Weekend Opinionator: Acorn Falls, the Web Rises
By Tobin Harshaw
“Work formerly done by reporters and producers is now routinely performed by political operatives and amateur ideologues of one stripe or another, whose goal is not to educate the public but to win. This is a trend not likely to change.”
The Internet is now replacing Everyman with every man. Anyone with a keyboard or cell phone can report, analyze, and pull a chair up to the national debate. If freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, today that is everyone. The city with one eye (glass or no) has been replaced by the city with a million eyes. This is wonderful on many levels, and is why the tyrants of the world are struggling, with only partial success, to control the new medium. But while the Internet may be the ultimate democratic tool, it is also demolishing the business model that long sustained newspapers and TV’s network-news organizations.
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be yet another post lamenting the imperiled future of newspapers. Rather, let’s take a look at something that the Bowden piece predated yet seemingly foresaw:
Yes, the video starts with employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, giving advice on gaining child-tax credits for employing underage Salvadoran prostitutes. And then it gets worse. (Writing off condoms!)
A novice filmmaker embarrassed an influential housing group — did he humiliate the mainstream media as well?
Well, with Congress having voted to shut off Acorn’s money spigot, I guess we can score one for Bowden’s “every man.”
As those paying attention now know, the Baltimore video (and the Washington one, the Brooklyn one, the San Diego one and the San Bernardino, Calif., one) were the work of James O’Keefe III, a 25-year-old amateur filmmaker, and (playing the lady of the night) Hannah Giles, a 20-year-old conservative activist. (Thorough background piece on them here.) And, while it’s clear that the duo didn’t get any expert wardrobe advice, did they really do the whole thing themselves?
Doubters like to point out that the videos were first aired at BigGovernment.com, the latest brainchild of the conservative Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, who also founded BigHollywood.com, a site devoted to exposing the inanities of entertainment celebrities and other forms of shooting fish in a barrel. And while it was apparently Breitbart’s brilliant idea to stagger the release of the videos over a period of days, there doesn’t seem to be other evidence that a conservative cabal was involved.
Still, Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s chief, certainly thinks it was a vast right-wing conspiracy (involving Fox News as well, natch) and that the secret recording broke the law, reports Politico:
“It is clear that the videos are doctored, edited, and in no way the result of the fabricated story being portrayed by conservative activist ‘filmmaker’ O’Keefe and his partner in crime,’ ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis said in a statement over the weekend. “And, in fact, a crime it was—our lawyers believe a felony—and we will be taking legal action against Fox and their co-conspirators.”
Ken Blackwell and Ken Klukowski at Politico aren’t holding their breaths until the suit gets filed:
ACORN’s unavoidable problem, however, is that suing Fox News would give Fox — or any other media organization — the ultimate Christmas present: a legally enforceable way to compel ACORN to give up all its secrets.
The process by which a party to a lawsuit can force the opposing party to disclose information is called discovery, which can take the form of depositions, written questions, or demands for the production of documents. Under federal rules, a defendant can get court orders for discovery for any information relevant to its defense, except for privileged information such as attorney-client discussions.
If ACORN sues, it would have to sue alleging some variation of defamation or fraud. The problem is that for either allegation, truth is an absolute defense. Nothing could be more relevant to Fox establishing its defense of truth in the lawsuit than having access to ACORN’s office memos, emails, phone records, and bank statements. All of these would have a reasonable chance of providing evidence as to whether ACORN workers had knowledge of any of the topics seen on the videotapes.
In short, it would blow the doors off ACORN’s vault of secrets. Fox would learn which organizations collaborate with ACORN, how they spend taxpayer money and what ACORN’s leaders say to each other behind closed doors. It would be a treasure trove for a media organization.
And should Lewis’s legal threat turn out to be hollow, it won’t be the first time she has had to eat crow: her first statement after the Baltimore video was that “this recent scam, which was attempted in San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia to name a few places, had failed for months before the results we’ve all recently seen.” Whoops. And while I would have preferred to link my readers to the Acorn Web site’s version of that Lewis quote rather than BigGovernment’s screen grab, in the aftermath of the Brooklyn and San Diego videos it seems to have inexplicably disappeared.
