James O’Keefe’s video exposés of ACORN, NPR, and CNN are well known, and his 2016 investigations into various political organizations were cited in that year’s American presidential debates. Less known is his appreciation of G. K. Chesterton. I recently had the opportunity to question O’Keefe on the matter.
Howting: How did you discover Chesterton?
O'Keefe: I first read Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy when I was living on a sailboat in a quiet creek off the Potomac River, right after I graduated from Rutgers. Lila Rose, the Founder of Live Action, introduced me to him when I started doing undercover videos with her at UCLA. He seemed to view faith as a romantic adventure and the universe as a wild fairy tale—I had a similar perspective on the world, as a twenty-one-year old in D.C. Chesterton died long before YouTube, but if he were alive today, I think he would advocate new, creative methods to revolutionize the practice of journalism. I gave a speech at the Chesterton Society in 2010, to mixed reviews. Some didn’t like my use of deception to get to the truth. I would argue that the real deception is in blindly reporting what the subjects or sources tell you, instead of trying to uncover the truth.
What do you admire about Chesterton?
Chesterton looks at the world in the most beautiful way. He was able to make the communication of complex ideas resonate in the minds of his readers. Many people criticize my work as “activism” instead of “journalism.” Chesterton was hailed as a journalist, but at heart he was an activist. At heart, every good journalist—in fact every good person—is an activist. Doing nothing is not an option. Some may object that nuns and monks don’t engage in activism. In fact, they are some of the greatest activists. They spend their entire days being active and for our sake and benefit. They are continually praying for change, a change in heart—or, in Latin, a conversion towards the Divine Light, towards God.
One of my favorite of Chesterton’s works is “The Tyranny of Bad Journalism.” The more I read about him, the more I realized that what he wrote about journalism applies to the present day. His arguments about journalism transcended the left-right divide; on the subject of the press, he said, “It is not an organ of public opinion. It is a conspiracy of a very few millionaires. … The millionaire newspapers are vulgar and silly because the millionaires are vulgar and silly.” Chesterton sounded like Chomsky when discussing how the media is dominated by markets, or what is politically acceptable to discuss. “Knowledge is now a monopoly, and comes through to the citizens in thin and selected streams.” When you take a look at our CNN investigation, where a senior producer said that ethics don’t exist at CNN and their CEO Jeff Zucker was making news decision entirely based upon ratings and profit—you begin to see how prescient Chesterton was.
A common theme in your answers here is a skepticism of concentrated power. Chesterton shared your skepticism. He detested bigness and people’s becoming reliant on “the one big shop,” whether it be one big corporation or the government. Did you acquire this skepticism from reading Chesterton? Or did you get it from personal experiences, and then find a kindred spirit in Chesterton?
I definitely got this sentiment from personal experiences, and Chesterton affirmed it. First, through the work I did with my father as an adolescent, fixing up rental properties in New Jersey—and watching how the building inspectors made sure there wasn’t a blade of grass in the sidewalk. I also watched how my grandfather would furnish windows out of old scrap wood, and they wouldn’t be “up to code.” Of course, others who were “connected” would be completely up to code.
Later in my life, the Department of Homeland Security detained me at the border every time I entered the United States, and asked me what stories I would be working on. The Eastern District of Louisiana initially charged me with a felony for being inside a government building. All those prosecutors resigned in disgrace, for prosecutorial misconduct in another case. Bigness and connectedness work hand in hand. “Government, like Fire, is a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master,” said George Washington. Of all the big things that have become concentrated, the media are probably the greatest culprit—and Chesterton spoke to that in his description of the media tycoons as being vulgar and silly.
You say, “Chesterton died long before YouTube, but if he were alive today, I think he would advocate new, creative methods to revolutionize the practice of journalism.” What do you think he would do? You think Chesterton would have a YouTube channel? Instagram?
I think a modern-day living example would be Jordan Peterson. He’s one of the best thinkers in modern times—explaining concepts like postmodernism and identity politics in the context of the Soviet Union and in the context of common sense. Peterson is really up there in the stratosphere of great intellects. Videos of him just talking into a grainy Skype camera have generated millions of views. Imagine a video of Chesterton confronting a social justice warrior, a postmodernist, or that girl at Yale who was screaming at the professor. Chesterton’s parables of common sense aimed at our irrational world of identity politics would probably be watched 10 million times on YouTube. Chesterton’s quips on Twitter would rival the traffic of Trump.
In the “The Maniac,” in Orthodoxy, Chesterton writes about the tendency for professional critics to go mad. He makes the case that it’s not the dreamers and artists who go mad, but the critics. As a man who has had his share of critics, you must have some thoughts on that.
Morton Blackwell said, “A builder can build faster than a destroyer can destroy.” There’s some truth to the axiom that it is better just to release the next investigation than spend your time reacting to lies written about you on the internet. The only way to grow as an artist or journalist is to release more content. Every time we do, someone resigns, a law is changed, and the targets admit they said what they said. They make many outrageous claims—including that the videos are fake. But in the last release, CNN admitted that the tape was real when they responded by saying, “We support diversity of opinion.”
On a deeper level, one of the greatest quotes about criticism and the haters was from Rush Limbaugh. He said:
One of the toughest things I had to do was learn to psychologically accept the fact that being hated was a sign of success. Most people aren’t raised to be hated. . . . Everybody wants total acceptance. Everybody wants respect. Everybody wants to be loved, and so when you learn that what you do is going to engender hatred you have to learn to accept that as a sign of success. That was a tough psychological thing for me.
Criticism is a scandalous weapon hardly ever grounded in truth—but it is usually a sign in these times that you are telling the truth. And the sad part is, most choose not to stand for truth because they know they will be hated and criticized. Chesterton wrote, “There is a case for telling the truth; there is a case for avoiding the scandal; but there is no possible defense for the man who tells the scandal, but does not tell the truth.” That’s the modern critic.
John M. Howting writes from Michigan on the English Catholic literary revival.