It’s not often that, barely a week after sparking a mini media circus by being arrested on federal property in the course of an undercover operation, an individual can be at the center of another press controversy. But in James O’Keefe’s world, it seems, anything is possible.
Last Wednesday, Salon published an article by Max Blumenthal, titled “James O’Keefe’s Race Problem,” which asserted that the conservative videographer’s “short but storied career has been defined by a series of political stunts shot through with racial resentment.” The story covered some previously reported ground, such as O’Keefe’s role in organizing an “affirmative action bake sale” in college; highlighted comments O’Keefe reputedly made in a college-era online diary that has been preserved at Daily Kos; and suggested that O’Keefe’s “racial issues” shaped his approach to ACORN. But the key bit of news was O’Keefe’s attendance at—and his alleged involvement with—a 2006 panel discussion in Washington, D.C., that featured as a speaker Jared Taylor of the white nationalist organization American Renaissance, along with National Review writer John Derbyshire and Kevin Martin of the black conservative group Project 21.
The precise tenor of the event, which Salon’s editors described in a sub-headline as a “white-nationalist confab,” is a matter of some dispute. (Readers who are inclined to make their own determination can listen to the audio recordings at the American Renaissance Web site.) At issue here is a more specific point: Blumenthal’s claim in the original story that, “Together, O’Keefe and [fellow conservative activist Marcus] Epstein planned an event in August 2006 that would wed their extreme views on race with their ambitions.” That was the line that most directly tied O’Keefe to Epstein, whose record includes a subsequent arrest for assaulting an African-American woman, and that most directly gave him ownership of the event.
The problem is that, as it appeared in the Salon story, the source for the claim was unclear. And, as became apparent over the next couple days, Blumenthal’s sources—including Daryle Jenkins, director of a racism watchdog group called the One People’s Project, which monitored the event, and a pseudonymous freelance photographer known as Isis—did not actually know whether O’Keefe had planned the gathering.
Jenkins told CJR that OPP representatives had observed several individuals from a conservative group known as the Leadership Institute—O’Keefe apparently among them—“setting up the tables” and otherwise assisting on site. Isis, meanwhile, said in an interview Friday that O’Keefe “was very actively involved in the execution of the event,” and likened his participation to a friend helping the host of a party. (She has been similarly quoted by Blumenthal at his blog and also by Dave Weigel of The Washington Independent, who was at the original event and wrote numerous stories about it last week.)
That’s something, but it’s not what Blumenthal originally claimed. Meanwhile, Epstein went on record to say that O’Keefe was not an organizer. And O’Keefe—who did not respond last week to requests for comment from Blumenthal or CJR—denied any planning role in a conversation with Andrew Breitbart’s BigJournalism.com.
When first contacted by CJR last Thursday, Blumenthal did not back down from the claim. “The story is accurately sourced, and I stand by it,” he said, repeatedly. Indeed, Blumenthal’s sources had no quarrel with his reporting. Isis was quoted by Weigel on Friday as saying, “I don’t believe O’Keefe planned the event.” But that afternoon, she told CJR that she had no problem with Blumenthal’s account. “Nitpicking over whether he planned the event, or nitpicking over whether he manned a table or not, is… getting away from the base racism of the situation, which is dangerous,” she said. “What was obvious was [O’Keefe] participating in the execution of the event. I think that Max interprets that as planning, and in the world of event-planning, Max is correct.”
That’s not, however, the position that won out. On Friday, Salon posted a correction; according to Blumenthal, the decision to do so was “mutually agreed on after discussion,” and he has also posted the corrected version of the story on his own site. The sentence in question now omits any mention of O’Keefe: “In August 2006 Epstein planned an event that would wed his extreme views on race with his ambitions.” Via e-mail, Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh said she takes responsibility for the error.
“I corrected the story because it was brought to my attention, first by David Weigel (not that he alerted me; I read him daily) that the OPP folks’ accounts of the 2006 meeting weren’t exactly what I had believed them to be,” she wrote. In an earlier message, Walsh wrote: “I should have pushed harder about the exact nature of their knowledge and memory about the event to make that distinction before publication.”