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.”

Walsh is right to recognize the importance of that distinction. As activists and advocates, the OPP representatives are free to draw conclusions from their observations. But as a journalist, it’s incumbent upon Blumenthal—and any outlet that publishes his work—to distinguish between what his sources actually observed and what they believe to be true.
A journalist’s claim to an audience’s trust is based on the implicit promise that he will take that step. And that responsibility, obviously, doesn’t go away just because you’ve got a good story or a worthy target.

And, in this case, Blumenthal did have a real story on his hands. “The tragedy is,” Weigel said in an interview Monday, “the rest of the context in that piece was spot-on.” Whatever is in his heart, O’Keefe has a history of pushing people’s buttons on racial issues and testing the limits of what he can get away with. And, as Weigel has written, there has existed among young conservative activists a subculture in which it was considered daring to dabble in extremist politics. Against that background, O’Keefe’s presence at the 2006 event merited journalistic attention—but responsible attention that recognizes that every detail counts, and that no matter how much or how righteously you might disdain your subject, reporting has to be constrained by the facts.

These principles have practical consequences. In flubbing a key detail, and not immediately correcting it, Blumenthal’s article undermined the credibility of its broader argument. That is always a risk when going after a big target, especially one who has a platform to talk back. As Weigel put it, “What is it Omar says in The Wire? ‘You come at the king, you best not miss.’”

More broadly, Breitbart, O’Keefe, and their circle have been able to build an audience in part by exploiting the idea that “the mainstream media”—a term that has been stretched beyond all utility, but by which they often seem to mean any outlet without an avowedly right-wing perspective—does not apply the rules consistently, and can not be expected to treat conservatives fairly. It’s a strategy that doesn’t just acknowledge but enthusiastically embraces the splintering of the audience—and with it, the shrinking of the public’s trust in media—along ideological lines. And an error of this sort does more than provide O’Keefe with a defense, by allowing him to shift the focus to a point that was not proven. It also, for every minute that it’s out there, provides ready-made ammunition for that broader campaign—and for the idea that the media is motivated by ideological biases and personal vendettas, unconstrained by norms that ensure fairness and accuracy.

This is the bigger stakes here: the press’s ability to make a claim for the public’s trust. Part of the way to do that is to make the case, aggressively, for good journalism. But an equally important step is for the press to live up to its own high standards, to demonstrate what good journalism demands. By eventually issuing a correction and owning up to a mistake, Salon and Blumenthal did that in the end. Next time, hopefully, it’ll happen from the outset.

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.