Andrew Breitbart was in the news again this week, and you can be assured that when Breitbart makes news, it’s rarely the kind that’s actually true. This week, he was purposefully misrepresentingWhite House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina’s metaphorical remarks to Senate Democrats in order to make it appear as if the White House was calling on "union thugs" to "punch" out people at health care town halls. He repeated this falsehood both in The Washington Times and on Glenn Beck’s Fox News program.
To be honest, by the standards of Beck, The Washington Times, and even Breitbart, these misrepresentations are no big deal. If you are among the benighted minions who take such sources seriously, well, that’s your problem (and to be perfectly honest you’re probably not reading this). The problem arises when the rest of the media—those outlets that we assume we can believe—allow Breitbart’s brand of hucksterism to infect their own reporting.
This is exactly what happened, of course, regarding ACORN, when Breitbart orchestrated the successful campaign by pseudo-journalists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles to discredit the organization with a series of doctored videos and false testimonies. It’s beyond ironic to note, as we have done here previously, that respected members of the mainstream media beat themselves up in public for failing to follow the lead of these hucksters—hucksters who, in O’Keefe’s case, have since revealed themselves to engage in criminal behavior to make their points.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, for instance told Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander that the Post’s failure to cover the ACORN story demonstrated that "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by nonideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms." Alexander agreed, adding that "traditional news outlets like The Post simply don’t pay enough attention to conservative media or viewpoints." Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli added,"We are not well-enough informed about conservative issues. It’s particularly a problem in a town so dominated by Democrats and the Democratic point of view."
New York Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson complained in the wake of the ACORN scandal that the paper of record was showing "insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio." And it saddens me to say that even Jon Stewart allowed himself to be suckered into this phony flagellation fest, demanding to know, "Where were the real reporters on this story?"
Meanwhile, George Stephanopoulos thought the ACORN story worth bringing up in a rare one-on-one interview opportunity with the President of the United States. 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.)
Well, ACORN is gone, unable to survive the onslaught of bad publicity that its miscreant employees helped to enable by cooperating with the idiotic requests of Giles and O’Keefe. But what is most interesting from a journalistic standpoint is the degree to which, after failing to pay much attention to the story at all, so many institutions humiliated themselves by taking the Breitbartians at their word and helped destroy ACORN in the process. Not long ago, The Times was forced to acknowledge, first in its public editor’s column and then in its corrections space, that it had allowed itself to be duped by the video.
Clark Hoyt, The Times public editor, did an extensive investigation in response to complaints made to the paper and found that despite efforts to pretend otherwise, "O’Keefe almost certainly did not go into the ACORN offices in the outlandish costume—fur coat, goggle-like sunglasses, walking stick and broad-brimmed hat—in which he appeared at the beginning and end of most of his videos" as The Times reported. The reporters were misled, in part, by the fact that O’Keefe wore the get-up on Fox News, and when a host said he was "dressed exactly in the same outfit he wore to these ACORN offices" O’Keefe did not dispute him.
Moreover, an internal ACORN investigation undertaken by Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general, and his associate, Amy Crafts, found that the O’Keefe-Giles videos were heavily edited. Conversations were run out of sequence. Others were left out entirely, including those in the cities where ACORN employees called the police. The report found "no pattern of illegal conduct" by ACORN’s employees—which does not in any way exonerate the actions of a few.
The Times ignored this report when it was published. It also paid no attention when, earlier this month, California Attorney General Edmund G. Brown Jr. released a report after his office reviewed subpoenaed videotapes. The report found "terrible judgment and highly inappropriate behavior" on the part of "a few ACORN employees," along with some "likely violations" of state law, but no violation of any criminal laws. "The evidence illustrates," Brown said, "that things are not always as partisan zealots portray them through highly selective editing of reality. Sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor."
This followed a similar report by the Brooklyn District AttorneyCharles J. Hynes, who also found no wrongdoing on ACORN’s part. As Joe Conason noted in Salon, a "law enforcement source" told The New York Daily News that the unedited tapes left a very different impression than the chopped segments that Fox News Channel aired so many times. "They edited the tape to meet their agenda," said the source, referring to O’Keefe and Giles.
We all have our own views of ACORN. Personally, I think they were a decidedly mixed bag, doing some excellent, important work in some places while allowing for egregious abuses in others. But the story here is actually not much different than the story I wrote about two weeks ago regarding the alleged scandals of purloined emails from British climatologists. Yes, somebody somewhere screwed up. But owing to the carelessness of the alleged guardians to truth (and verification) in the mainstream media, transparent right-wing conspiracy mongers were granted license to use these mistakes to tell a much larger, fundamentally false story designed to further their agenda.
(Just this morning, minutes before I signed off on this piece, I received a press release sent from a PR firm on behalf of something called the "Business and Media Institute" seeking to exploit public ignorance about "ClimateGate" by promoting specifically the mistaken notion that the "release of e-mails…seemed to falsify many claims about global warming’s legitimacy."
I have frequently noted here and elsewhere that the word "seem" is the queen of all weasel words, and it allows you to say anything at all without it having to be true. In fact, as I reported two weeks ago, none of the major claims by the vast majority of climatologists were debunked by these purloined emails. Like so many reality-denying right-wingers, the BMI treats normative science as a "left-wing" and "alarmist" viewpoint. But the PR flacks are right: If you only pay attention to the mainstream coverage, it sure "seems" that way.)
One can find much the same dynamic at work in much of the mainstream media coverage of the Tea Party movement. As Politico‘s Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith observe, "indifference has given way to curiosity, and—in recent weeks especially—to a nearly manic obsession that sometimes seems to place the tea partiers somewhere near the suffragettes and the America-Firsters in the historical ranking of mass political movements."
According to the Pew Center on People and the Press the Tea Party movement got more coverage than health care last week despite the fact that over 60 percent of Americans have either never heard of them or had not bothered to form an opinion. "It feeds the paranoia of The New York Times and provides pictures of conflict and color for TV," notes Republican consultant Mike Murphy. Too bad if it all turns out to be misleading. Who’ll get hurt, after all, by the loss of media credibility in the face of a concerted campaign of disinformation in the service of a right-wing political campaign?
Surely nothing in history need give any of us pause on that account.
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 most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals . His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.