Have you not liked James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas and been hoping for years to see these sleazy degenerates get into a world of hurt? This may be your lucky day. We’ve known for a while that Project Veritas got hold of the diary and more of Ashley Biden, Joe Biden’s daughter. That story has been rattling around for almost two years and Project Veritas has made great hay out of how the investigation is allegedly an attack on their First Amendment rights. The DOJ just announced two plea deals with the thieves, one of whom, Robert Kurlander, has agreed to testify against the as yet unnamed “organization” noted in the plea deal.
That’s Project Veritas.
We’ll have an accompanying news story shortly. But this is a case where I have some specific insight and perspective as an editor and publisher about how to stay out of trouble or, as Project Veritas seems to have done here, get in a lot of trouble.
So here goes.
Sources are not always good people. And even when they are good people they’ve often done bad things. Often they’ve done illegal things. As a publisher or editor or reporter you want to get the story while being sure you don’t get tangled up in the source’s crimes. Here’s the general principle for how to keep out of trouble.
Let’s say that you’re minding your own business and some stolen documents just fall out of the sky. Or, more realistically, they just show up in the mail or someone hands them to you. You didn’t know they were coming. You didn’t ask for them. They just appeared. Hopefully you don’t actually know that they’re stolen. But even if you do, if some version of the facts above apply you likely have a pretty good First Amendment claim to reporting on the material. You didn’t do anything. You took no affirmative steps. The source’s crimes aren’t your problem. Or at least you have a pretty good defense if a prosecutor says they are.
But let’s say someone comes to you and says, hey, I think I can steal these documents for you. Interested? Rookie journalists out there: the answer is no. Absolutely no.
Or another scenario. Let’s say Mr. Shady Source shows up at the newsroom with his stolen documents. You look them over and you like what you see. Then you say, ‘Great stuff here. As long as you know your way into the house, can you maybe steal these other documents for me too?’
At this point any First Amendment defense you have has basically gone up in smoke. You are a participant in the crime. If the story is important enough to you and you don’t mind being a thief, you can take your chances. But if you get caught you’re going to do time like any other common criminal. Being a journalist just won’t matter.
It’s all the more the case if you pay the thief for the news stuff, or you fund their new crime, or you’re actually needlessly stupid enough to transport the stolen property across state lines yourself. If the claims in these plea deals are accurate, Project Veritas did all these things. And more.
My colleague Josh Kovensky received a statement from Project Veritas’s attorney, which denies the relevant alleged facts and reads: “Project Veritas’s news gathering was ethical and legal. A journalist’s lawful receipt of material later alleged to be stolen is routine, commonplace, and protected by the First Amendment.”
If we back up to the arguably blameless scenario above, this is where legitimate journalists sometimes operate. And you go to great lengths not to even nudge up against that line. I don’t want to know anything. I didn’t tell you to do anything. I’m not telling you to do anything else. But when you are paying people to commit crimes at your direction and for your benefit you are 100% part of the crime. And really, this isn’t a case where prosecutors should exercise some sort of restraint in the interests of press freedom. Journalists have no more right to steal your property than anyone else. That is literally what separates the honorable and sometimes morally ambiguous practice of journalism from being a crook PI or common criminal.