“A Bad Cartoon,” or “A Big Nothing”?

Conservative media reacts to the O'Keefe arrest

The story that had the political media buzzing yesterday was the arrest of James O’Keefe, the conservative, pimp-playing activist who embarrassed ACORN with his undercover videos, and three other men—two of whom were apparently dressed as telephone repairmen—for allegedly attempting to tamper with the phones in the New Orleans office of Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat.

To make the story even more bizarre, one of the men is the son of an acting U.S. attorney, and another is apparently the associate director of a spy school. The four have been charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony. The Times-Picayune’s coverage is here, and the FBI affidavit is here.

For liberal bloggers and pundits, who’ve had a rough time of it lately, the story was comic relief; Twitter was buzzing yesterday with “plumber” jokes and references to Watergate. On the other side of the aisle, how did the conservative media world respond?

Andrew Breitbart, whose BigGovernment.com gave a platform to O’Keefe’s ACORN videos, didn’t run from the story. Tuesday evening, all three of Breitbart’s “Big” sites featured the AP story on their front page, along with a link to the affidavit and a statement from Breitbart in which he disclaimed any knowledge of the operation. He was later a guest of conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt; during the segment, Hewitt’s main focus was on distancing Breitbart from the arrest.

By this morning, Breitbart’s tone had shifted a bit. In a new post, he accused the “mainstream media” of “leaping to conclusions” while he waited for the facts:

I’m sure they would like to believe O’Keefe is stupid enough to try to “wiretap” a sitting U.S. senator in broad daylight during office hours, while recording the entire sequence of events on his cell phone camera. And they’d like you to believe it, too.

But there is absolutely no allegation in the criminal complaint that “wiretapping” or “bugging” is any part of this case, just the charge that O’Keefe and the others entered Sen. Landrieu’s office in New Orleans “for the purpose of interfering with the office’s telephone system.”…

Let me state clearly for the record: wiretapping is wrong. But until I hear the full story from James O’Keefe, I will not speculate as to what he was doing in Louisiana.

Regardless of the outcome we will keep the readers of Big Government apprised of this emerging story.

Other conservative writers were more critical. At Hot Air, blogger Allahpundit posted on the news:

The editors of Big Government claim they knew nothing about it, which is almost certainly true: No way would Breitbart be so stupid as to sign off on tapping a senator’s phone. What makes this doubly bizarre, of course, is that O’Keefe was already threatened with legal action by ACORN for surreptitiously videotaping inside their offices. You’d think if he was planning to try something as insanely underhanded as this, he might have done, say, a Wikipedia search about whether it’s illegal to, um, tamper with government phone lines.

Allahpundit then cites the section of the federal code that spells out a prison sentence of up to 10 years for anyone who “attempts or conspires” to interfere with federal telephone lines, and adds:

I assume the defense is going to be something like, “We never intended to tap the phone, we simply wanted to show how easy it would be if someone wanted to do it,” but even so: Ohhhhhhhhhhhh boy. Ten years.

Michelle Malkin, meanwhile, had this to say:

the details… are damning. This is neither a time to joke nor a time to recklessly accuse Democrats/liberals of setting this up — nor a time to whine about media coverage double standards.

And also:

They are, of course, presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But for now, let it be a lesson to aspiring young conservatives interested in investigative journalism:

Know your limits. Know the law. Don’t get carried away. And don’t become what you are targeting.

Malkin also updated the link on her front page with a quizzical response to O’Keefe’s words as he was leaving jail on bail: “‘Veritas’?”

The National Review’s group blog, The Corner, had less to say. The bloggers there noted the news, providing links to the story, the affidavit, and some ACORN schaedenfreude, and published a statement from Breitbart. But other than the remark that the reputation of “the self-styled spy school” with which one of the men is affiliated “just took a considerable hit,” there was not much commentary.

At The Weekly Standard’s site, Mary Katharine Ham had a longer response, beginning with the observation that “things do no look good” for O’Keefe:

In a caper that sounds straight out of a bad cartoon, O’Keefe apparently sat in the Senate office’s waiting area recording while two friends came in wearing jump suits, tool belts, fluorescent vests, and carrying white hard hats. (Frankly, knowing O’Keefe’s costuming predilections, I would not be surprised if they looked just like the Marios Bros., mustaches and all, but that’s not in the affidavit.)

She adds:

Ideological allies of O’Keefe’s in the media, so far, are united in condemning the behavior the charges allege, which will likely taint the public case he made against ACORN and future investigative attempts by other conservatives.

Still, O’Keefe is not without defenders. At RedState, diarist Common_Cents quotes the FBI press release, then adds:

This just seems pretty fishy to me. Would the guy be that dumb after breaking such a big story on ACORN not knowing that he’d be on the radar of many left wing groups? I guess time will tell, or not. I’m sure he’ll be enemy #1 to prosecute.

And blogger Patterico, after first saying “if [O’Keefe] did do it, there is no defending it,” later weighed in again:

I’m sticking out my neck and declaring that I think this will prove to be a big nothing.

I just don’t believe this guy was wiretapping phones or trying to do so. I really don’t.

It might not even have been an attempt to show how easy it would be to bug phones. Maybe there is another explanation. But I don’t think he was acting in a criminal fashion. I don’t.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.