Q & A: Rick Perlstein

The liberal historian on ACORN, the Post, and wagging the dog

As the recent scandals surrounding the green-jobs advocate Van Jones and the community organizing group ACORN have shown, even under a Democratic White House and Congress, the conservative media have an ability to place a story on the national agenda. Those episodes have also prompted some mainstream media outlets to examine their own practices. A recent column by Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander reported that the paper’s executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, pressed his staff for more ACORN coverage; Brauchli was also quoted expressing the concern “that 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.”

This relationship between “conservative issues” and national issues more broadly is one that’s been of interest for some time to Rick Perlstein, the author of Nixonland and Before the Storm. A leading liberal historian of the conservative movement, Perlstein’s work has won respect from some leading conservatives; writing for CJR, he once praised the late journalist Paul Cowan for his sensitivity to the “dignity and value” of conservative subcultures. But Perlstein has also chastised the media, in the pages of the Post, for being too sensitive to conservative criticisms.

CJR assistant editor Greg Marx corresponded yesterday with Perlstein via phone and e-mail. An edited transcript appears below.

Greg Marx: I’m interested in your thoughts on Marcus Brauchli’s comments about mainstream coverage of conservative concerns in particular, and also in this issue more broadly.

Rick Perlstein: I read what Brauchli said, and what he was paraphrased as saying, and it almost suggests to me that Matt Drudge is becoming his assignment editor. I mean, why would a newspaper like the Post be training its investigative focus on ACORN now? Whether you think well or ill 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.

The real story is that millions of Americans don’t consider a liberal president legitimate, and they’re moving from that axiom to try to delegitimize the president in the eyes of the majority. And one of the ways they do that is, frankly, by baiting the hook for mainstream media decision-makers who are terrified at the accusation of liberal bias. It really looks like Brauchli is falling for that.

GM: So what do you think would be a more appropriate way to handle this? In your recent op-ed in the Post, you wrote that “even the most ideologically fair-minded national media will always be agents of cosmopolitanism.” So is there a legitimate way to understand other perspectives?

RP: Well, the ACORN story is the story of a marginal group that made obvious mistakes, but also, equally obviously, does important good in very marginal communities where services are few and far between. So what other groups of equal stature are they doing investigations of? The whole Republican narrative about ACORN is that of the tail wagging the dog—the tail being ACORN, the dog being the Obama White House and the Democratic Party.

Let me give you an example of what might be responsible for the media to report. They could report that one of ACORN’s big crusades in 2004 was a Florida ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage, and a lot of political scientists found that, indeed, it increased political participation in Florida. Some of the people who came out to vote for it actually voted for Republican candidates. But the Kerry campaign had no liaison with this—it’s not that they didn’t want to, it was just that the Democratic Party was completely disconnected from this.

In the conservative imagination, the idea that ACORN is working on a ballot initiative and that it might increase turnout for a Democrat is taken as prima facie evidence that ACORN and the Democratic Party are working hand-in-glove to distort the electoral process. But the Kerry campaign didn’t even seem to be aware of ACORN’s effort in this case.

So if Brauchli wants to do an investigation of ACORN, he should be able to justify it to the extent that they’re important in the grand scheme of things. And they’re important in the grand scheme of things now because the Republicans are yoking them to a narrative about the legitimacy of the president—that is the story, that is the event that brings ACORN to the forefront. Compare, say, the Chamber of Commerce’s ties to the Bush Administration—Bush’s head of the Consumer Products Safety Commission was a former executive with the Chamber of Commerce—to ACORN. Has an ACORN staffer ever made it anywhere near an executive position in the Obama administration? The scale of connection is infinitesimal.

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.

Think about the outstanding reporting of Hanna Rosin on religion, which is something that demonstrates that The Washington Post has always had a commitment to reporting on and respecting the viewpoints of its conservative constituency. That’s very different from letting itself be used as part of a political crusade, when the political crusade itself should be the story.

The Post’s irresponsibility when it comes to ACORN is symbolized by the fact that the word “Drudge” doesn’t show up in that article. The idea that this guy Andrew Breitbart [a protégé of Matt Drudge, and the founder of Big Government, the Web site that presented the ACORN videos] is just floating out there in the ether as some kind of independent conservative activist—he’s a very powerful person, in a lot of ways he might be more powerful than ACORN.

GM: I think what’s being expressed is a sort of felt need to compensate for the perceived fact that journalists don’t see the world through the same prism as members of the conservative movement do.

RP: I would say that journalists’ job is not to see the world through the same prism as the conservative movement, or a different prism than the conservative movement. It is to tell the truth without fear of favor. And if the truth makes conservatives look bad, devil take the hindmost. And if it makes liberals look bad, devil take the hindmost. It’s just too easy—and if you read my work, it’s been too easy for four decades—for conservatives to exploit their ability to create a sense that the media are biased in favor of liberalism in order to manipulate the media, in order to get the stories they want told told in the way they want. It’s a strategy—you can see the memos in which people lay it out. And unless that strategy is reported on, and treated as part of the story, then you are not reporting on what’s actually happening in the real world.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.