? Fake news.
Fake news. Those two words singlehandedly rescued O’Keefe from obscurity and set him on a path to greatness. By Trump’s metric, Project Veritas’ journalism was as real as it gets. As his popularity spread, so too did his conviction that mainstream media could not be trusted. His supporters turned, more and more, to sources that supported the things they already knew to be true.
When O’Keefe released a 2016 video that purported to show Hillary Clinton campaign staff plotting to provoke Trump supporters into violence at rallies, the mainstream media didn’t bite and the release went largely ignored. That is, until Trump cited the video in a presidential debate, live on national TV.
In O’Keefe’s musical retelling here in Miami, the Trump-debate moment is treated with unique reverence. The stage, for once, is empty. The music has stopped. The audience watches the debate clip breathlessly, then basks in the montage of major-news-network coverage. Trump’s endorsement catapulted Project Veritas back into the media spotlight, whether the networks wanted it there or not.
As it turned out, O’Keefe was not a one-hit wonder but a man ahead of his time. His style of storytelling is perfect for the Trumpian age: visual, entertaining, and presented as objective truth.
Tonight, Trump’s standard-bearers in Congress have come to pay their respects. Before the performance, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Madison Cawthorn, and Matt Gaetz addressed the crowd as kindred spirits, and the audience responded in kind.
“What we have to do is we have to make sure that we bring the fights to the Democrats in 2022,” Greene exhorted the crowd. “But even more than that, let me tell you what’s important: We have to hold our own party accountable.”
“When Project Veritas releases one of these exposé videos, it shows people what’s really going on,” Cawthorn declared. “I believe that sometimes the sheep really need to feel the teeth of the wolves to remember [the] dangers that exist in this world … and have we not noticed a lot more Americans starting to wake up?”
The crowd cheered every word. This is MAGA country.
The politicians, however, are only the opening act. This is O’Keefe’s night, and it begins in earnest when the room lights go down, the spotlights fire up, and the music starts to play. A montage of recent Veritas videos flicker on the enormous screen behind the stage. The first notes of “Blue Sky Action” by Above & Beyond filter through the air. And here he is, the man of the hour: James O’Keefe in aviator shades and a black flak jacket with “press” emblazoned on both the front and the back. The crowd cheers.
Backup dancers dressed as FBI swarm O’Keefe and force him to his knees, helpless, hands behind his back. The music swells as he struggles to stand. Behind him, the screen displays an ancient newspaper clipping about a house fire. He strains against his bonds as the picture morphs into a small boy standing next to a stepladder against a garage.
It takes me a moment to realize what I’m staring at, but my obsessive research suddenly pays off. When O’Keefe was a child, a fire destroyed his family’s carriage house. O’Keefe credits the two long years he spent rebuilding it with his grandfather with teaching him resilience and inner strength. It is a piece of truly ancient Project Veritas lore and the imagery lasts all of five seconds. How many people in this room even noticed? The beat drops and O’Keefe breaks his chains, and I realize none of this is about Project Veritas at all. This is the James O’Keefe story. Maybe it always was. His character development. A play in three acts. An exorcism.
Five minutes later, I find myself staring open-mouthed as the actor playing O’Keefe cavorts with a merry leprechaun who cradles a box of Lucky Charms. Behind him, Rutgers students dance with cafeteria trays as the voiceover recounts the author’s college campaign to get the school to ban the cereal for its disrespectful portrayal of the Irish. Despite the dada levels of absurdity on the stage, there is a broader message here. Between dance numbers, the young O’Keefe offers his fellow students his newspaper as they turn away or laugh. The voiceover recites an exact quote from a dean who criticized his journalism 17 years ago. Visuals show a copy of his newspaper in a trash can.
Later, after ACORN and his dramatic arrest, O’Keefe recounts a vicious and ancient feud between himself and a former collaborator, Nadia Naffe. “Maneater” by Nelly Furtado blasts as the lawyers in the case conduct a break-dance battle. There is nothing political about this, no relevance to anything save O’Keefe’s own life. Besides, it is Act Two. The main character must suffer.
Yet O’Keefe’s suffering is, somehow, not yet at an end. The young actor becomes increasingly agitated as the voiceover informs him the media is calling him a rapist. On the monitor behind him, Andrew Breitbart and O’Keefe defend themselves against accusations of racism on cable news.
Slowly, the first slow notes of “Gangsta’s Paradise” begin to play.
Overwhelmed, the actor staggers to the middle of the stage. As the beat drops, he falls to his knees and clasps his hands in prayer.
“On the darkest day of my life to that point, I found myself in a pew at St. Gabriel of the Archangel’s church,” O’Keefe’s voice intones over the speaker. His avatar onstage shakes his head in despair as he prays. “Living at home, stuck in Jersey, mired in debt. Abandoned by my allies, estranged from my friends, unable to sleep, unwilling to eat. My career in tatters, crushed by the weight of it all. And praying, not for a miracle, but just some relief.” Accusations flash across the screen. Terrorist. Pervert. Felon. “Was it worth it?”
The chorus hits, and a choir of backup dancers sway from side to side. As the actor portraying O’Keefe accepts God into his heart, an official event photographer snaps a promotional photo.
The number concludes and the choir dancers all file out except the middle dancer — the real James O’Keefe. With great tenderness, he places his hand on his actor’s shoulder as he whispers comfort into his own ear.
