One night last week, Jon Stewart asked his audience, “Where were the real reporters on this story?” He meant the exposure of several ACORN employees giving tax advice to a young man and woman pretending to be a pimp and prostitute. The misdirected animosity toward the “real reporters” in this instance was a rare misstep for the usually perspicacious press critic/comedian. When long-time journalists, editors, and educators decry the death of investigative reporting, this Borat-style stunt is certainly not what they have in mind. And yet in this brave new world of anything goes journalism, many in the media have taken up the scandal and accept the videos as incontrovertible evidence of ACORN corruption.
In the October issue of The Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains that the most influential investigative reporting these days is being done by what he calls “political hit men” who circulate damaging information so that newsmen have very little work to do. Bowden uses as his primary example the smear campaign against Judge Sonia Sotomayor, but were the lead time at The Atlantic a bit shorter, the ACORN tapes would have been an even better example to prove his point.
The Washington Post’s Darryl Fears and Carol D. Leonnig describe “The $1,300 mission to fell ACORN.” It started with a phone call to James O’Keefe III (the “pimp”) from Hannah Giles (the “prostitute”), daughter of a conservative blogger named Doug Giles. The plan from the very beginning was to damage the reputation of the organization. O’Keefe admits that his enmity for ACORN derived from its success helping Democrats win elections, not from any charges of corruption. The Post also points out that in Philadelphia ACORN employees called the police when the duo left the offices there. The videotape of that encounter has yet to be released, and so the prevailing image of ACORN in the mainstream media has been the one that the video makers, with a vendetta against the organization, wanted out there.
Hysterical Fox News commentators have blown this story up like a hot air balloon, and much of the rest of the media appear to believe that what Fox says goes. Andrew Alexander complains that “traditional news outlets like The Post simply don’t pay enough attention to conservative media or viewpoints.” But writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Rick Perlstein responds: “Why would a newspaper like the The Post be training its investigative focus on ACORN now? Whether you think ill or well of ACORN, they’re a very marginal group in the grand scheme of things and about as tied to the White House as the PTA.”
This right-wing stunt proved such powerful catnip to mainstream media bigfeet that amazingly, George Stephanopoulos thought it worth discussing with the President of the United States during a rare one-on-one interview opportunity. The president quite understandably explained that that he wasn’t following the story very closely, and that the country was dealing with more serious problems right now. (U.S. grants to ACORN, already suspended, account for literally 52 seconds of annual U.S. government spending, according to one careful estimate.) Stephanopoulos had nothing else to say. As though he were correcting himself, he continued, “Afghanistan is a serious problem facing the country right now.” Oh, yeah, Afghanistan….
To be fair, outside of nakedly ideological outfits, most of the reporters in the mainstream media behaved responsibly when the tapes emerged on right-wing radio shows and blogs. The tapes didn’t become legitimately newsworthy until the Census Bureau dropped ACORN from its efforts to collect 2010 census data. Initial reports even left out mention of the videotapes. But the videos are what attract media, particularly television, to this story, not government action against ACORN. Census and congressional moves to dissociate government from ACORN have become excuses to show these tapes again and again. News outlets have used these tapes even though they meet no reasonable journalistic standards.
The press has taken the release of the tapes as an opportunity to rehash the same handful of connections to ACORN that have been discussed and exaggerated ad nauseum by the openly conservative punditocracy. The Associated Press ran a piece by Sharon Theimer and Pete Yost on September 20 whose title asks, “Did ACORN Get Too Big for its Own Good?” The reporters give a history of the organization, focusing on any bad press the company has received since it began in 1970. They also refer to Barack Obama’s “long” relationship with the group. They illuminate three connections between the president and ACORN, including an endorsement by Bertha Lewis, the CEO. In addition to its being nonsense, these arguments assume that the videotapes signal a systemic failure on the part of ACORN, which has been neither investigated nor proven.
What’s more, such stories provide little context regarding what ACORN actually does. As Harold Meyerson explains in rare bit of actual contextual reporting, “Founded in Little Rock in 1970 as an organization agitating for free school lunches, Vietnam veterans’ rights and more hospital emergency rooms, ACORN has grown in the past four decades into the nation’s largest community organizing group. Based in low-income neighborhoods, it has nearly 500,000 dues-paying members, recruited by door-to-door canvassers, with chapters in 110 cities in 40 states. Nationwide, it has more than 1,000 staffers.”
