Nellie Bly -- Library of Congress

One day last week, a confluence of events brought together the enlightening and the dark sides of undercover journalism. The first was the daily Google doodle celebrating the 151st birthday of pioneering woman journalist Nellie Bly. The second was the Houston Chronicle’s breaking story on “citizen journalists” taping 800 hours of undercover video of Texas legislators for the American Phoenix Foundation, whose public face is provocateur journalist Hannah Giles.

Giles is best known for posing as a prostitute with James O’Keefe as her pimp in an undercover sting of the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN, that tried to get workers to incriminate themselves on hidden cameras. It was the kind of work that made her father proud.

Her father is a conservative talk radio personality and blogger named Doug Giles, pronounced J-I-les. Giles runs the ClashDaily site from Florida and writes for TownHall. Doug also is the author of five books, including Raising Righteous and Rowdy Girls, about Hannah and her sister, Regis, the curator of a blog called Girls Just Want to Have Guns

Doug’s columns have had titles such as: I’m So Sick of Hearing About Gay Cakes; BREAKING: Massive Spike in Whites Setting Blacks on Fire; and WWJT: Who Would Jesus Torture? 

I told my inquiring host that as a patriotic white male Christian redneck, as far as I can deduce from the holy text, Jesus and the balance of Scripture seem to be okay with dunking Achmed if said butt munch has the 411 regarding the 10/20 of the next mass slaughter of innocent Americans. Call me crazy. I’m well aware, however, that I could be committing an exegetical error given the fact that I’m white and male and all. This is my cross.

Perhaps a short stop at Matthew 5:5 would be a good idea for father Giles.

The article on whites setting fire to blacks is sarcastic and keys off an unsolved murder of a white woman in Mississippi as a prompt to list 14 cases in which African-Americans allegedly set a white person on fire to murder them. One is the Houston case of 12-year-old Jonathan Foster who was murdered with a blowtorch by African-American neighbor Mona Nelson. “The story was getting mainstream media coverage until they arrested a black woman,” Doug Giles wrote. He must have missed those stories by the Houston Chronicle, ABC, CBS, Fox News and the Daily Mail of London.

Sister Regis is not one to be outdone by dad. Her site declares: “Whether the weapon of choice is a gun, tazer, knife, spear, pencil or some form of martial arts, the most important thing is that women arm themselves with the right attitude and skills necessary to effectively and efficiently turn from prey to formidable defender.” In one interview with her dad, Regis Giles stated a simple philosophy, “To the Christians who do not believe God is ok with an innocent, law abiding citizen, defending themselves with a gun by pumping lead into an attacker at 1200 feet per second (fps), I tell them to wake up!”

So it was a happy family occasion last month when dad announced to the world that Hannah and her husband, Joseph Basel, had a baby named Hamish. Here is granddad’s boast.

Last Thursday my wife and I welcomed our first grandbaby into the world. My oldest daughter Hannah (who leveled ACORN) and her husband Joe (who’s currently leveling other nefarious nuts) had a handsome little boy they’ve named, Hamish. Badass name, eh?

By other “nefarious nuts,” do you think Doug Giles meant the members of the Texas Legislature who have been confronted and secretly recording answering loaded questions posed by the squad of “citizen journalists” that have been unleashed on the Capitol by the Giles/Basel foundation? 

A man who identified himself as John Beria, a spokesman for the American Phoenix Foundation, told the Houston Chronicle that 16 staff members had been working on the project. The staffers interviewed and interacted with legislators using hidden cameras. Beria claimed that some of the video will show “shady business deals.” Some legislators said the people interviewing them were using ambush tactics and sometimes got so aggressive as to border on harassment. Some have said the interviews also seemed to target supporters of House Speaker Joe Straus, but Beria told me there was no specific targetting of legislators.

IRS documents list Basel as the president and Hannah Giles Basel as the secretary treasurer of the American Phoenix Foundation. The foundation has the same street address as Basel’s C3 Strategies political consulting firm, which specializes in “Strategic Shake-Up Consulting. His LinkedIn profile states that he runs the foundations “day to day operations” and fundraising. The New York Times reported in 2010 that while a student at the University of Minnesota-Morris, Giles put posters up all over campus that read: “End Racism & Sexism Now: Kill All White Males,” prompting university administrators to call a campus forum on racism where Basel asked why everyone could not use racial epithets as black rappers do. A walkout of black students followed. 