The hits keep coming, or at least the ones that impacted O’Keefe on a personal level. The NPR sting — probably the group’s second-most-successful operation — receives a minute-long montage. O’Keefe did not participate; he was not there. But the audience receives a five-minute dance number that highlights the author’s stunt crossing of the Rio Grande in an Osama Bin Laden costume, then treats us to a second dance number as the U.S. Border Patrol takes revenge on O’Keefe by stopping him every time he re-enters the United States from Canada. It would be more melodramatic if O’Keefe had chosen something other than “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” by the Scissor Sisters.
Maybe it’s the champagne or maybe it’s an overdose of musical theater, but I am becoming completely overwhelmed with light and sound. As O’Keefe’s voiceover narrates Project Veritas’ campaign against algorithmic social media censorship, black-clad dancers sporting shirts emblazoned with a dead Twitter bird and enormous square robot masks move jerkily into view in time to Jamiroquai’s “Automation.” Do the dancers represent the algorithm? Is the number a commentary on the soullessness of technology? Or is it simply the fantasy of a theater kid with an unlimited budget and a willing audience?
Project Veritas’ 2020 voter-fraud allegations are the organization’s bread and butter: likely the biggest reason for its $22 million haul that year. Yet O’Keefe uses the allegations solely to lead into his blood feud with The New York Times. His voiceover provides intricate legal arguments for the defamation lawsuit recently filed against the Times while O’Keefe himself — the real one, not the actor — dances onstage. The dancers in haute-couture newsprint dresses contort themselves as Lady Gaga replaces Jamiroquai and here we are, back where we began.
“You and me are like a bad romance,” Gaga sings, and I have to say, she’s not wrong. As the song reaches its crescendo, O’Keefe’s voiceover describes a 2021 encounter with the executive editor of The New York Times, who refused to acknowledge O’Keefe’s existence, which the real O’Keefe acts out onstage.
“In that moment, the muckraker had to come to grips with the fact that this supposed paragon of investigative journalism would never give him the time of day, and would never acknowledge his very humanity,” the voiceover says, referring to himself, as he does throughout his latest book, in the third person. The New York Times dancers claw at the real O’Keefe as he staggers to the front of the stage, heartbroken. “That small part of him that still hungered for recognition and acceptance from the ‘legitimate press’ — he once read The New York Times every morning — would never be satisfied.”
And suddenly, champagne-drunk-adjacent and surrounded by screaming fans, I understand. O’Keefe’s project isn’t about politics. It isn’t about journalism. It isn’t even about fame. It’s about a boy who loves to dance and wanted to be part of a club that would not have him even as he railed against it. I am reminded of another boy, 75 years old this year, whose bottomless hunger for acceptance and love threatens to devour the entire country. The self-proclaimed excluded are ascendent, and they are hungry. The entire cast bursts into joyous dance as O’Keefe declares independence from the longing that defines this entire musical and, perhaps, his entire life.
But I have to ask: Would he have written 50 minutes of tightly choreographed musical theater production about it, to be performed (so far as I know) one time and one time only, if he were truly free?
The stage show ends, and the hotel staff clear chairs to open up the dance floor. The music is fantastic, the crowd enthusiastic; it’s a blast, a rager, a Covid-can-go-fuck-itself bacchanal.
At some point, the man of the hour himself comes out. Dances a bit, chats with friends, poses for selfies. He is still wearing his costume: black T-shirt, black flak vest, aviator sunglasses.
It’s all costumes. A pimp. A telephone repairman. Osama Bin Laden. A suit-and-tie journalist who interviews whistleblowers on YouTube. All costumes, just like this one. Theater, all the way down.
But as the evening draws to a close and the final song plays, I get a glimpse of something else. O’Keefe takes center stage with a woman I have not seen before. She clings to him with bashful shyness, but her smile is radiant. They dance, and there is a tenderness there that catches me completely off-guard.
James O’Keefe has a 12-year track record of dubious reporting practices. His boast of issuing few retractions is nothing to be proud of: ethical journalists correct their mistakes, O’Keefe doubles down. Veritas reporters do not merely ask questions, but instead actively manipulate and pressure their targets into the reactions, sometimes by going on multiple dates with their chosen prey, sometimes by relentlessly badgering them, sometimes by targeting customer-service workers trained to mollify even the most aggressive and unpleasant customers or risk losing their jobs. These tactics have resulted in the destruction of institutions that help the country’s most vulnerable humans. Can anyone take a look at the past 13 years of American life and conclude this is a better country because ACORN wasn’t in it?
O’Keefe is an artful troll, and journalists continually take the bait by arguing about whether his group is “biased.” Despite Veritas’ insistence that it’s nonpartisan, I think the answer is obvious — but also beside the point. Objective journalism is a J-school myth. Every article ever written, this one included, is a product of choices about what to include and what to leave out, what to emphasize, whom to interview. And when high-horse-riding journalists crow about their objectivity, they’re engaged in the same self-styled mythmaking as O’Keefe, minus the snazzy choreography.
I don’t think much of James O’Keefe’s work, and I think his portrayal as a self-styled anti-elite crusader is a lot like his musical theater: flashy, sometimes entertaining, and entirely pretend.
The chances are good that O’Keefe won’t think too much of my work either. But as I watch him smile at his dancing partner, and as I reflect on what it’s like to be the person who centers his book-launch party around a musical depiction of lifelong professional rejection, I find myself hoping it won’t hurt him too much.
There are other reasons to hope for tolerance, as the spokesperson aggressively reminds me the next day when I reach out for comment. “We challenge any media organization to identify what ‘misinformation’ we have ever published, and if they lie about that, we will sue them.”
I pinch the bridge of my nose and meditate on scorpions and frogs.
Who knows? Next book-release party, I might even get my own dance number.