So that’s the story, how these false equivalences get struck. It is important and interesting to report on ACORN, but they should have done it two years ago, five years ago, ten years ago—and two years from now, five years from now, ten years from now. And I think any responsible canvass of what ACORN’s all about will say that it’s this hardscrabble group that overextends itself and does stupid things sometimes, and also does great, heroic things quietly and well.
I have e-mail exchanges with a lot of conservative friends, and I ask them if they’ve ever been to an ACORN office, because I think in their mind ACORN has these palaces in cities around the country where they pull the strings of local politicians. But in actual fact, it’s just this kind of pathetic, shoestring operation. It’s effective at some things; it’s ineffective at others. But the idea of making it the focus of a great national newspaper like The Washington Post does not seem commensurate with its actual importance to the universe now—except as it exists in the imagination of a right wing that is working very hard to create a delegitimizing narrative about the president.
The story The Washington Post should be using its investigative resources to illuminate is how consistently, whenever there’s a Democratic president, the right works to create a distracting narrative to delegitimize that president in the eyes of the broader public. I think historians fifty years from now, a hundred years from now, will see that more clearly than we do now. And one of the reasons we don’t see it clearly now is that when the right throws out this bait, editors of major newspapers jump for it.
GM: Let’s talk about the front-page article the Post did on Friday, the actual work product.
RP: I think it really misses the story. In 2008, when the election was going on, conservative activists and Republican politicians were able to drive discussion of ACORN in the following way: they said that ACORN was aiding and abetting election fraud, and as evidence they gave all these false voter registration forms handed in by ACORN. You had to be an extremely alert news reader, you had to be an extremely informed member of the public, and you had to be very patient to be aware that it was actually ACORN that had discovered the fraud, and that law requires them to turn in every voter registration form they receive, even the ones that are fraudulent. In actual fact, they went above and beyond the law and flagged the ones they believed were fraudulent. So actually they were fighting electoral fraud, not creating electoral fraud.
And yet that became part of the narrative about the 2008 election, that there’s this group called ACORN, and they are working to abuse the American electoral process. How can you tell the story about what’s going on now with ACORN without leading with the idea of a conservative campaign to smear and vilify a group using any means, fair or foul? To me, that’s what happened last week. When it comes to this video, The Washington Post is completely letting the tail wag the dog.
GM: What do you think of the broader concern on the part of mainstream news organizations that they don’t understand, relate to, or reflect the concerns of conservative Americans? Andy Alexander, the Post’s ombudsman, recently posted a blog entry headlined “Newsroom diversity should include ideology.”
RP: The job of a newspaper is to tell the truth without fear or favor, whether that truth ends up advantaging conservatives, or liberals, or Zoroastrians or Masons.
GM: Do you find anything legitimate in the idea that trying to incorporate conservative perspectives could bring a paper closer to the truth than it might otherwise be?
RP: Sure, of course. But what does this ACORN story have to do with conservative perspectives?
Everything has to be understood in historical context. Unless you grasp the history of conservatives attempting to appeal to newspaper editors’ guilt about being liberal—which has been around since Spiro Agnew—then you can’t tell these kinds of stories, because all that is part of the story. And unless you look at the repeated pattern of smear-driven narratives in presidency after presidency—which turn out, in the end, not to implicate anyone—then you’re not telling the story.
Honoring the perspectives of conservative citizens is an absolute imperative for any newspaper; honoring the perspectives of liberal citizens is an absolute imperative for any newspaper. But there are ways of honoring people with conservative politics without serving the agendas of conservative politicians.