While no one, not even ACORN, will defend the employees depicted in the videos, Joe Conason provides some context amid the hysteria on Salon. Conason points out several genuine successes that the group has had over the years. Likewise, he debunks several lies repeatedly told about them by the right.
The actions of ACORN have long obsessed the far right in this country. With terrific timing, Peter Dreier of Occidental College and Christopher R. Martin of the University of Northern Iowa just released a study in which they analyzed the complete 2007-08 coverage of ACORN by 15 major news media organizations, and the narrative frames of their 647 stories during that period. The study reveals a classic case of the agenda-setting effectof the news media: how a little-known organization became the subject of a major news story in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, to the point where 82 percent of the respondents in an October 2008 national survey reported they had heard about ACORN.
Among their findings was the fact that almost all of the coverage carried one-sided frames, repeating the conservative criticisms of the group without seeking to verify them or provide ACORN or its supporters with a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations. Voter fraud was the dominant story frame with 55 percent of the 647 stories analyzed using it, and this was most intense in the broadcast and cable media, with 68.7 percent of those stories using it. Indeed, voter fraud may have been the only story frame about ACORN that most news consumers experienced.
The study also examined the manner in which a network of conservative media organizations (the so-called “echo chamber”) tested and promoted their frames and channeled the stories into mainstream media agenda. They term the seamlessness of the campaign against ACORN to be “startling,” noting that in 2008 almost everything that the McCain-Palin campaign said about ACORN was exactly what the right wingers in the media had said themselves. The original campaign, they note, was concocted by conservative politicians upset with ACORN’s community organizing efforts to help poor Americans improve economic conditions and gain a stronger political voice.
During the past political year, the authors explain, these same conservatives have continued to attack ACORN and tried to link ACORN to Obama and the Democrats. Criticism of ACORN has been a consistent story on Fox News and conservative talk shows and in conservative publications, websites, and columns in mainstream newspapers. For example:
- In early 2009 GOP allegations that the Democrats in Congress specifically targeted billions of stimulus funds for ACORN became news stories despite the fact that it was not true.
- In July 2009, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a report, “Is ACORN Intentionally Structured as a Criminal Enterprise?” that repeated many of the allegations made during the 2008 campaign and that generated media attention.
- On August 11, 2009, the House Judiciary Committee released over 5,000 pages of White House and Republican National Committee e-mails, along with transcripts of closed-door testimony by former Bush Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and Harriet Miers, former White House counsel. The documents revealed that Rove played a central role in the firing of David C. Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, for failing to help Republican election prospects by prosecuting alleged instances of voter fraud by ACORN.
Nearly every major news organization reported on the Judiciary Committee’s unveiling of the e-mails and transcripts, but none of them, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal mentioned that Rove was specifically focused on attacking ACORN for its voter registration efforts in New Mexico and other states, even though ACORN is mentioned frequently as a conservative target in the investigative documents.
The fact that the mainstream media is repeating many of these arguments today represents another triumph of the far-right in this country, not only to “work the refs” but also to pollute the content of the American political discourse and lay low the practice of honest journalism. Fake news unfortunately has many faces, but stunts like these ought not to detain anyone who is not seeking to drive a particular agenda.
Fox News Channel, for example, has been the cheerleading network for so-called “tea party” protests. But one of its associate producers took it to new heights when she was filmed pumping up the crowd at the 9/12 protest in Washington. Fox News admitted that it was inappropriate behavior and the woman “has been disciplined.” Apparently, the network draws an ethical line somewhere.
In 2007, Stewart and “The Daily Show” went after ABC’s “What Would You Do?” in which a reporter planted actors playing abusive boyfriends and parents in public places. The host ambushed bystanders who chose to mind their own business. Also in 2007, on Chris Hansen’s Dateline NBC series, “To Catch a Predator,” Hansen set up liaisons with would-be child molesters and confronted them on camera.
These shows make for crassly compelling television, and they expose the flawed, even criminal possibilities of human behavior, but they mustn’t be mistaken for journalism.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.
Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer and an English teacher at Kingsborough Community College.