“His methods were kind of to create an uproar,” said Nate Giles, a former president of the black student union at the university. “That’s what was abrasive, not his actual points.”

Basel may run the Austin group, but it is his wife, Hannah Giles, who is all over the American Phoenix Foundation web site discussing a new kind of journalism. She also does the promotions. Beria told me that Giles now holds the title Director of Investigations. He said Giles conceived creation of the foundation as a means of conducting journalism in an “effective way.” Giles studied journalism at Florida International University. (Basel and Giles had agreed to an interview, but because I was stuck in traffic we will have to do it another day.)

In an interview with a video blogger who goes by the name of DomariNolo1775, Hannah says the foundation is teaching citizen journalists that they do not have to become part of the New York or Washington mainstream media whose goal is to attend elite cocktail parties. “Journalism schools are teaching people how to join the establishment media. Work for 20 years and don’t say anything, and you’ll get invited to a cocktail party.”

Hmmm, I must have missed Cocktail Party 101 in J-school.

At the 2012 Steamboat Institute Freedom Conference, Hannah set out a bold vision of how the new media will replace the old media. “Our highest use right now is to strategically place reporters in initiatives to hold our leaders and media accountable. Accountability is what we seek, courage is what we need and content is what we must deliver,” she said.

Consider, if you will, the content she has been at least partly responsible for delivering in the past. Hidden camera video she and O’Keefe produced was released on a web site operated by Andrew Breitbart and appeared to show ACORN workers aiding in schemes of tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution. The videos caused ACORN’s funding to collapse and forced the organization to shut down. But investigations by The New York Times and the California attorney general found the video had been heavily edited to distort the reactions of ACORN workers, although some accurately reflected what had occurred. The California investigation reported that “O’Keefe stated that he was out to make a point to damage ACORN and therefore did not act as a journalist objectively reporting a story.”

In 2010, O’Keefe, Robert Flanagan and American Phoenix Foundation founders Joe Basel and Stan Dai were arrested after they posed at telephone repairmen and entered the office of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat. O’Keefe called it “stunt journalism.” They pleaded guilty to entering the property under false pretenses, received two years probation and were fined $1,500 each with 75 hours of community service. According to, “The judge repeatedly told the defendants that, as journalists, they needed to learn ‘where to draw a line’ in their investigative methods.”

We’ll have to wait until excerpts from the 800 hours of video are released on Breitbart Texas or elsewhere later this year to see whether they found nefarious doings by legislators or whether it’s more selectively edited video designed to show people or groups in bad light. In other words, will it be investigative journalism or a political hatchet job?

One thing already is clear: Hannah Giles is no Nellie Bly.

Nellie Bly-like characters have been fictionalized so many times in movies that it is easy to think of her as a female Indiana Jones. The real Nellie Bly—nom de plume of Elizabeth Jane Cochran—was a courageous young woman who began her career reporting on the plight of working women, and when pushed to the “women’s pages” to cover society, she left the country to report on conditions in Mexico. On returning to the United States, Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World gave her an assignment to pose as insane person to look at conditions inside the state’s Women’s Lunatic Asylum. Her groundbreaking 1887 report shocked the nation and later was published as Ten Days in a Mad-House. She not only broke barriers for women in journalism but also displayed the power of undercover reporting.

Journalists usually are squeamish about undercover reporting and the use of hidden cameras because the tactic requires an element of deception, and truth-seekers should not deceive. Hidden cameras have been in use since the New York Daily News in 1928 sent a reporter to a prison to witness an execution with a camera strapped to his ankle. The hidden cameras flourished in television journalism after the success of Prime Time Live in the early 1990s. Professional journalism’s Poynter Institute has published guidelines for the use of deception as a last resort. Those guidelines also are hosted by the Radio Television Digital News Association. As distasteful as I might find hidden cameras in journalism, even the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2013 conference held a panel on the use of hidden cameras “to produce great investigations.” 

The 19th Century Nellie Bly risked her life to improve the lives of working women, Mexican peasants and women confined to an asylum. Conservative activist Hannah Giles and her husband are pursuing a political agenda using hidden cameras in a way that cheapens both politics and journalism.

(Photo: Nellie Bly/Library of Congress)