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James O'Keefe and Landrieu-gate: Whither right-wing muckraking?

The conservative investigative journalist who broke the ACORN story, James O'Keefe, was arrested Monday, allegedly for tampering with Sen. Mary Landrieu's phones. It could set back the movement he championed.

By Staff writer / January 28, 2010


In his cape-wearing turn as a pimp in his undercover ACORN sting, James O’Keefe had cast himself as a new kind of conservative crusader, using the Internet bullhorn to tear down what he saw as liberal prejudices.

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But Mr. O’Keefe’s arrest for allegedly trying to tamper with the phones of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana Monday will have consequences, not only for O’Keefe but also for the new brand of conservative muckraking he sought to pioneer.

That movement has taken a hit, and the incident may chill future investigative efforts against liberal targets, some conservative journalists say.

Indeed, many conservatives who had lauded O’Keefe’s work on the ACORN story – in which he showed that some workers of the left-leaning community organizing group were willing to help prostitutes avoid taxes – distanced themselves from the video-producer.

Michelle Malkin said O’Keefe got “carried away.” Fox News commentator Glenn Beck said O’Keefe had entered “Watergate territory.”

Others went further, suggesting that O’Keefe was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to incite a revolutionary fervor.

"It turns out [O'Keefe] is a lot more like Che Guevara than Woodward and Bernstein," says Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Controversial but effective

Until now, O’Keefe’s tactics were borderline ethical, but undeniably effective, media experts say. In attacking ACORN – an organization created to help the needy, O’Keefe turned on its head the classic journalistic maxim: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

The result was lots of Internet traffic, TV coverage, and even action in Congress, which stripped ACORN of federal funding.