campaign desk

Unforced Error at Salon

"O'Keefe's race problem" story goes astray on key detail
February 9, 2010

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

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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.”

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 an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.