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Socratic Assassin

Meet Jan Helfeld, Internet provocateur.

1:05 PM, Mar 26, 2014 • By JIM SWIFT
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His lawyer in the case is now a Republican congressman from Kansas. Roderic Young is now vice president of communications for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system. His Twitter bio says he is a “Former Crisis Communications / Reputation Management Consultant.” In a way, Helfeld was one of his first mentors in the field.

Helfeld doesn't say it, but it’s clear he views himself as a teacher of sorts. Perhaps it’s because his father, David Helfeld, was a law professor and, later, the dean of the law school at the University of Puerto Rico.

A graduate of Yale Law School, David Helfeld wrote a controversial legal review article on the Federal Employee Loyalty Program established by an executive order of President Truman. The program was not a discount insurance plan for longtime, loyal federal employees, but rather a program designed to eliminate Communist influence in the U.S. government through various means, including wiretapping. Helfeld’s father and a colleague criticized the program because, among other reasons, it didn't afford due process to the federal employees being investigated. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote a rebuttal to Helfeld that the Yale Law Review published.

This made it difficult for David Helfeld to find work as a law professor, and the University of Puerto Rico was one of the few schools that would take him. Eisenhower revoked the order six years later, but Helfeld was in Puerto Rico, and he stayed there. His son attended the university for both undergraduate and law school.

I discovered Jan Helfeld's videos as a young congressional aide. Staffers tend to be defensive about their bosses—though they don’t usually steal the tapes of bad interviews from journalists—but I enjoyed watching them because they were informative and usually entertaining.

Not much is out there about Jan Helfeld and his background. When I emailed him before CPAC, suspecting he’d be attending, with the target-rich environment it offers to journalists, he responded promptly to say he was amenable. But I sensed he was skeptical about talking about his life outside of Jan Helfeld, Internet provocateur.

I treat Jan and his cameraman to lunch at CPAC. “My career is in your hands,” he jokes as we sit down. Jan tells me that he’d like the conversation to be off the record until the end, when we’d do 10 minutes on the record. Since most write-ups of Jan tend to be only about his work, I was disappointed. Ten minutes, especially with a wordy guy like Jan, would give me about enough time to ask three or four questions. But halfway through lunch, Jan tells me that he’s changed his mind and I can use all that we’ve discussed; we’re on the record. The 10 minutes he offered turned into 50.

At CPAC, he has already been approached by a person he once interviewed, a relatively unknown left-leaning comedian/journalist, who has asked Jan to take down the videos of their interview. Apparently, there’s this thing called Google, and when you search for this person, it shows up. It doesn’t reflect well on him, as he’s quite rude to Helfeld. Jan doesn’t think it’s right to take it down, so he offered a compromise: He’ll change the tags and the description so it might fall from top rating, but it stays online. Jan seems to find it funny that people like this guy—who was initially eager to take him on—later come back to ask for the videos to go away.

Jan gives me his opinion on others known for their unconventional interviews—people like Sacha Baron Cohen and James O’Keefe. People like O'Keefe have stories, usually constructed ahead of time, that help him and his affiliates make their explosive videos. Cohen never seems to be playing himself, only a caricature or imaginary persona. Helfeld doesn't agree with these practices, having performed all of his interviews as Jan Helfeld.

“He is about embarrassing people,” Helfeld says of Sacha Baron Cohen. “I'm not about embarrassing people. You can embarrass yourself, that's your own business. I don't think it works if you try, either. If you focus on the truth, I'm as surprised as the next guy when somebody gets upset or says something crazy.”

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