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Did Project Veritas invade an ABC News reporter’s privacy with a covert video?

The network suspended David Wright after the recording appeared to show him criticizing his employer and saying, among other things, that he considers himself a socialist

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James O’Keefe, President of Project Veritas Action, waits to be introduced during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on Sept. 1, 2015.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

ABC suspended veteran reporter David Wright Wednesday for offhand comments caught on a video by an “undercover journalist” working for a conservative activist group, in which he appeared to share liberal political views and criticize both his employer and the news media in general.

Twitter buzzed in the aftermath. Many who work in the media supported Wright and chastised the network, while Republicans like Mike Huckabee offered the video as evidence that the mainstream press is losing credibility. 

But often lost in the rush to take a side were questions about how the video was obtained by Project Veritas — known for using hidden cameras to depict supposed liberal bias among media figures — and what it means for privacy. 

‘A profit center, a promotion center’

The choppy, heavily edited video shows Wright, apparently during coverage of the New Hampshire primary, holding a cocktail glass in a crowded restaurant or bar. “We don’t hold him to account,” he says of President Donald Trump. “But we also don’t give him credit for what things he does do.” He also says that he considers himself a socialist. “I think there should be national health insurance,” he says. “I’m totally fine with reining in corporations. I think there are too many billionaires. And I think that there’s a wealth gap, and that’s a problem.” 

He also criticized ABC, saying it “became a profit center, a promotion center,” and broadcast news generally, of which he says, “Commercial imperative is incompatible with news.”

Aside from suspending Wright, ABC also announced that when he returns, he won’t be allowed to cover politics “to avoid any possible appearance of bias.”

What is Project Veritas?

Project Veritas, which posted the video on its website Wednesday, says its mission is to “investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud and other misconduct in both public and private institutions to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.”

The Washington Post, in its coverage of the “sting,” described Project Veritas as a “conservative group that records ‘undercover’ footage of mainstream journalists to bolster its accusations of media bias.” In 2017, the Post caught a woman affiliated with the organization trying to plant a fake story about then-Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore.

Saint Louis University communications professor Robert Goss has called Project Veritas “a right-wing flak mill that, using media, has set out to professionally damage people and organizations across almost a decade.”

In this case, Project Veritas, founded by conservative activist James O’Keefe, appears to have succeeded.

Privacy and covert recording

The legality of the recording is questionable. New Hampshire is a two-party consent state, meaning it’s criminal to record a conversation if all involved parties aren’t in agreement. But that doesn’t apply to an environment where there’s no expectation of privacy — like a bar. Regardless, the interesting question is the principle of privacy. Even if Project Veritas’ recording was legal, should information acquired in this way be used against an employee — even one as public-facing as a national news reporter — especially when the video is politically motivated?

The question comes back to privacy. To whether living in a society that necessitates a constant guard against being watched is desirable, and whether ABC should instead respond by condemning the act of covert recording. 

To be sure, covert recording has been used in consequential ways before. Former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was undone by a phone call, recorded without his consent, in which he displayed textbook anti-black racism. The NBA swiftly issued a $2.5 million fine and banned him for life. Few questioned the invasion of Sterling’s privacy because his remarks were seen as objectively prejudiced and unacceptable in a league where black players constitute the majority. 

But in cases like Wright’s, where the recording is released by an organization with a reputation for deception or at least a sort of slyness, and the offense amounts to stating his political views and criticizing his company and industry, should ABC defend his privacy? Or is the network’s reaction reasonable given that Wright’s political persuasions are now public, as is his belief that TV journalism doesn’t function as it should?

How will it affect the news?

Matt Pearce, a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times covering the 2020 election, opined that such intrusions would be unsustainable for reporters. 

“If it’s a suspendable offense for journalists to privately gripe about their media company’s news coverage of whatever,” he tweeted, “then nobody in this business would have a job.”

Sopan Deb, an NBA and culture writer for The New York Times, added that it’s an institutional problem for media companies — that they don’t know how to address “bad faith efforts.”

“Journalists have opinions they share privately,” Deb continued. “We’re not robots. To publicly embarrass a seasoned reporter for a private conversation caught on tape by an organization known for lying is incredibly frustrating.”

Neutrality or virtue signaling?

The network’s decision could have a chilling effect on other journalists, as exhibited in the comments on Deb’s post. A self-described weekend morning news director wrote, “And people wonder why I keep my opinions to myself. Too much of this BS right now. Heck it’s why I’m even worried about voting in our primary bc you have to declare party affiliation, which gets sent to all of the major parties.”

Some might laud this result, might say it illustrates how a sting can nudge the mainstream media toward neutrality and eliminate their biases. But such reasoning ignores implications for privacy, and implies that abandoning authentic conversation in favor of constant performance is somehow virtuous.

Silencing yourself, Deb responded to the news director, “is exactly what the bad-faith people want you to do!”