At age 19, Hannah Giles became a rock star of the conservative movement after she and provocateur videographer and conservative activist James O’Keefe posed as a prostitute and her pimp to run a 2009 hidden-camera sting on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN. Republicans often accused the left-leaning organization of committing voter fraud, and the Giles/O’Keefe videos seemed to show ACORN workers were encouraging them to set up a child prostitution ring. Official investigations in three states found no criminal wrongdoing by ACORN workers and reported that the videos were heavily edited to put ACORN workers in the worst light. But the damage was done, ACORN lost both its government and private funding and went out of business. Giles’s husband later was arrested for attempting to enter U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu’s office disguised as a telephone repairman. They have been conservative activists in the past.
Giles and Basel afterward moved to Texas and set up the American Phoenix Foundation to promote investigative journalism by young conservative activists. Giles in speeches tells audiences that there is a need to bypass the mainstream media with investigations that “disrupt the narrative.” As part of that, they say they have hired 16 workers to use hidden cameras to investigate Texas legislators, an investigation that has angered both lawmakers and lobbyists.
Giles and her husband, Joseph Basel, sat down with me in the Texas Monthly offices for an hour this week to discuss their project and philosophy. My approach to the interview was to be a neutral solicitor of information so the readers can decide for themselves the motives behind Giles and Basel: Whether this is a pure investigation; is intended to oust House Speaker Joe Straus’s conservative allies; is a real scandal of lobbyists and legislators; or, whether the Texas Capitol’s legislators, lobbyists and journalists have all just been punked. We’ll know if the first video is released in June.
To make reading easier, I have broken the interview into topical parts. I have tried to be as light-handed as possible in the editing for brevity and to increase the clarity of my questions.
Continue reading this item for the first part: Disrupting the Narrative. The other parts are:
RGR: Why the name American Phoenix Foundation?
HG: We thought long and hard about our name … We liked the concept of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, and that’s the goal of the American Phoenix Foundation. We really wanted to reboot honest muckraking journalism in the United States, hard core investigative journalism that reveals hidden truths.”
RGR: What were the ashes the Phoenix had to rise from?
JB: Media is hurting. It is struggling. When we work with our national TV outlets, NBC, ABC, CNN, their investigative budgets have all been gutted. The lawyers won’t even let them look into anyone. So they end up being big fans with us, even if they sense an ideological difference, because we’re allowed to do what journalists used to be allowed to do: deep long dives and win awards for revealing stubborn hidden truths.
RGR: You’ve talked about wanting to disrupt the narrative. So what is the narrative of the Texas Legislature that you want to disrupt?
HG: One of the biggest things I’ve personally seen is little old ladies that organize and cheer-lead for certain politicians and they think, “Oh they are the greatest and they’re going to go to Texas and represent us.” And then being in Austin and having people who’ve worked in the Capitol and keeping an ear to the ground, I tell people, “No, that politician is just not a good person. They’re not who you think they are.” That person is in Austin partying, and first of all not a Christian like they think – which is fine; we don’t care – but it is just the hypocrisy of representing themselves one way to their constituents and then acting a totally different way, filing bills that aren’t consistent with things they’ve said they’d do.”
JB: “The party realignment has been fascinating…I grew up in Minnesota where JFK and FDR Democrats are still campaigning on that, and the voters are still voting for the Democrats because FDR saved the farm. It’s fascinating to look at Texas in that light. You have a number of good JFK Democrats who would be aghast at what the people they are voting for are doing up here, and you have a much larger number of the modern Republican coalition that would be aghast to see what their Republicans are doing once they get to office, policy wise and otherwise.”
RGR: In a Fort Bend County speech to the Faith and Freedom Coalition in 2012, Hannah Giles told the gathering to stop supporting “progressive Republicans” and instead “use your time, your talents and your treasurers to disrupt the narratives that are ruining this country.” Who are the progressive Republicans?
HG: I don’t even know. Was that 2012 or 2010?
RGR: Is “progressive Republicans” just another way to say Republicans in Name Only, RINOs?
HG: What I was trying t explain or get people fired up about is they are all, “Rah, rah, Republicans are doing what’s right!” And I’m, No, not necessarily. I look at both parties as a political class. I don’t see a lot of difference between Republicans and Democrats now that I see what’s going on at the Capitol.”
RGR: One of the things the folks at the Capitol worry about and one of the things that undermined the credibility of your ACORN investigation was that it was selectively edited video with things taken out of context, the timeline changed. Can you assure these folks at the Texas Capitol that’s not going to happen here?
HG: That’s one of the reasons I don’t work with James any more. James is a friend and I wish him well. That’s one thing at Phoenix that we’ve tried to get away from. That’s why I haven’t been in the news for a while. We’ve worked on serious investigations. Sometimes the assumptions we’ve made or the hypothesis we’ve made about a project don’t pan out. You don’t publish it. That’s what we’re excited about with this project because we think we will get to go to all the next levels. That’s why the story broke the way it did. We had basically wrapped up our undercover section of the process and we were doing follow ups.
(Photo: Joseph Basel, Hannah Giles and their baby, Hamish. Photo by R.G. Ratcliffe)