With a thwarted sting and dueling videos, the clash between the Washington Post and conservative advocates Project Veritas led University of Minnesota professor Jane Kirtley to toss aside the intended topic for her media ethics class on Tuesday. The news was irresistible.
The Post's story Monday that exposed the group's attempt at deception, along with the newspaper's earlier work on Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, is valuable beyond the classroom as an illustration of how journalism works at a time "fake news" has become part of the lexicon, she said.
"This is how good journalists do their jobs and how they don't get taken in by hoaxes," said Kirtley, an expert in media law in Minnesota. "It's such an important lesson."
The Post described how a woman affiliated with Project Veritas, a group that has used disguises and hidden cameras to uncover supposed liberal bias among journalists, sought to convince Post reporters that she had been impregnated by Moore when she was 15 and had an abortion — all of which was false.
Detail by detail, the newspaper outlined how it began to doubt Jaime Phillips' story, all before anything was printed. She told a Post reporter that she had spent only a summer in Alabama decades ago, but her mobile phone had an Alabama area code. The company where she claimed to work had no record of her. Finally, a researcher located a Web page under the woman's name seeking money to move to New York for a job in the conservative media movement.
She was later spotted by Post reporters walking into the New York office of Project Veritas.
Suddenly, the newspaper had a much different story.
"It was such an amazing piece of journalism," said Dan Kennedy, a professor at Northeastern University. "One can only imagine the world of hurt we'd all be in journalism if the Post had been taken in" by the ruse, he said.
Instead, Project Veritas and its controversial leader, James O'Keefe, were exposed in an act that "does nothing but hurt the cause of conservative journalism," said Brent Bozell, founder of Media Research Center, one of the longest-running organizations critical of liberal bias in the media.
Bozell called it a "shameful" act of deceit, an effort at entrapment through misleading means.
"If this was a liberal, we'd all be screaming from the highest rooftops," Bozell said. "Let's be honest."
Asked to comment on Bozell's statement, Project Veritas spokesman Stephen Gordon said: "We have no response. Watch our next video."
Project Veritas and the Post released dramatically different videos of an encounter between O'Keefe and Post reporter Aaron C. Davis, who had come to the organization's headquarters to interview him about Phillips. O'Keefe asked questions about two "sting" videos featuring Post employees, which Davis said he was not aware of. Davis repeatedly asked O'Keefe if Phillips worked for Project Veritas, and O'Keefe ignored the questions — exchanges that were edited out of the video released by Veritas.
Shortly after the Post story was posted, O'Keefe sent a fundraising letters to his supporters noting that after months of work, "our investigative journalist embedded within the organization had their cover blown."
His group also released videos of the two Post employees, reporter Dan Lamothe and Joey Marburger, director of products, involved in a conversation with an offscreen questioner about the newspaper. Lamothe talked about how much coverage President Donald Trump received, while Marburger discussed Post owner Jeff Bezos' role in the newspaper's slogan, "Democracy Dies in Darkness." A Post spokeswoman had no comment on the videos Tuesday.
Like Kirtley in Minnesota, Northeastern's Kennedy has spent time with his classes going line-by-line through one of the Post's stories — in this case, the Nov. 9 investigation that detailed the experiences of four women who said they were teenagers when Moore, then in his 30s, dated them. In one case that allegedly involved sexual contact, the girl was 14 years old.
The Post explained in meticulous detail how it came upon the story when a reporter who was writing about Moore's supporters was told about then-prosecutor Moore's involvement with teenagers. Six times the Post interviewed Leigh Corfman, the woman who alleged the encounter when she was 14. Reporters spoke to her mother and friends from that time — in all 30 people who said they knew Moore between 1977 and 1982. Election records were checked to confirm none of the women donated to Moore opponents. Corfman's history was checked through public records, revealing she'd filed for bankruptcy three times and was once charged with a misdemeanor for selling a beer to a minor.
While Moore and his supporters have complained about the story and questioned the Post's motives, the story has proven airtight factually, Kennedy said.
"Good journalists don't just take information that is given to them at face value," Kirtley said. "They question it. They check it. They go behind the scenes. Things don't drop into your lap, and I think that's how some people think journalists work."
The stories pull back the veil on how reporters work — for those who want to see, the professors said.
"The true believers will never really grapple with what the Post did," Kennedy said. "These are the times we live in. It's very dispiriting."
This story has been amended to correct the second reference to Phillips.