James O’Keefe is a hell of a problem for the press. Whatever else he is, O’Keefe is an instigator par excellence, and wherever he goes accusations of “journalistic malpractice”—to borrow a phrase—fly in all directions. Addressing them all would be logistically impossible, and CJR has already written plenty on O’Keefe (see here, here, and here.)
Still, some noteworthy issues have come up over the past week, all of which involve journalistic errors in some regard—both by O’Keefe himself and by some of those reporting on his activities. While they’ve been discussed elsewhere, we haven’t yet addressed them in this space. So here goes (with more to follow later, in a separate post):
The Landrieu deal: The episode that first focused conservative ire on Sen. Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat in whose office building O’Keefe and his costume-clad colleagues were arrested, was her role in securing approximately $300 million in additional federal Medicaid funds for her state. Landrieu, who’d been reluctant to support health care reform, denied that the money was an incentive to win her support for a legislative priority. But it was widely seen that way, and was promptly dubbed the “Louisiana Purchase” by critics.
But during O’Keefe’s interview Monday night with Sean Hannity of Fox News, he implied that Landrieu had personally pocketed the money: “She said her lines were jammed for a few weeks after she received a few hundred million dollars in money in exchange for her vote on the health care bill.” And just before the interview’s conclusion, an exchange between the two men reinforced that impression:
Hannity: “I would say that Mary Landrieu and $300 million of taxpayer money for a vote is a pretty interesting corrupt story in itself, isn’t it?”
O’Keefe: “It’s unbelievable.”
There may—may—be just enough room here for O’Keefe and Hannity to protest that they weren’t really accusing Landrieu of being on the take. But a viewer who didn’t know the full story could easily have come to that entirely false and damaging conclusion. And as noted by Dave Weigel at The Washington Independent, O’Keefe did the same thing in his first statement after his arrest, in the process turning a “legitimate issue” into “a bribery smear.” That’s a serious problem.
The wiretapping thing: The chief strategy that O’Keefe and Breitbart have used to deflect criticism is to claim that the media have made errors in attacking O’Keefe. One of the chief planks in that strategy is to note that many people have accused him of attempting to “wiretap” Landrieu’s phones, when there is no public evidence or official allegation that he was trying to do so. In this, they have a point.
The report of an alleged plan to wiretap Landrieu’s office first appeared in this New Orleans Times-Picayune story, which drove much of the initial media response to O’Keefe’s arrest. The story’s lede now reads, “Alleging a plot to tamper with phones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office….” But conservative bloggers have noted an important difference in the original version of the item, which began, “Alleging a plot to wiretap Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office…”
Times-Picayune city editor Gordon Russell confirmed today that the language had indeed changed. On Jan. 26, the paper’s newsroom received a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office announcing the arrest, along with the formal affidavit, he said. Recognizing O’Keefe as the nationally known figure behind the ACORN videos, and realizing it would be a competitive story, staffers moved to get something up quickly. “It was just basically trying to translate federal-speak into English,” Russell said.
But in the process, an assumption—that the way one would “manipulate,” as the press release put it, or “maliciously interfer[e],” as the affidavit had it, with a phone system is by placing a bug—bled into the copy. “We were off a little bit,” Russell acknowledged.
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.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.