After posting the initial item, Russell said, the Times-Picayune reviewed the official material more carefully and realized that it did not specifically allege wiretapping. The paper asked federal authorities, and heard that while there was some suspicion on that point, the U.S. attorney was not prepared to make that allegation. At that point, the paper modified the story’s language, though it did miss one reference to an “alleged wiretap plot” in the last paragraph. “That’s an oversight on our part,” Russell said, when it was brought to his attention today, and the paper will now be running a correction.
(The paper also retained the reported claim—which was based on the words of an unnamed official, “not included in official arresting documents,” and not necessarily proof of wiretapping—that one of the four arrestees had been found “with a listening device in a car blocks from the senator’s offices.”)
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.