Connie Schultz | A Conservative Darling Loses His Charm

Last summer, guerrilla videographer James O’Keefe III donned his version of a pimp costume — think Elton John on a budget — to appear on “Fox & Friends” and complain that America’s newspaper of record wasn’t taking him seriously.

“The New York Times ran a story on Page A12, and they didn’t even assign a reporter to it,” O’Keefe said. He was referring to his video ambush of ACORN, which has a long history of organizing low-income people. Conservatives have had just as long a history accusing the group of voter registration fraud.

O’Keefe had secretly captured on video low-level ACORN staff giving advice to 20-year-old Hannah Giles, who was posing as a prostitute in search of a tax break for harboring underage prostitutes from El Salvador. In one scene, the pretend pimp strutted hand in hand with fake hooker Hannah on the streets of Baltimore.

Conservatives were jubilant, and many liberals were horrified. There was no evidence that the group was committing similar fraud across the country, but the video was so damning — and the uproar so deafening — that the U.S. Census Bureau severed its ties with ACORN and Congress voted to strip its federal funding.

The mainstream media were slow to jump on O’Keefe’s video, which made him mighty testy. Traditional journalism was dead, he told Fox.

“This is the future of investigative journalism, and it’s the future of political activism,” O’Keefe said. He was leading the movement “to go in there, become them undercover and sort of bring out elements of them and expose elements of them.”

Is it just me, or does he sound like those snarky staffers of losing presidential races? Yikes.

On Sunday, O’Keefe proved that dreams really do come true. There he was, one of four grim mug shots above the fold on Page One of The New York Times. The headline, under the story written by two reporters: “From High Jinks to Handcuffs.”

Note to O’Keefe: Wearing the same jailhouse orange as your buddies is so not the cool-pimp thing to do.

O’Keefe and fellow defendants Stan Dai, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan now face possible criminal prosecution for a scheme in which at least two of the men showed up in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office pretending to be telephone repairmen.

O’Keefe says they were investigating conservatives’ complaints that the senator was not responding to constituents’ calls about health care reform. Landrieu said earlier that her office phone lines had been “jammed for weeks.”

After their arrest, O’Keefe and his buddies, all in their 20s, were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent to commit a felony. If convicted, they face up to 10 years in prison.

The investigation is ongoing, so O’Keefe isn’t really chatty right now, except to say that he’s got no complaint with how federal investigators have handled his case so far. Oh, and that his tactics are still the future of investigative journalism.

Most conservative pundits aren’t championing O’Keefe as they did after the ACORN video. In an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, O’Keefe looked like a kid on the receiving end of a parent who’d posted his bail and spent the entire car ride home screaming, “What were you thinking?”

We’ve had enough glimpses into O’Keefe to speculate on the answer to that question. In 2006, Planned Parenthood issued an apology after O’Keefe recorded employees in Ohio and Idaho agreeing to allow him to donate money only to abortions for black women. Some argued that the women thought he was just clumsily trying to help minority clients. There is no excuse for the employees’ responses or his disturbing tactics. Over time, it has become clear that his favorite targets are women and minorities.

He is, however, sounding a tad more thoughtful in recent days. In a statement that O’Keefe posted on the Web site BigGovernment.com after his release, he still railed against the mainstream media, but he also sounded a bit contrite.

“On reflection,” he wrote, “I could have used a different approach to this investigation, particularly given the sensitivities that people understandably have about security in a federal building.”

Wait a minute.

“Reflection”?

“Different approach”?

“Sensitivities”?

If this young man isn’t careful, he’s going to turn into a real journalist.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the author of two books from Random House, “Life Happens” and “… and His Lovely Wife.” She is a featured contributor in a recently released book by Bloomsbury, “The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s ‘A More Perfect Union.'”

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