A provocateur, under false pretenses, tries to get people of various backgrounds, from everyday Americans to sitting lawmakers, to make embarrassing comments on camera. In this case, we’re not talking about James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who has used hidden cameras and false identities to target institutions including The Washington Post, The New York Times, the community organizing group Acorn and Planned Parenthood.
We’re referring to the newest series from Sacha Baron Cohen, a comedian known for foisting outlandish characters on unsuspecting victims.
By now, you’ve likely heard of Mr. Cohen’s latest work, on Showtime: “Who Is America?” which premiered last week to mixed reviews. Following in the footsteps of his previous characters Borat, Ali G and Brüno, Mr. Cohen created several new alter egos. His newest marks have included an actual former vice president (Dick Cheney), a former vice-presidential candidate (Sarah Palin), Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Roy S. Moore, the former Alabama chief justice and Senate candidate, along with other current and former legislators.
The show has been met with scorn from some corners, especially from some who were fooled like Ms. Palin, but others have taken the pranking in stride.
“Who Is America?” has also sparked a conversation about the ethics of deception. And since Mr. Cohen’s most biting sketches so far — including one about arming children with guns, and another on Sunday night that embarrassed a Georgia legislator — have been aimed at Republicans, more than a few people have called him a mirror version of Mr. O’Keefe, who has delighted conservatives and infuriated liberals with his tactics.
Mr. O’Keefe himself has gleefully seized on the comparison.
He said in an email, referring to the name of his operation, “It is hypocritical to deride Project Veritas’s ethics using undercover techniques, and then gloss over the same exact tactic Cohen has repeatedly used to commercial success.”
How similar are Mr. O’Keefe and Mr. Cohen? We explore that question and more in our primer below.
Who has been tricked?
The first episode opened with Mr. Sanders being interviewed by Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick of Truthbrary.org (a conspiracy website created by the show), who was in reality a heavily made-up Mr. Cohen, sitting in a motorized scooter. Mr. Sanders was less embarrassed than befuddled, especially when Mr. Cohen began talking about moving every American into the 1 percent.
As Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello, a ponytailed liberal caricature with an NPR T-shirt and a Twitter feed created in April, Mr. Cohen has dinner with the Trump supporters Mark and Jane Page Thompson, “a couple who suffer from white privilege,” who politely listen to him talk about his bizarre methods of raising his children, named Harvey Milk and Malala.
Christy Cones, of the Coast Gallery in Laguna Beach, Calif., sat down with Mr. Cohen as he played an ex-convict looking to launch an art career. His “art” consisted of using body waste in prison to make portraits. At Mr. Cohen’s urging, Ms. Cones did some, um, clipping to provide him some bodily materials for his brush.
The highlight — or lowlight, depending on who is reacting — involved the Cohen character Col. Erran Morad, an Israeli “antiterror expert” who appears to be comfortable with growth hormones. He duped several politicians and gun rights activists into making public service announcements for an initiative that would arm children as young as 3. One, Philip Van Cleave, head of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, even taped an instructional video — complete with silly graphics — aimed to teach preschoolers to be “kinderguardians.”
The victims in the second episode, which aired on Sunday night, included Mr. Cheney, who signed a “waterboard kit” (a water jug, later put up for sale on eBay); Ted Koppel; Corinne Olympios, a former contestant on “The Bachelor”; and Jason Spencer, a Republican state representative in Georgia.
Mr. Spencer, who had proposed a bill that would have banned Muslims from wearing veils in public, was fooled into taking part in what he believed was antiterrorism training. Mr. Cohen, playing the Morad character again, was able to persuade Mr. Spencer to shout a racial epithet repeatedly and drop his pants by telling him they would help stop a terrorist attack. He also used a slur to refer to people from the Middle East.
By Monday morning, leading Republicans in Georgia were distancing themselves from Mr. Spencer, and the speaker of the state House of Representatives urged him to resign.
How did these happen?
Several of Mr. Cohen’s marks have publicly discussed how they were fooled. Mr. Koppel told The Hollywood Reporter that he was asked to participate in a Showtime project called “Age of Reason.” A man — Mr. Cohen — showed up at his home in a wheelchair “with an oxygen tank hanging off one of the handles.” He took pity on the man until he began arguing with Mr. Koppel about the size of President Trump’s inauguration crowd. Mr. Koppel asked the crew to leave, saying, “This is a waste of time.”
Ms. Cones also rolled with the prank, telling The Washington Post that she had been invited to take part in a British reality show. “It’s nice to have some comic relief,” she said.
Others were less forgiving.
In a statement, Mr. Spencer said that he was put in a “kidnapping scenario” and “repeatedly asked to shout provocative language.” He said Mr. Cohen had exploited his real fear of being attacked, as he had been receiving death threats over his proposed legislation. He also threatened legal action against Showtime — and said Mr. Cohen’s “deceptive and fraudulent behavior is exactly why President Donald Trump was elected.”
Ms. Palin, whose interview has yet to air (neither has Mr. Moore’s), said in a Facebook post that Mr. Cohen had invited her to take part in a segment honoring veterans for a Showtime documentary, and that Mr. Cohen pretended to be a disabled veteran in a wheelchair — a characterization Showtime disputed in a statement.
