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01.26.10

Why Can't the Right Break the News?

James O'Keefe, creator of the Acorn pimp video, is under arrest for allegedly plotting to bug a senator's phone. Benjamin Sarlin on the lame track record of the right’s Bob Woodward wannabes.

James O'Keefe, a blogger for Andrew Breitbart's Big Government, made national news when he dressed as a 1970s-style pimp and caught Acorn employees on camera offering financial advice for his burgeoning prostitution business. The video's impact was tremendous, rendering the community-organizing outfit politically radioactive—and sending Congress scrambling to defund the group.

Too often, conservative sites have failed to distinguish between solid scoops and feverish conspiracy theories, between methodical reporting and harassment, thereby damaging their credibility.

O'Keefe's hidden-camera reporting was hailed as a revival for online conservative journalism, and prompted fans like The Daily Beast's Conor Friedersdorf to compare him to Bob Woodward. But like many conservatives who have tried their hand at investigative reporting in recent years, O'Keefe has quickly followed up his success with what looks to be a spectacular flameout.

On Tuesday, O'Keefe was arrested with three others on charges that they attempted to bug Senator Mary Landrieu's (D-LA) office. O'Keefe allegedly recorded video with his cellphone while accomplices posing as repairmen tried to gain access to the senator's phone line. (O’Keefe’s lawyer, Edward Castaing, did not respond to a request for comment; O'Keefe and his co-defendants were released on bond and are slated to come back to court Wednesday. Upon his release, O'Keefe declined comment, saying only: "The truth will set me free.")

The arrest highlights a recurring problem for enterprising, Internet-based journalists on the right wing. While the left has built up a number of professional reporting outlets like Talking Points Memo and Huffington Post, whose journalists enjoy tremendous respect in the mainstream press, the right-wing blogosphere has struggled to consistently (and ethically) break news. Too often, conservative sites have failed to distinguish between solid scoops and feverish conspiracy theories, between methodical reporting and harassment, thereby damaging their credibility.

It doesn't have to be this way, of course. Bloggers on the right have had notable successes over the years: They may have even swayed the 2004 presidential election by debunking a memo obtained by 60 Minutes that claimed President George W. Bush had skipped out on his National Guard duties. The conservative site Power Line was named Time's “Blog of the Year” for its reporting on the case, which featured a number of leads provided by its readers. The site has had little impact outside of its opinion writing since then, however, as it quickly followed up its success with credibility-killing missteps. In 2005, fresh off his reporting on “Rathergate,” Power Line's John Hinderaker tried to repeat the same formula by aggressively attacking a Republican memo obtained by The Washington Post and ABC News in 2005. The memo, which was being circulated among Senate Republicans, callously branded the Terri Schiavo incident as "a great political issue" for the GOP to exploit. Hinderaker called the document a phony. “It does not sound like something written by a conservative; it sounds like a liberal fantasy of how conservatives talk,” Hinderaker wrote at the time. “What conservative would write that the case of a woman condemned to death by starvation is 'a great political issue?' Maybe such a person exists, but I doubt it.”

The story jumped from the blogosphere to The Washington Times, but after exciting conservative hopes that the site had uncovered a liberal dirty trick, it turned out Hinderaker was wrong. Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) admitted that one of his staffers had in fact authored the document.

Michelle Malkin, a popular author and columnist, has followed a similar trajectory. While her snappy opinion writing and TV appearances have made her an important figure in conservative media, her forays into reporting have proven inconsistent and at times way off base. Like Power Line, at times her site has also accomplished influential reporting: In 2005, Malkin scored a major coup by teaming with a number of other conservative bloggers on a story on CNN's then-chief news executive Eason Jordan. They jumped on an unconfirmed blog post, claiming that Jordan had, at a conference in Switzerland, accused U.S. troops of targeting journalists in Iraq. Seeking to verify the report, Malkin and other conservative bloggers methodically interviewed other panelists and audience members. They got on-the-record comments from participants—including  Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA)—confirming Jordan’s remarks. The resultant scandal eventually led to his resignation. (Jordan said his remarks had been misinterpreted.)

The next year, Malkin and the bloggers she’d worked with embarked on a quixotic campaign to prove that the Associated Press was using a phony source named Jamil Hussein to manufacture accounts of nonexistent carnage in Iraq. The charges were as serious an accusation as could be leveled against a news organization. A number of bloggers like Flopping Aces beat the drums so loudly that Malkin prepared to travel to Iraq to investigate the story personally. But before she could leave, the Associated Press not only produced Hussein, but revealed that he faced imprisonment for talking to reporters.

O’Keefe’s arrest threatens to derail yet another conservative online reporting career—and could damage the credibility of Big Government, the Breitbart-owned site that has hosted his work. Late Tuesday, Breitbart posted a statement on his site, distancing himself from the journalist whose work he had previously championed. “We have no knowledge about or connection to any alleged acts and events involving James O’Keefe at Senator Mary Landrieu’s office. We only just learned about the alleged incident this afternoon. We have no information other than what has been reported publicly by the press. Accordingly, we simply are not in a position to make any further comment,” Breitbart said.

Prominent conservative commentator Tucker Carlson has acknowledged the right’s reporting issues in the past. Carlson was booed at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s annual conference in 2009 for stating what he called “the hard truth” that conservative reporting outlets needed to adopt the same journalistic standards as The New York Times. The heckling pointed up a thorny problem: It's difficult to build up newsmaking capabilities while a huge chunk of the right’s base believes that mainstream news reporting is itself a left-wing practice. This month, Carlson launched a new site of his own, The Daily Caller, that employs a number of professional reporters.

With Democrats in control of the House, Senate, and White House, this could be a golden opportunity for great investigative reporting on the right. But to take advantage of it, conservative reporters will need to improve their consistency—and avoid arrest.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.