Seeds of Discontent

What does the ACORN story mean for the mainstream media?

James O’Keefe, the pimp-playing provocateur who set out to target ACORN with a video camera, a cheesy costume, and a small wad of cash, succeeded in doing more than embarrassing the community-organizing association. O’Keefe, 25, and his colleague Hannah Giles, 20, have also stoked conservative anger at the mainstream press—and won a measure of respect from some unlikely sources. Conor Friedersdorf, a sometime critic of conservative media, “commend[s] the gonzo journalism” committed by O’Keefe and Giles. Andrew Sullivan agrees. And Jon Stewart—who, as much as he might reject the title, is every liberal’s favorite press critic—used the episode to blast the mainstream media. “Where were the real reporters on this story?” Stewart asked. “I’m a fake journalist, and I’m embarrassed these guys scooped me!”

O’Keefe has accepted the praise: his and Giles’s efforts, he told the New York Post, represent nothing less than “the future of activism and investigative reporting.”

Still, due respect to Stewart, but it’s not hard to understand why O’Keefe and Giles uncovered this information when professional journalists hadn’t: it’s because they understand the enterprise in which they’re engaged in fundamentally different ways than professional journalists generally do. Before we urge the mainstream press to look to O’Keefe and Giles as a model, it makes sense to take a look at where they’re coming from.

It should be said upfront that Giles and O’Keefe uncovered some truly damning stuff. Some of the seemingly-incriminating video they recorded has turned out not to hold up to scrutiny—including one ACORN employee’s statement that she had murdered her ex-husband. (It appears that neither the filmmakers nor Fox News, which has prominently aired the footage, bothered to fact-check that “revelation” before first publicizing it.) Much of what the filmmakers came up with, though, is undeniably appalling: when somebody doesn’t bat an eye at the prospect of trafficking in underage sex workers, there’s something wrong.

So, good for Giles and O’Keefe—they went out to get the goods on ACORN, and they got them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put it, “Dude is doing his job.” And if ACORN is chastened by this episode and moved to better monitor its employees, there will even be public benefit.

But the underlying question is why O’Keefe saw this as his job. In a front-page story in today’s Washington Post, Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media entrepreneur whose Web site hosts the videos, is quoted as saying, “Everybody that is a conservative news junkie thinks that ACORN is the most important institution for us to uncover to the American public.” And why is that?

O’Keefe offered the following explanation in his commentary accompanying the first video post:

ACORN has ascended. They elect our politicians and receive billions in tax money. Their world is a revolutionary, socialistic, atheistic world, where all means are justifiable. And they create chaos, again, for it’s [sic] own sake. It is time for us to be studying and applying their tactics, many of which are ideologically neutral. It is time, as Hannah said as we walked out of the ACORN facility, for conservative activists to “create chaos for glory.”

This is, on at least one point, false. According to a report produced in July by Rep. Darrell Issa, who’s no friend of ACORN, the group has received about $53 million in federal funds since 1994. And as Chris Edwards, a scholar at the Cato Institute—also no friend of ACORN—notes, the group’s “share of overall federal subsidies is tiny.” As today’s Post story makes clear, to conclude that ACORN receives “billions in tax money” requires a staggering misreading of reality.

Of course, the “billions” serves to make ACORN look hugely important, which is a much broader misreading. Leaving aside O’Keefe’s millenarian language and his adoption of leftist tactics and frames, his comment reflects a theory of who holds political power that is…well, let’s just say it: kind of crazy. ACORN is not insignificant, to be sure, and—as far as O’Keefe’s “elect our politicians” claim goes—its voter-registration drives in low-income, minority communities have no doubt helped Democratic candidates. But the idea that the organization—whose offices are shown in all their shabbiness in the videos—controls political outcomes in this country is hard to fathom. If that were the case, why would politicians of both parties be falling over themselves to cut off funding for the group? The videos are powerful, but true giants don’t go down that easy.

“Just because Bill O’Reilly targets someone—it doesn’t mean they don’t deserve it,” Andrew Sullivan noted. That’s true, but so is the inverse: just because you found some dirt, it doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid. O’Keefe unearthed some outrageous behavior, but what he found does not prove the understanding of politics that led him to this story. And the fact that the mainstream press does not share that understanding should not be an indictment.

Of course, most of O’Keefe’s conservative audiences won’t view the videos as simple “information,” anyhow. Instead, they’ll likely see them as Michael Moore’s liberal fans see his documentaries—as confirmations of their own worldview. And, with coverage of the ACORN story coming mostly from conservative-leaning outlets, it seems likely to perpetuate a troubling trend: the sorting of the public into different fact universes. At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner writes that this creates new responsibilities for the mainstream press:

It’s simply unwise for large media outlets that claim to deliver “all the news that’s fit to print” to ignore big political stories when millions of people are talking about them…

…it’s now incumbent on the mainstream press to investigate the big stories that percolate in those venues to ensure that they’re shared outside of self-selected cliques and to present the story in proper context, not just the cherry picked facts touted by the partisans. Is there more to Van Jones than youthful sympathy with Communists and having put his weight behind the Truther movement? Is ACORN corrupt at its core or is it merely mismanaged, with a shoddy business model that invites corruption?…The partisan media generally lack both the resources and incentives to report these things.

This hits the mark (though perhaps “explaining just what ACORN is” should be added to the list of tasks). And, in fact, it seems to be what is happening: major newspapers like the Post and The New York Times have followed up on the story, noting ACORN’s mistakes, providing additional context, and giving it about the amount of attention it deserves. Going forward, we will probably see efforts from leading mainstream outlets to deliver more in-depth coverage of the group. In all likelihood, this coverage will leave people of various political stripes unhappy. But it will also represent the press’s standard strategy for handling stories of this type. In this case, at least, the standard strategy still seems like the right one.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

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