The Pulitzer Prize winner, the faux journalist and the governor of the Garden State: Reflections on a short video investigation

April 14, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 14, 2014

The other day, I ruminated at length about the similarities between former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. But there’s something that I left out of the story that’s been lingering in my mind for the past several weeks. That something is a 2011 video by would-be conservative journalist James O’Keefe criticizing a Newark Star-Ledger journalist (and adjunct Columbia University journalism professor) Amy Ellis Nutt.

Nutt won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for a series of feature stories called “The Wreck of the Lady Mary,” which chronicled the sinking of a fishing boat in which six men drowned. After describing how she wrote that story as part of a public panel discussion at Columbia’s Journalism School, which administers the Pulitzers, Nutt was recorded in what she thought was a private conversation.

It turns out that Nutt was speaking not with a cub reporter, as she apparently thought, but with a plant working for “Project Veritas,” O’Keefe’s quasi-journalistic enterprise. The decoy, as O’Keefe calls him, covertly took video of Nutt saying that it’s important to re-elect President Obama and disparaging Christie.

That’s the way O’Keefe spins it in this nearly eight-minute-long video, anyway, although I think there’s room for reasonable minds to disagree about Nutt’s opinions regarding Obama and his re-election.

The problem is that the plant is talking so much that it’s difficult to divine Nutt’s own thoughts. “It just seems like so, you know, important to me that we help, help re-elect the president. So — and it’s just stuff like that,” the man says.

Nutt says “Yeah” in the middle of her interlocutor’s oh-so-articulate spiel. When he finishes speaking, says, “I think it’s going to help that Chris Christie isn’t running” — that is, running for president. “Because I think people look at him as the great white hope.”

Is this some indictment of journalists for pretending to be objective while secretly tipping the scales in favor of liberal Democrats? O’Keefe’s crowd certainly seems to think so, but I’m not willing to condemn Nutt on the basis of this exchange.

Immediately after Nutt says that some view Christie as a “great white hope,” the decoy says, “Right, but, you know, people in New Jersey, they know what he’s like. But everywhere else in the country, you know.”

“Yes,” Nutt says. “He’s an asshole. He’s a complete — he’s a bully and he’s a — yeah, he’s a liar. But he’s really good — talking. He’s charismatic. People fall for it.”

For the record, the video’s captions indicate that Nutt says “He’s an ass” rather than “Yes,” although that phrase eluded my ears. (Then again, captions at various points in the video also misspell charismatic with an erroneous A and part of the name of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism with an extraneous D.)

Most of the rest of the video concerns O’Keefe’s attempts to grill three journalists about whether it’s appropriate for Nutt to have covered New Jersey’s 2009 gubernatorial election given that she has an opinion about Christie, who that year challenged Democratic incumbent Jon Corzine.

O’Keefe goes to the Star-Ledger’s office in a fruitless attempt to interview an editor there; attempts and fails to find Nutt at Columbia Journalism School on a day when he believes she is scheduled to teach there, and subsequently has a brief, strained phone conversation with her; and attempts to get a J-School dean to criticize either Nutt or a fellow J-School professor who called O’Keefe and associates “shitheads.” In each case, O’Keefe seems to have shown up unannounced; it’s not clear whether he even attempted to make an appointment beforehand.

He evidently never meets with anyone at the Star-Ledger besides a security guard and an advertising employee who happens to be in the lobby. Over the phone, Nutt tells O’Keefe that it was inappropriate for what she thought was a private conversation to be recorded without her permission. (The legality of doing this varies from state to state.)

The dean, Sree Sreenivasan, praises his colleagues and shrugs off most of O’Keefe’s questions. He also bemusedly points out the “celebrity” to other people in the lounge where he’s sitting and begins taking a video of O’Keefe as the latter man attempts to conduct an interview. (At least one bystander did exactly as the dean did.) 60 Minutes this is not.

This is a good moment for me to note that I completed a master’s degree at Columbia Journalism School in 2003. I haven’t to my recollection ever met or interacted with Nutt, but like many J-Schoolers over the years, I know and am an admirer of the dynamic, outgoing Sreenivasan.

Now, I believe that O’Keefe is basically a fraudster, to be blunt about it. I alluded to O’Keefe’s role in the Breitbart “news” organization in February; for details, see here and here. Still, he raises an important question — how much of their political views should journalists be disclosing? — while demonstrating that he has no real ability or inclination to engage in examining that question in serious fashion. (Contrary to what O’Keefe’s video implies, by the way, Nutt appears to have engaged in relatively little coverage of Christie and the 2009 gubernatorial race.)

But this isn’t why this O’Keefe video has been on my mind lately.

The reason I keep on thinking about the video is that revelations over the past several months largely seem to vindicate Nutt’s characterization of Christie. The jury is still out on whether the governor is an out-and-out liar. However, it’s increasingly clear that he in fact is a bully and a jerk.

Nutt may have been wrong to disparage Christie, whether she thought her conversation was private or not. But her assessment of him — that, I think, was pretty accurate.

To borrow a phrase from O’Keefe’s video, you might even say that the governor’s true nature has been hiding in plain sight all along.

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