Our old friend Joel Mowbray (firstname.lastname@example.org) has been doing his own legwork on the story of the drive-by mugging of James O’Keefe by the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears. Joel writes:
As Scott Johnson has already noted here and here, the Washington Post attributed a doozy of a statement to ACORN arch-nemesis James O’Keefe, claiming that “he said he targeted ACORN for the same reasons that the political right does: its massive voter registration drives that turn out poor African Americans and Latinos against Republicans.”
Upon seeing that, my journalist’s antennae shot straight up, thinking that one way or the other, there was a story. Either O’Keefe had troubling racial motivations or the Post put words into his mouth that would do genuine harm to his reputation.
In the course of investigating yesterday (my original plan was to write a story for FoxNews.com), I talked to the lead reporter, Darryl Fears. He begged off yesterday, explaining he would answer my question, but not until this morning–which, as it turns out, is when a correction ran on page 2.
Now that a correction has been issued, in which the Post acknowledged that O’Keefe “did not specifically mention” ACORN’s voter registration drives of minorities, there is less controversy upon which to dwell.
This is simply too important an error, however, to forgive and forget.
Though huge numbers of Americans are no longer surprised when big media outlets botch facts or quotes, the Post’s paraphrase ascribing to O’Keefe unsavory racial motives is no ordinary mistake.
Unsurprisingly, various left-wing blogs also jumped on it, using it to dirty O’Keefe up. But much more damaging is that the racial claim went viral when the AP repeated it on Saturday–meaning it likely made it to hundreds of newspapers across the country, as well as web sites like Yahoo and Google.
Within an hour of me bringing the mistake to the attention of one of the AP reporters who wrote that story today, a correction was issued. But as the reporter wrote me when I asked if the correction will get attached to all the places online where the story ran, “Obviously we don’t control the content management systems of all our members, subscribers and other customers.” Thus, the AP story will likely remain uncorrected at possibly hundreds of websites well into O’Keefe’s career.
Even granting normal allowances, it’s hard to see how this error was simply accidental. While Scott Johnson noted earlier some questionable reporting he has done in the past, Fears has at least a decade of experience under his belt. People who have dealt with him in the past described him as “competent,” “solid,” and “knowledgeable.” And based on my conversation with him this morning, I’d add to that list “smart.”
Which raises the obvious question: How does such a capable veteran reporter attribute to someone words he never uttered? In fairness, paraphrases can be a little tricky, especially if establishing facts are added for clarity. But the plain reading–and only reasonable interpretation–of the paraphrase is that O’Keefe referenced ACORN’s efforts to register minorities to vote.
While the Post correction was narrowly tailored to say that O’Keefe “did not specifically mention” ACORN’s voter registration drives of minorities, Fears was much more blunt in the phone interview. “I think it was unfair to imply that James O’Keefe referenced Latinos and African-Americans in his statement to me,” Fears explained. “He did not.”
To his credit, Fears did not attempt to justify the mistake and readily admitted that O’Keefe never made any racial comment of any kind.
Even granting Fears the benefit of the doubt, how did his error get past his co-writer and one or more editors–especially for a front page story? Did no one else’s eyebrow go up at someone citing racial motives for an investigation? Or were the people responsible for editing the piece so jaded that they believe conservatives are naturally racist? That last question is unfair, of course, but so shocking was the error that something doesn’t add up.
This is not likely to be the last mainstream media mistake that unfairly smears O’Keefe. Because the enterprising 25-year-old has delivered absolutely devastating goods on ACORN, many on the left have decided to respond by destroying the messenger. How doing so changes the contents of the videos themselves is unclear, but it likely will bring some people perverse pleasure to vilify someone whose work they dislike.
The question now is whether the mainstream media plays along or actually takes a moment to verify information before (again) unfairly tainting O’Keefe’s reputation.
Thanks to Joel for forwarding us his contribution to this important story.