So, it all seems pretty simple: Acorn is caught dead to rights by a couple of amateurs, doubles down with an uninformed statement and ends up bleeding on the Capitol floor. Or is it?
Bertha Lewis feels that this has less to do with the videos themselves than with a long-term war against her organization:
We’re disappointed that the House took the rare and politically convenient step of attempting to eliminate federal funding for a single organization, one that has been the target of a multi-year political assault stemming variously from the Bush White House, Fox News, and other conservative quarters.
Fortunately, ACORN derives most of its income from its members and other supporters, so the decision will have little impact on overall operations. The only real victims of today’s vote are the families who have benefited from ACORN’s important work.
Salon’s Joe Conason thinks the whole episode can become an educational exercise in just how valuable Acorn is:
Like so many conservative attacks, the crusade against ACORN has been highly exaggerated and even falsified to create a demonic image that bears little resemblance to the real organization. Working in the nation’s poorest places, and hiring the people who live there, ACORN is not immune to the pathologies that can afflict institutions in those communities. As a large nonprofit handling many millions of dollars, it has suffered from mismanagement at the top as well — although there is nothing unique in that, either.
Yet ACORN’s troubles should be considered in the context of a history of honorable service to the dispossessed and impoverished. No doubt it was fun to dupe a few morons into providing tax advice to a “pimp and ho,” but what ACORN actually does, every day, is help struggling families with the Earned Income Tax Credit (whose benefits were expanded by both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). And while the idea of getting housing assistance for a brothel was clever, what ACORN really does, every day, is help those same working families avoid foreclosure and stay in their homes.
Perhaps the congressional investigation now demanded by some Republican politicians would be a useful exercise, if conducted impartially. A fair investigation might begin to dispel some of the wild mythology promoted by right-wing media outlets.
A. Serwer of Tapped thinks that it all comes down to conservatives disliking anyone who helps the poor:
Let’s not forget that the “pimp and ho” scandal isn’t the root of the right’s animosity towards ACORN, their work on behalf of low-income people is. The video may have exposed ACORN’s difficulty in enforcing professional standards in the workplace, and denying them federal funding until they fix those problems may be justifiable–but it’s noteworthy that institutions advocating on behalf of more powerful interests haven’t faced a similar fate.
The right however, has looked at the ACORN scandal as a kind of vindication of all their paranoid fantasies of what ACORN was responsible for–namely that ACORN really was trying to “steal” the 2008 election through voter fraud and that it caused the sub-prime crisis by advocating against housing policies that discriminate against people of color–are true. They seem to believe that because ACORN employees acted improperly, that means outlawing housing discrimination based on race caused the economic meltdown and voter fraud is a real problem.
Neither of those things are true, but they do point to the real reason the right hates ACORN, and it’s not because of their past issues with embezzlement, or misbehaving employees. It’s because they try to look out for the interests of people the right likes to blame for the nation’s problems.
And Amanda Terkel at Think Progress seems to think the left can gain points by pointing out Sen. David Vitter’s apparent hypocrisy:
Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) is the self-proclaimed “most outspoken critic of ACORN.” Following the release of incriminating videos showing ACORN workers giving advice to undercover conservative activists inquiring about how to start a brothel and not get caught, Vitter and other Republicans called for investigations and audits of the organization. On Monday, he put out a press release bragging about all his anti-ACORN work over the years and commending the administration for condemning the group.
Yet despite all his anti-ACORN activism, Vitter missed the vote that cut off federal funding for the group. A spokesman said that there was “a scheduling error” that caused the senator to miss his flight back to Washington in time for the roll call, but he still “called colleagues and urged them to support the amendment.”
Vitter’s outrage over the latest ACORN scandal seems extraordinarily hypocritical, in light of what he went through in 2007: “A woman accused of running a Washington prostitution ring placed five phone calls to David Vitter while he was a House member, including two while roll call votes were under way, according to telephone and congressional records.”
Other liberals are not so sanguine. “Democrats have been really out of it,” reads a post at Prairie Weahter. “ACORN is being painted as the moral equivalent of Bernard Madoff or worse — moral equivalent of Abu Ghraib, according to a Washington Times columnist. So far, I’d say the right has won this one.”