“I sat through a long ‘interview’ full of Hollywoodism’s disrespect and sarcasm — but finally had enough and literally, physically removed my mic and walked out, much to Cohen’s chagrin,” Ms. Palin wrote.
Mr. Rohrabacher and Mr. Walsh, of the “kinderguardians” segment, both described being approached by someone claiming to be from an Israeli television crew looking to interview supporters of Israel for a program about the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding. Mr. Walsh provided emails to The Times that shed some light into Mr. Cohen’s approach. Here’s one:
Subject: Media Request for Rep. Joe Walsh
To Whom It May Concern,
My name is Ashley and I am writing to you on behalf of First Liberty Pictures. We are currently producing a docu-style series that will air on the Israeli network YES and we’d like to feature Rep. Joe Walsh as a “Friend of Israel” since he has consistently been a supporter for the security of the Israeli people. Our show’s aim is to highlight the common security concerns that our countries share, learn from each other’s perspective, and further illustrate the unshakeable bond between the U.S. and Israel.
Rep. Walsh understands that the post-9/11 security situation in the U.S. is similar to what Israel has faced since its creation, in the form of terrorist organizations like Hamas, the P.L.O., Hezbollah, and ISIS. He understands it’s crucial that Americans are ready to defend themselves against radical Islamic extremists. Terrorism is no longer just in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem … it has spread to places like Orlando, San Bernardino, and Fort Hood, and it’s threatening our shared values of freedom and democracy.
For the on camera appearance, he would meet with a gentleman from Israel who has seen the tactics used by these extremists up close and has developed unique anti-extremist techniques that very few in the world are privy to and he would like to share them with Rep. Walsh and our audience.
We’d love to fly him out here to film with us in the L.A. area at the end of October or alternatively, we plan to be in the Washington D.C. area the first or second week of November. Would he be available then? Please let me know his level of interest in participating.
Looking forward to speaking with you.
Mr. Walsh said in a phone interview that Mr. Cohen’s team went as far as to charter a limousine for him, provide hair and makeup for the on-camera appearance, as well as present him with an actual award that lauded Mr. Walsh for “significant contributions to the state of Israel.”
Is this different from James O’Keefe?
It depends on how you look at it, and like much in America today, the answer falls along party lines.
Their tactics and aims are somewhat different. Mr. O’Keefe often operates with undercover cameras, sending in people playing characters like a pregnant woman (to Planned Parenthood) or a prostitute (to Acorn), to try to entrap their workers into discussing improper or potentially illegal activities. His participants don’t realize they are being filmed, which is not the case with Mr. Cohen’s work.
Mr. O’Keefe also seems more interested in tearing down institutions than merely embarrassing them, as Mr. Koppel noted in a phone interview.
“On the one hand, I don’t want to be perceived as approving of what Mr. O’Keefe has done but at least he’s doing it for an ideological end,” Mr. Koppel said. “There’s a purpose to it other than getting a few giggles.”
Mr. O’Keefe’s Acorn operation essentially destroyed that group as lawmakers and government agencies began starving it of funding. The gotcha videos on Planned Parenthood by his and other groups opposed to abortion have made the organization a constant target in Congress. He even attempted to trick The Washington Post into publishing a hoax story about Mr. Moore, apparently hoping to shame the paper into a retraction, but The Post got wise to the attack and exposed it first.
Mr. O’Keefe’s undercover assistants also tried to strike up conversations with several New York Times journalists (this reporter believes he was one). One employee who was secretly recorded criticizing President Trump is no longer at The Times.
Both men have been criticized for using selective editing. Mr. O’Keefe has been accused of making conversations appear more sinister than they really were. For Mr. Cohen’s “kinderguardians” sketch, Mr. Walsh said he was asked to read from a teleprompter a message in support of Israel, which ended with a few sentences about what he thought was an Israeli initiative to train children how to use firearms. Those few seconds were the only ones shown on camera. Mr. Rohrabacher, who is filmed saying that children ought to learn to defend themselves, noted that he had never actually discussed arming children. But the editing made it appear they supported training very young Americans to use firearms.
“This was fraud, a sick fraud at that, and its intention was to deceive the American people for political purposes,” Mr. Rohrabacher said in a statement, adding that he didn’t actually support “training toddlers in handling guns.”
Most complaints have come from conservatives, the reverse of the reactions to Mr. O’Keefe. But Ms. Palin did not seem perturbed by such tactics in 2015, when she cited undercover videos by an anti-abortion group in her attacks on Planned Parenthood. And this year Mr. Walsh had Mr. O’Keefe on his show, praising Mr. O’Keefe’s “great new undercover report” alleging that Twitter was censoring conservative ideas.
In an interview, Mr. Walsh said it was a “fair point” to say that Mr. O’Keefe engages in deceptive editing, much in the same way Mr. Walsh said Mr. Cohen has done.
“I’m not a huge fan of any of them,” Mr. Walsh said. He added, “This is the world we live in right now.”