Fake news flameout: Exposing a crackpot conservative plot

FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2015, file photo, James O'Keefe, President of Project Veritas Action, waits to be introduced during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2015, file photo, James O'Keefe, President of Project Veritas Action, waits to be introduced during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

It’s always a feel-good moment when real news triumphs over fake news, but the failed right-wing sting operation against The Washington Post — lovingly detailed yesterday — is more delicious than watermelon on a warm summer eve.

In the annals of conservative cons, this saga is truly a classic. A fake-news group that targets the mainstream media tried to sucker The Post into running a fake scandal story about alleged Alabama perv Roy Moore, in the hopes of embarrassing the paper and thus casting doubt on Moore’s nine credible accusers. But the plot failed in spectacular fashion when The Post’s reporters realized they were being hustled.

So instead of falling for the con, they exposed it. Indeed, what they exposed was the kind of disinformation scheme — assaulting the truth by diluting it with lies — that’s all too common in authoritarian nations.

As the special Senate election in Alabama draws ever closer (it’s now two weeks away), the rabid right has failed to destroy the credibility of Moore’s accusers. So Plan B is to destroy the credibility of The Post. Fake rumors have circulated in Alabama that The Post will pay for new dirt on Moore, regardless of whether it’s verifiable; robocalls, purportedly from fake Post reporter “Bernie Bernstein” (the Jewish name makes it a two-fer) also pleaded for dirt. And while all this was going on, a woman who claimed to have been impregnated by Moore at age 15 was trying to get The Post to take her bait.

It’s just lucky that these right-wing stingers are so incompetent. They somehow assumed that they could spoon-feed the pregnancy story to the reporters, who would duly run it without checking it out first. Fake-news hustlers don’t seem to realize that real journalists try to verify information before sharing it with the public.

The details would be hilarious if they weren’t so pathetic. The woman who contacted The Post used her real name, Jaime Phillips. In meetings with reporters, she described her purported underage pregnancy and repeatedly asked whether her tale would knock Moore out of the race. The reporters came to suspect that she might be recording the conversations, hoping that the reporters would say yes to her question, thus demonstrating bias. In response, the reporters asked Phillips for documentation about her allegation and her life. They said: “I want to be straight with you about the fact-checking process.”

The facts didn’t check out. Phillips claimed to have lived in Alabama for only one teenage summer, but her cell had an Alabama area code. Phillips claimed to work for a company in Westchester, N.Y., but the company told the reporters that nobody named Phillips worked there. Then a Post researcher found Phillips’ name on GoFundMe.com, and this message in May: “I’ve accepted a job in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceipt [sic] of the liberal MSM.” One of the donations on the GoFundMe page was from a person whose name matched Phillips’ daughter.

The Post arranged another meeting with Phillips, in a restaurant, this time with Post videographers sitting at a nearby table. The reporter placed her purse in front of Phillips’ purse, to block any possible camera. So Phillips moved her purse. (This feels like grist for a sequel to “American Hustle.” Amy Adams could play Phillips.) Phillips asked the reporter if her story would knock Moore out of the race. The reporter instead confronted her with the GoFundMe page. Phillips said “yeah” it was hers, and that she had interviewed with “Kathy Johnson” at the conservative Daily Caller website. (The Post contacted the Daily Caller, which said it had never heard of Phillips, and employed nobody named Kathy Johnson.)

Phillips, in that final meeting with The Post, said, “I’m not going to answer any more questions. I think I’m just going to go.” She left. And a few days later, Post reporters saw her walking into the offices of Project Veritas.

Bingo.

Project Veritas is the right-wing sting operation run by James O’Keefe, whose game is to trick media organizations and various groups into saying stupid things on camera. In 2010, among other pratfalls, he was arrested in the offices of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and pleaded guilty to entering federal property under false pretenses. He has been banned by Mississippi and Utah from raising money in those states because he failed to disclose his criminal record on state applications. He works with a guy who was sentenced to six months in jail for trying to blackmail David Letterman.

O’Keefe was confronted by The Post earlier this week. When asked about Jaime Phillips, he said: “I’m not going to say a word.” No need. I think we know enough.

But as satisfying as it is to see fake news exposed, it’s also sobering. O’Keefe’s group reportedly raised $4.8 million in 2016 (the Trump Foundation donated $10,000 in 2015, natch), which shows there’s a robust constituency for fakery. And not all media outlets are as rigorous as The Post; few outlets have as many resources, or can afford — in our ever-accelerated news cycle — to spend several weeks fact-checking provocative allegations; few outlets are immune to the relentless assaults on fact.

The tables were turned this time, and it was delicious. What should concern us is next time.

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