The story that even ‘Donald Trump’s news network’ wouldn’t publish

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Sinclair Broadcast Group is a large media company that “owns, operates and/or provides services to 185 television stations in 86 markets” across the country. Her conservative bona fides became a matter of viral obsession in 2018, when she asked presenters at her stations to read the same op-ed channeling then-President Donald Trump’s attacks on “fake news.”

A lesser-known chapter in Sinclair’s story emerges in a federal courthouse this week in the case Democracy Partners v. Project Veritas Action Fundin which an umbrella group of Democratic political consulting firms sued James O’Keefe’s video sting organization for an undercover operation during the 2016 presidential campaign season. late in October 2016, Project Veritas gave the story to Sinclair as an “exclusive,” O’Keefe said Monday.

What followed was an awkward and ultimately unsuccessful transfer that could bolster Democracy Partners lawyer Joe Sandler’s arguments that the group was victimized not by journalism but by a group practicing political espionage.

Soliciting feedback from the targets of an investigation is a fundamental journalistic principle. Facts that appear scandalous to a journalist, after all, can have an innocent explanation. Plus, it’s only right for the subjects to know what kind of story is in the works. The best journalists work with a two-word mantra: no surprises.

A surprise, however, is just what Robert Creamer visited on Oct. 14, 2016. The Democracy Partners co-founder was having lunch at Ristorante Tosca with someone he thought was interested in advancing Democratic political causes. The man abruptly ended lunch and said he had to go, so they both left the restaurant. On the way out, Creamer’s lunch partner fled to the right – poof! From the left came a Sinclair news crew, with Raphael “Raffi” Williams, then a political reporter at Sinclair’s digital arm, Circa News, asking questions stemming from videos that had been secretly recorded.

“I asked how they knew where I was,” Creamer said during testimony last week. “Raffi said James O’Keefe said where I would be.” It was a setup, and Creamer’s lunch partner worked for Project Veritas. Very efficiently.

Here’s what Creamer quickly discovered: Staffers working under O’Keefe had obtained behind-the-scenes footage of him and other Democratic operatives, including Scott Foval, a political field operations specialist who worked as a contractor for Democracy Partners, talking about their projects. Project Veritas even planted an intern — Allison Maass, using the alias “Angela Brandt” — in the Democracy Partners office. “I recorded everything,” Maass said repeatedly during court proceedings, which are taking place in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman.

After discovering the breach, Creamer went into denial mode. In a series of discussions with attorneys and reporters for Sinclair, according to court documents and testimony, Creamer and his own attorneys went through the topics covered in the videos point-by-point, along with three pages of questions sent in by Williams. One problem was the loose-lipped Foval, who had been caught riffing on all sorts of boundary-breaking tactics, for example. “We are starting anarchy here,” Foval said. Creamer told Sinclair that Foval wasn’t working for Democracy Partners when Project Veritas started recording him — and the agent was talking trash. he was,” Creamer told the court.

Sinclair dropped the story, never posting a single frame of the Project Veritas videos, a move that encouraged Democracy Partners: The videos “would look less believable if, you know, basically Donald Trump’s news network didn’t wouldn’t post,” Brad Woodhouse, one of Creamer’s colleagues, said in a deposition.

Project Veritas took matters into their own hands. Without Sinclair’s imprimatur, he released on October 17, 2016, the first of four videos in a series titled “Rigging the Election.” Many clicks followed, as did the professional consequences for the two main agents of the package. Creamer walked away from his work on the Hillary Clinton campaign, and Foval lost his job. Consumer outlets stacked with a blanket.

On the witness stand last week, Creamer said Project Veritas never contacted him for his response to the videos. O’Keefe, in his own testimony, said he believed Sinclair had not forwarded Democracy Partners’ responses. “I think Sinclair asking for comment was enough at the time,” O’Keefe said in testimony Monday.

That comment — clinical and unapologetic — was typical of O’Keefe’s brief stint on the witness stand Monday. Sandler asked him about his professional background, his involvement with Trump events and aspects of the Democracy Partners investigation that deviated from journalistic standards – including donating $20,000 to a progressive organization to ‘gain trust’ of its leaders, in O’Keefe’s words; offering cash bonuses to staff members for obtaining certain content; and the decision to grant “exclusivity” to Sinclair.

The whole company speaks to a mindset more about political gotcha than journalism. But O’Keefe won’t be convinced: Asked by his own lawyer, Paul Calli, what the “sole purpose” of the project was, he replied that it was “to reveal information about people they wanted to keep hidden, which is the role of journalists.

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