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Five Things I Learned After Tangling With James O'Keefe

By Sree Sreenivasan | November 14, 2011 3:31pm

James O’Keefe, the conservative filmmaker whose undercover work damaged the reputations of ACORN and NPR, showed up at Columbia Journalism School last week with mic in hand and cameras rolling to try to ask me questions about a colleague.

Fortunately, I recognized him. Unlike his previous films, where he'd masqueraded as, among other things, a pimp, he was dressed journalist-style.

I pulled out my iPhone and started shooting him at the same time he was shooting me. Then a student started shooting video of me shooting O’Keefe shooting me, which he posted on YouTube.

O'Keefe was on campus looking for material for his latest “To Catch a Journalist” segment for what he calls "Project Veritas," in which he goes after journalists for alleged misdeeds. In this case, he asked me about journalists using bad words in emails.

Gawker’s John Cook linked to the video and wrote about the incident on Thursday, which resulted in tens of thousands of people suddenly becoming aware of this. The whole thing also made the “Worst Persons” segment on the new “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” show on Current TV, with O’Keefe on the list. 

I think there are some lessons worth learning from the incident.

1. IF SOMEONE AMBUSHES YOU WITH A CAMERA, AMBUSH ’EM BACK. If you get ambushed by someone with a video camera, pull out your camera phone and start filming. You end up intimidating them, not the other way around. And you have a full record of the incident, in case the other guy puts out a selectively edited version.

2. BEING EVEN IN A MINOR FIRESTORM IS IMMENSELY DISTRACTING. Among the major news items I missed because I was distracted by all the O’Keefe drama: the fall of pioneering media blogger Jim Romensko and Ashton Kutcher’s Twitter disaster. I was so caught up reading and answering hundreds of emails, Twitter and Facebook items that I ended up in a little bubble of my own.

3. ANYONE IN THE MEDIA CAN BE A TARGET THESE DAYS. People like O'Keefe have it in for professional journalists. Combine that with the fact that everyone has a camera phone these days, we all need to be hyper-aware that what we are saying might be recorded, or tweeted or Facebooked. I am not saying we should be scared to have our own opinions and thoughts, but the possibility that we are being taped is all too real. Here’s what O’Keefe’s site says about its mission: "Project Veritas is committed to training and deploying undercover citizen journalists to expose fraud, corruption and abuse within all organizations."

4. PEOPLE LIKE O’KEEFE THINK THEY ARE ACTING LIKE JOURNALISTS. They think having a camera makes them a journalist. Instead, this is a cheap caricature of journalism, down to the mic flag (you know, the “Project Veritas” logo attached to the microphone). He shows once again that ambush interviews and selective editing don’t make you into a citizen journalist.

5. WANT MORE FOLLOWERS? BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. It’s fun to get new followers, but this kind of episode can bring you followers you would never expect. Suddenly, I’ve found dozens of politics tweeters following me, including some from both extremes of the spectrum. None more famous, however, than Michelle Malkin and Andrew Breitbart. I am hoping these political types, when they discover I almost never tweet about politics, will get bored and unfollow me. Let’s move along, folks, there’s nothing to see here.

What do you think? Post your comments below using your Facebook account or on Twitter @sree.

Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor (and Columbia Journalism professor) Sree Sreenivasan shares his observations about the changing media landscape.