If you’re using this week’s new Project Veritas videos about CNN to bolster your argument that the mainstream media is conspiring to hurt President Donald Trump, there are a few important details that you should know.
The undercover videos, produced by conservative-provocateur James O’Keefe and his team at Project Veritas, aim to bolster Trump’s war against the media, which the president regularly characterizes as “fake news.” The president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders both praised the first video, released earlier this week, as proof that CNN is nothing more than an anti-Trump rag trying to make a quick buck by harping on the federal investigations into Trump’s team and Russia.
But the videos prove nothing of the sort.
As a journalist, I’m hesitant to share these videos further at the risk of spreading what is very clearly O’Keefe propaganda (more on that later). But for the sake of context, here they are:
In the first video, CNN Health producer John Bonifield tells an unidentified Project Veritas operative that CNN is covering the Russia controversy because it’s a ratings boost and says the whole thing “could be bullshit.”
“I just feel like they don’t really have it, but they want to keep digging,” Bonifield says. “And so I think the president is probably right to say, like, look you are witch hunting me. Like you have no smoking gun, you have no real proof.”
In the second video, CNN commentator Van Jones says, “The Russia thing is just a big nothing burger,” when asked by Project Veritas operative what he thought was going to happen that particular week regarding the Russia investigations.
So, that’s the gist of what you encounter in these videos. However, it’s the context that’s left out that really matters. And it is due to this and other related reasons, which I’ll outline below, that many news outlets either choose to ignore these videos or cover them with condemnation, as I’m doing right now.
- O’Keefe has a history of purposefully editing videos to leave out key context that doesn’t fit his narrative. In 2013, he was forced to pay a $100,000 settlement to an ACORN employee for doing just this. And you can see how heavily the videos on CNN are edited, which, given O’Keefe’s past, calls into question the veracity of anything in them.
- O’Keefe is willing to break the law to carry out what he calls “stings,” as was the case when he broke into the office of former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Journalists are not permitted to break the law to get a story.
- O’Keefe ignores crucial journalistic ethics. Beyond selectively editing the CNN videos, they also fail to identify Bonifield as a CNN Health producer who lives in Atlanta, falsely implying that he’s involved in the outlet’s politics coverage, which is primarily produced out of Washington and New York; the Project Veritas operatives do not identify themselves as journalists, which is a major breach of ethical standards in all but a few journalistic pursuits. Failure to follow any of these basic rules of journalism means you don’t get to be considered a journalist, as O’Keefe has dubbed himself.
All of this makes it irresponsible to take these videos at face value. Further, there are questions viewers of these videos must ask before drawing any conclusions from them. For example:
- Does a single CNN producer’s off-the-cuff comments about the network’s Russia coverage prove CNN is intentionally conspiring to harm Trump or is otherwise “fake news?” No, it obviously does not. To do that, O’Keefe would need evidence, not just some remarks by a random employee of the company.
- Does Van Jones’ comment prove he’s being hypocritical in his commentary on CNN? No, he’s been critical of both Trump and the Democrats regarding their reactions to the Russia controversy.
- Do either of the videos prove the Russia controversy is not a story? No, there are currently five ongoing investigations into Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election and/or ties between Trump’s team and Russia. This includes a criminal investigation into whether the president obstructed justice in his interactions with, and firing of, former FBI Director James Comey.
So, am I trying to say Trump did collude with Russia to throw the presidential election? No, absolutely not. There is no publicly available evidence to show that he did, as Bonifield rightly says. We’ll have to wait until Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller finalizes his investigation to have a better idea of what all the facts are.
Does this mean CNN ignores ratings when considering its coverage? No, although I have no knowledge of how the network chooses what to cover or discuss at any given time. That said, CNN is a business, so having good ratings is certainly a consideration.
Does this mean media outlets are unbiased? Absolutely not. But evidence of bias does not mean CNN—or any other news outlet—fails to produce good journalism, and O’Keefe’s videos show no evidence of journalistic malpractice.
In short, believe whatever you want about Trump, Russia, CNN, and the media in general. But the Project Veritas videos are, as Jones might call them, nothing burgers.