the research report

In ACORN’s Shadow

A new analysis of the community-organizing group's history shows the media was less than fair

Remember ACORN, the community-organizing group that got caught in the electoral crossfire between one-time community organizer Barack Obama and a highly motivated, conspiracy-minded contingent of conservative activists? The repeated attacks on ACORN for “voter fraud” moved into Sarah Palin’s speeches and inspired John McCain in a televised presidential debate to suggest that ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

The controversy was devastating to ACORN. Foundation funders bailed. Congress cut off support. By last spring, ACORN was gone. And although some ACORN state organizations have reorganized as independent groups, a postmortem is in order.

One question is whether the media gave ACORN its due. In Perspectives on Politics (September 2010), a journal of the American Political Science Association, political scientist Peter Dreier and media scholar John Martin answer with a resounding no. They find that the media were taken in all too easily by a very effective group of “opinion entrepreneurs” largely indifferent to facts or fairness.

ACORN began in 1970 as the Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now. It became a large, ambitious, national advocacy group for and by poor people on a range of issues, particularly housing. After 2000, ACORN took on voter-registration drives, and that’s what led to their fifteen minutes of national notoriety. (For a book-length account of ACORN, see Seeds of Change by John Atlas, Vanderbilt University Press, June 2010, a sympathetic, but not uncritical, treatment. Atlas is a longtime housing activist and an associate of Dreier’s.)

For “How ACORN Was Framed,” Dreier and Martin looked at the total corpus of 647 stories on ACORN in fifteen news outlets during 2007 and 2008—USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and PBS—and leading local newspapers in Minneapolis (Star-Tribune), Pittsburgh (Post-Gazette), and Cleveland (Plain Dealer), cities with significant acorn operations. They found that the national news media were “easily permeated” by conservatives’ anti-ACORN accusations.

The media reported the charges but rarely explained, as Dreier and Martin document in a sprawling indictment, that registration fraud is not voter fraud; that voter fraud in the U.S. is extremely rare; that ACORN turned in invalid registration forms to comply with state laws, flagging the forms they believed to be fraudulent; that ACORN took steps to reduce invalid registrations their (mostly temporary) workers turned in; and that Republicans were drumming up a “scandal” to discredit candidate Obama. The three local papers were the exceptions. Their familiarity with local ACORN sources led to more balanced and less excitable coverage. As for the national media, in 44 percent of their ACORN voter-registration stories, they provided anti-ACORN accusations without noting any of the relevant context, and in another 31 percent of stories, they mentioned only one of the five most important mitigating facts that Dreier and Martin list.

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The media sometimes suspected a gap between Republican allegations and the full story—while CNN’s Drew Griffin kept covering the story for several weeks, repeating conservative charges, by October 17 he summed it up as nothing more than “a sloppy job” of registering voters, quite a distance from an alleged effort to steal the election.

Why so little pushback? Where were the “she said” retorts from ACORN and its friends to the conservatives’ “he said” charges? Atlas suggested to us that there were multiple reasons, including simply that ACORN was an anti-poverty group “always scrambling,” and—strange as it may seem—without a sophisticated communication system for dealing with the media. Meanwhile, ACORN faced internal dissension, especially around the kid-glove handling of Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN’s founder Wade Rathke. Dale had embezzled nearly $1 million from ACORN in 2000, and Wade arranged for Dale to repay it, but kept this all from the board. In May 2008, ACORN’s board fired Dale and forced out Wade.

ACORN’s danger to democracy was absurdly hyped for partisan advantage; the national media were steamrolled into promoting, in Dreier and Martin’s words, a “disingenuous controversy”; and ACORN twisted in the wind.

Michael Schudson and Julia Sonnevend write The Research Report for CJR.