When word broke that James O’Keefe, the conservative reporter who’d previously made news by dressing like a blaxploitation movie pimp and confounding ACORN workers, was arrested with three cohorts for funny business with phones at the offices of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, it seemed a grand comeuppance. O’Keefe’s ACORN adventures had been attacked by opponents as something other than legitimate journalism — though conservatives, including Andrew Breitbart, the man who ran O’Keefe’s videos and later hired him, defended these as little different from the sort of methods used by traditional investigative reporters.
O’Keefe’s arrest suggested to some that maybe the young muckraker wasn’t playing by the rules, or even with a full deck. U.S. News and Word Report’s Robert Schlesinger wrote that though O’Keefe was “defended as a fearless investigative journalist… the Landrieu stunt, if proven, would blow a hole in that defense. If he is willing to break the law, wouldn’t he be willing to shade the truth in the ways the ACORN supporters have accused?”
Some top rightbloggers, like Michelle Malkin, admitted it looked bad for O’Keefe and let it go at that; other conservatives took a wait-and-see approach. This seems sensible. Whatever they might think about Landrieu or any other of O’Keefe’s targets, the arrest of their hero was not, as Malkin wrote, “a time to joke nor a time to recklessly accuse Democrats/liberals of setting this up — nor a time to whine about media coverage double standards.”
But not everyone thought so: A strike force of O’Keefe defenders spun the event furiously into yet another indictment of the treacherous mainstream media.
The MacGuffin in this case was the nature of the charges against the four young men. An FBI affidavit claims two of them portrayed themselves as repairmen and tried to examine the phones in the Senator’s office, and that O’Keefe recorded them as they worked. (The fourth man, who allegedly helped set this caper up, was off-site.) Several sources — including Hot Air and other rightbloggers — described this initially as an attempt to tap the phones.
The correct charge, though, is entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony, and the suspects’ alleged business with the phones is not explicitly described in the affidavit as wiretapping, but as “interfering” with the phones, to which end the suspects are said to have requested access to the phone closet “to perform repair work.”
No one attacked Hot Air for missing this, but traditional rightwing betes noires like the Washington Post, which was obliged to amend its story that originally portrayed the charge as bugging, were hit with an avalanche of criticism.
“I challenge you to find me the language that accuses O’Keefe et al. of a ‘plot to bug’ Landrieu’s office, or an ‘alleged wiretap scheme,'” said Patterico’s Pontifications. “It isn’t there.” Patterico also pointed out that one of the authors of the Post‘s arrest story had written previously about O’Keefe’s ACORN stings, and been forced to make a correction to her story — proof of her liberal media bias. “What is that reporter doing reporting about James O’Keefe?” asked Patterico.
Breitbart’s own site Big Journalism found this semantic issue the real crime here, posting a series of “Correction Requests” to MSM publications. (At this writing the only rightblogger thus called out has been Megan McArdle.)
Gay Patriot also rose in dudgeon. “Everyone who compared this to Watergate was wrong, wrong, wrong — and should be embarrassed. Period.” He also suggested that O’Keefe was “Victimized By Tyrannical Government Police,” and wanted to know: “What does James O’Keefe know about the Senator or her staff that resulted in Mary Landrieu wanting to call in the Federal thugs to stop that information from getting out to the public?”
“Media Continue to Falsely Accuse O’Keefe of Wiretapping,” wrote NewsBusters. “Since the left doesn’t like O’Keefe, the liberal media seems to think standard practices of journalistic integrity don’t apply here.”
Breitbart was invited on MSNBC to be interviewed on the subject by David Shuster — whom Breitbart said “lied to get me to appear,” as Shuster had told him that he had “no dog in this fight” while twittering insults against O’Keefe. As Breitbart’s Big Journalism site is about how nearly all mainstream media is biased against conservatives, this could not have been a surprise to him, but he used it in the interview to hammer Shuster, who admitted the word “wiretapping” was incorrect, claiming Shuster and MSNBC had “tainted the jury” and “convicted” O’Keefe “on Twitter.”
This contentious interview was portrayed as a major victory by rightbloggers. “Andrew Breitbart takes David Shuster to the woodshed today!” said Gateway Pundit. “Give it up, MSNBC,” said Right Wing News. “Everyone with half a brain (this doesn’t include Shuster, obviously) can plainly see that your entire organization is grossly partisan and is pushing an agenda.” “Andrew Breitbart is a Kommie SLAYER!” exulted The Mad Jewess. “Shuster was pee-ing his JOCK STRAP LOL.” Reading them, one might wonder why Shuster wasn’t arrested instead of O’Keefe.
Eventually O’Keefe stepped up to defend himself and to join his champions in their denunciation of the press: “The government has now confirmed what has always been clear,” he wrote. “No one tried to wiretap or bug Senator Landrieu’s office” — despite “the false claims being repeated by much of the mainstream media. It has been amazing to witness the journalistic malpractice committed by many of the organizations covering this story.”
O’Keefe said he only wished to investigate Landrieu’s unresponsiveness to her constituents, and “decided to visit Senator Landrieu’s district office — the people’s office — to ask the staff if their phones were working.” He did not explain why his colleagues needed to disguise themselves as phone repairmen to receive an answer, but exhorted his readers to “judge whether reporters who can’t get their facts straight have the credibility to question my integrity as a journalist.”
This, too, was portrayed as a big win by such as Right-Thinking from the Left Coast, which said, “this country could use a few dozen more people like James O’Keefe that are willing to get the job done, considering our MSM is nothing but a bunch of DNC apologists and talking points parrots… His crime is that he exposes the left for the cesspool that it is and negates and circumvents the well orchestrated propaganda machine that is supposed to protect these leftist twits and their agenda from being found out.”
“James O’Keefe is looking more and more innocent by the day,” declared Frugal Cafe, and suggested that the whole setup may have been, “much like those ACORN sting operation tapes last fall,” a conscious attempt to sucker the press into O’Keefe’s clever trap: “ACORN was given ample time to hold many press conferences, spew outrage, and lie up the wazzoo… Then, there’d be the unexpected, embarrassing smack down a day or two later with a new video expose, discrediting their claims of innocence and exposing their lies, bias, and hypocrisy… James, if this was indeed the master plan from the start, I heartily applaud you.”
This explanation makes some sense from a rightblogger perspective. Though O’Keefe’s ACORN stings led to no arrests (which result O’Keefe’s comrades generally attribute to government corruption), it did generate plenty of publicity which helped damage ACORN’s reputation. The Landrieu caper has led to arrests, though of O’Keefe and his confederates rather than of Landrieu or members of her staff — but among the faithful this, too, is a triumph, as it caused several MSM outlets to be caught using the wrong word for the felony charge, further proving their untrustworthiness and mendacity.
Will ordinary people see it the same way? Think of how it might be taken in any other instance of crime reporting. A suspect is said to have been charged with crime x; his supporters complain that this is all wrong, that he has actually been charged with crime y. Does the average reader think, this poor fellow has been done wrong; clearly, it is not he who is at fault, but the newspapers?
It seems like a stretch to us, but who knows? Maybe the public is more sympathetic than we realize to accused criminals whose supporters say they’ve been unfairly tried in the press.