You can't build the truth on a scaffold of lies

Updated 11:58 AM ET, Thu November 30, 2017

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Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. This is the next installment in the CNN Opinion series on the challenges facing the media, under attack from critics, governments and changing technology.

(CNN)The hilariously inept attack on the Washington Post by an organization run by right-wing prankster James O'Keefe -- his latest in a catalog of failures, falsehoods and fraud -- is a "worst practices" list of things a true news organization should never, ever do.

O'Keefe has spent years attempting to expose alleged liberal bias in mainstream media organizations, which, in and of itself, is a worthy goal. Every member of a quality news organization -- editors, reporters, producers and executives -- should be prepared to explain and defend their work and methods: what stories we cover, how we do it and what assumptions or hidden biases might lie behind our choices.
But serious media critics have a responsibility, too, one that is equal to, if not greater than, the organizations they wish to expose. That means operating with honesty, fairness and good faith, taking care to back up accusations with concrete evidence.
That's not as easy as it sounds. There isn't nearly as much bias as many critics claim, and ferreting it out can be tricky, time-consuming work. We all benefit from the digging, dedication and insight of media watchdogs like Brian Stelter, Howard Kurtz, Jay Rosen and Richard Prince, along with the team at Columbia Journalism Review.
    But O'Keefe, whose website describes him as "an award-winning journalist," is more partisan prankster than honest critic. Despite naming his organization Project Veritas (Latin for "truth"), O'Keefe has frequently resorted to deceptive and occasionally illegal tactics, including the use of false identities, trespassing and selectively edited videos that have frequently been debunked.
    That is not how quality news organizations operate. Most reputable media organizations flatly prohibit reporters from using false identities or failing to disclose their intentions (the exceptions to this rule tend to occur in extreme situations like overseas war zones, where safety may be an issue).
    O'Keefe calls the people he hires to set up stings "journalists," but in reality they are political operatives. And not very skilled ones, it turns out.
    In the latest O'Keefe misadventure, as reported by the Post, a woman named Jaime Phillips approached the newspaper and, over the course of two weeks, spun a lurid tale of having been in a sexual relationship years ago with Roy Moore, the conservative candidate for senate in Alabama.
    If true, Phillips' story -- which included allegedly crossing state lines at age 15 to get an abortion that Moore talked her into -- would have been explosive. But Phillips' deception unraveled quickly under scrutiny by the Post.
      One place where Phillips claimed to work never heard of her, and reporters discovered an online GoFundMe.com posting by her that read, in part: "I've accepted a job to work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceipt (sic) of the liberal MSM. I'll be using my skills as a researcher and fact-checker to help our movement."
      By the time Post reporters saw Phillips walking into the offices of Project Veritas, the game was over. Obviously, O'Keefe's goal was to get the Post to publish the false story, then "expose" the mainstream media's alleged eagerness to publish damaging information about a conservative politician without fact-checking it.
      So add the Post fiasco to O'Keefe's failed attempt to "prove" voter fraud in Colorado, his bungled effort to entrap a liberal filmmaker at Cannes and his possibly illegal sending of undercover operatives into a California political organization and a Michigan teachers union.
        Those screwups came after O'Keefe's infamous (and unsuccessful) effort to lure a CNN reporter into a videotaped seduction on a boat in order to humiliate her and embarrass CNN. Not to mention his misdemeanor conviction for entering a federal building under false pretenses.
        All these failures come at a cost. One victim of an O'Keefe sting successfully sued him and got a settlement of $100,000. Enough others have come forward, according to Buzzfeed, that O'Keefe is suing his insurance company for not properly defending Project Veritas.
        At this point, even conservatives who want to see alleged liberal media bias exposed may be growing disillusioned with O'Keefe's clumsy antics. Noah Rothman of Commentary recently decried O'Keefe's "unrelenting cascade of incompetence" and ruefully concluded: "Tragically, conservative media activists are becoming the debased, partisan creatures they once resolved to combat."
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        Back in 2010, shortly after O'Keefe was arrested in the middle of one of his failed stunts, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin offered some advice that applies today.
        "Let it be a lesson to aspiring young conservatives interested in investigative journalism," Malkin wrote. "Know your limits. Know the law. Don't get carried away. And don't become what you are targeting."
        In other words, you can't tell an honest story by being deceitful. You can't discover bias by being biased. And you don't build a purported search for truth on a scaffold of lies.
        That's a lesson O'Keefe has yet to learn.