In a piece in the October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Story,” journalist Mark Bowden examines the source of the Sonia Sotomayor video clips that surfaced during her Supreme Court nomination—and what happens when ideologues step forward to provide the reporting that journalists don’t have the resources to do.

The background: within minutes of Sotomayor’s nomination ceremony at the White House, two now-infamous sound bytes were all over television news. One showed Sotomayor at Berkeley Law School in 2001 appearing to claim that her life experience as a “wise Latina woman” would make her judgment better than that of a white male; the other was shot at Duke University in 2005, where Sotomayor appeared to make the assertion that appellate judges should legislate from the bench.

The videos weren’t unearthed by enterprising journalists at Fox News or CNN. And they weren’t broken by CBS or ABC, either—although all four aired the incendiary clips, almost simultaneously. In fact, the videos were dug up by two conservative bloggers to serve a singular political purpose: sink Sotomayor.

On its own, that’s not a problem. The problem instead, Bowden puts it, is that working journalists failed to vet the videos before they aired them. If they had, they would have seen that the clips were taken out of context. And if they had done the digging themselves, they would have never flagged them to begin with. Bowden writes:

The reporting we saw on TV and on the Internet that day was the work not of journalists, but of political hit men.

Bowden calls his piece a “lament” for troubling times in journalism. In an age where time and money are scarce resources and the news hole is larger than ever thanks to twenty-four-hour cable news and the insatiable maw of the Internet, Bowden says that the people who will step up to fill the void and work for free will not be journalists. They’ll be, rather, political activists.

People like Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe—the duo who spent $1,300 of their own money to finance the ACORN sting that is dominating headlines this week.

“The young woman and filmmaker who visited those ACORN offices were political activists, and they put together what is, in essence, a very effective political protest against an organization they would like to damage,” Bowden said in a telephone interview today. “And they’ve done a very effective job of doing that. But I think they’re clearly not journalists.”

The question is: does that matter?

Ken Silverstein, the Washington, D.C. editor for Harper’s magazine—who came under fire for his own undercover investigation of D.C. lobbyists in 2007—said it doesn’t matter where the videos came from. Their damning evidence is what counts.

“This is a revelation, and it doesn’t matter what their agenda is,” Silverstein said of O’Keefe and Giles. “To suggest that they don’t have the right to do it because they’re political operatives or that it’s less valid or credible—no. Let’s roll the videotape, as they say.”

Bowden agrees that the videotape is valid. But calling it journalism, he says, is not. “In our exhausting, twenty-four-seven news cycle, demand for timely information and analysis is greater than ever,” he points out.

With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery. The very smart and capable young men…who actually dug up and initially posted the Sotomayor clips both originally described themselves to me as part-time, or aspiring, journalists.

Giles appears to fit this mold exactly. In an interview with Glenn Beck, Giles told her host that the idea to pose as a prostitute to set up ACORN came to her this summer, when she worked as an intern at the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C.—a foundation established with hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the Bradley and Olin foundations, both prominent conservative donors. Its alumni include Ann Coulter and Debbie Schlussel.

“One day I was jogging after work,” Giles told Beck, “and I saw an ACORN, and I was like, hmmm, you know I’ve never seen them before, I don’t like them. And I came up with the idea…”

In other words: in the same breath, Giles admitted she knew nothing about ACORN but had made up her mind that she didn’t like them.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.