The change was made, Russell said, as a product of internal discussions. Law enforcement authorities did not suggest it, and the paper did not receive a request for a correction. “Nobody called to say we’d overreached. We did internally [decide we had], and by a very small degree,” he said.
But by that point, the assumption had spread widely. While the “wiretap” meme has now been pretty well beaten back, discussion over the first couple days was based on the incorrect idea that he was an “alleged wiretap plotter.” The Times-Picayune’s report wasn’t the only factor driving that discussion, but it was a contributing one.
While O’Keefe’s defenders have seen initial reports of a “wiretap plot” as ideologically motivated attempts to take him down, there’s no reason to think that the Times-Picayune’s error was malicious. But it was an error, and one that could have been avoided. Translating “federal-speak into English” should be done with the utmost care, and that didn’t happen here.
Moreover, according to Russell, the paper made no attempt, either in print or online, to call attention to the fact that the language had changed. That, too, was a mistake. The Times-Picayune, he said, makes a practice of modifying posts on developing stories to reflect new information, without noting that they’ve been modified. That’s fairly standard industry practice, but it’s a bad one. There are different schools of thought about where to draw the line when an update or change needs to be explicitly noted, but wherever the threshold is set, this detail—which involved a criminal proceeding, and was shaping coverage of a national story—was above it.
The Times-Picayune should have conspicuously noted that its original language was not substantiated by the official documents. Other outlets that amplified the wiretap allegation should do the same, if they have not already done so.