So does the editorial board of The Los Angeles Times:
Given all the scrutiny, one would have expected ACORN to be doing everything in its power to make sure its activities were squeaky clean. Yet since the initial video was released last week showing ACORN workers in Baltimore who appeared to be aiding and abetting criminal activity, activist filmmaker James O’Keefe has released two more showing similar behavior at ACORN offices in Washington and Brooklyn. The response from ACORN? Fire the workers involved and blame Fox News.
“We are the boogeyman for the right-wing and its echo chambers,” reads a self-serving statement released Saturday by ACORN’s chief organizer, Bertha Lewis. She claimed the videos were “doctored” and threatened legal action against Fox. What she didn’t do is apologize for the appalling and possibly illegal behavior of ACORN employees, acknowledge that the organization has serious internal problems and vow to correct them, or do what she should have done as soon as the scandal was revealed: resign.
O’Keefe’s hidden-camera methods are distasteful, and the extent to which his videos were edited is unknown. Their content is nonetheless devastating to ACORN — so much so that, on Monday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to withhold federal housing funds from the group. That’s a shame because ACORN does worthwhile work in poor communities, helping people avoid foreclosure, giving them tax help and, yes, registering them to vote. If ACORN is to survive and retain a shred of credibility, it needs to stop deflecting blame and clean house.
Less surprisingly, so does The Wall Street Journal, which looks to find more villains than just those clueless Acorn workers in Baltimore:
Yesterday the House voted 345-75 to ban all federal funding for the scandal-plagued advocacy group Acorn. Coming on the heels of the Census Bureau’s dissociation with Acorn last week and the Senate’s Monday vote denying it housing funds, this is a welcome decision.
But the fact that there were 75 “no” votes is shocking, even for this Congress. Along with far-left backbenchers, they included Charles Rangel, Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and Henry Waxman, who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee. Both are key leaders in the ObamaCare effort.
One of Acorn’s leading Congressional enablers has been Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Last year Mr. Frank appeared in a promotional video for “Acorn’s Grassroots Democracy Campaign,” and this year he led the effort to repeal a year-old legal provision barring groups from receiving housing subsidies while under indictment for voter fraud. This he called “a violation of the basic principles of due process.” Mr. Frank was absent yesterday when the House voted to defund Acorn, although he had been on the House floor for another vote just half an hour earlier.
The House vote came a day after the release of the latest video by freelance investigators James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, who crisscrossed the country posing as a pimp and prostitute. Employees in at least five different Acorn offices offered them help in setting up a child-prostitution business. If that isn’t enough to persuade 75 Democrats to stop supporting Acorn with taxpayer money, one can only conclude that the only way they’d defund the outfit is if it endorsed the war in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And while conservatives are no doubt pleased by those editorials, they are also using the controversy to score some points on the East Coast establishment press. Or, in the case of BigHollywood’s Greg Gutfeld, just having a bit of fun gloating:
So when two scrappy DC journalists bring down a President, it’s turned into “All the President’s Men,” winning accolades and Oscars. When an unemployed single mother of three takes the fight to an energy giant, it becomes a blockbuster vehicle for Julia Robert’s cleavage. And when a former Vice President exposes man’s inhumanity toward Mother Earth – “An Inconvenient Truth” crowns him the most majestic whistle blower ever.
But when two amateur journalists (in their early twenties, poorly dressed as sex workers, with under two grand in their budget) casually take down a sleazy behomoth that leeches off American taxpayers, you’d think Hollywood and the media would be all over this. I mean, what Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe did to Acorn – leading to the House approving to cut off all their funding – is the whistle blowing film to end ALL whistle blowing films. These two kids did what Michael Moore could never come close to accomplishing: uncovering lurid incompetence, affecting policy, and saving Americans millions of dollars.
Whether big-time media outlets will care much about the criticisms of right-leaning bloggers remains to be seen — after all, The Times and most other papers would never allow reporters to misrepresent themselves in the way O’Keefe and Giles did. Yet one suspects that one jab in particular hits the MSM where it hurts:
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|The Audacity of Hos|
Yep, the Big Boys are scooped by a couple of novices and then ridiculed by a fake journalist — Mark Bowden, your day of reckoning may be closer than you think …