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.