NYT and the ACORN Hoax: Why Can't Paper Admit Its Mistakes?

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Steve Rendall
srendall@fair.org
Tel: 212-633-6700 x13

NYT and the ACORN Hoax: Why Can't Paper Admit Its Mistakes?

NEW YORK - Ignoring calls from numerous critics, the New York Times
refuses to own up to mistakes in the paper's coverage of the now-famous
right-wing videotapes attacking the community organizing group ACORN.
Instead, the paper's public editor, Clark Hoyt, is relying on an absurd
semantic justification in order to claim the paper does not need to
print any corrections.

As conventionally reported in the Times
and elsewhere, right-wing activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles
dressed up as a pimp and a prostitute and visited several local ACORN
offices, where office workers gave the duo advice on setting up a
brothel, concealing a child prostitution ring and so forth. But many of
the key "facts" surrounding the videos are either in dispute or are
demonstrable fabrications.

Though O'Keefe appears in various scenes in the videos wearing a garish
and absurd "pimp" costume, he in fact did not wear the outfit when he
appeared in the ACORN offices (Washington Independent, 2/19/10);
he was dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks. This fact undermines
one of the key contentions of the ACORN smear--that the group is so
hopelessly corrupt that they would dispense advice to an obvious
criminal.

What's more, the "advice" that they received, according to the
transcripts released by O'Keefe and Giles, does not appear to be as
incriminating as it was portrayed in the videos--and echoed in outlets
like the New York Times.

A review of the Times coverage:

--In an early piece (9/16/09),
readers were told of the "amateur actors, posing as a prostitute and a
pimp and recorded on hidden cameras in visits to ACORN offices....
Conservative advocates and broadcasters were gleeful about the success
of the tactics in exposing ACORN workers, who appeared to blithely
encourage prostitution and tax evasion." The Times explained:

The undercover videos showed a scantily dressed young woman, Hannah
Giles, posing as a prostitute, while a young man, James O'Keefe, played
her pimp. They visited ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, Brooklyn
and San Bernardino, Calif., candidly describing their illicit business
and asking the advice of ACORN workers. Among other questions, they
asked how to buy a house to use as a brothel employing underage girls
from El Salvador.

The paper also reported that O'Keefe "was dressed so outlandishly that
he might have been playing in a risque high school play. But in the
footage made public--initially by a new website, BigGovernment.com--ACORN
employees raised no objections to the criminal plans. Instead, they
eagerly counseled the couple on how to hide their activities from the
authorities, avoid taxes and make the brothel scheme work."

--Three days later (9/19/09):
"Their travels in the gaudy guise of pimp and prostitute through
various offices of ACORN, the national community organizing group,
caught its low-level employees in five cities sounding eager to assist
with tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution."

--New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt weighed in (9/27/09), chiding the paper for not being more aggressive in promoting the ACORN videos--lamenting that Times readers weren't as up-to-speed on the story as "followers of Fox News,"
who already knew "that a video sting had caught ACORN workers
counseling a bogus prostitute and pimp on how to set up a brothel
staffed by under-age girls, avoid detection and cheat on taxes."

--The following week (10/4/09),
Hoyt was on the ACORN case again: "To recap: Two conservative activists
with a concealed video camera, posing as a prostitute and her pimp,
visited offices of ACORN, the community organizing group, and lured
employees into bizarre conversations about how to establish a bordello,
cheat on taxes and smuggle in underage girls from Central America."

--After O'Keefe was charged in January with attempting to tamper with the phone system in Sen. Mary Landrieu's office, the Times reported under the headline, "After Arrest, Provocateur's Tactics Are Questioned" (1/28/10):
"Mr. O'Keefe is a conservative activist who gained fame last year by
posing as a pimp and secretly recording members of the community group
ACORN giving him advice on how to set up a brothel."

---On January 31, 2010:
"Mr. O'Keefe made his biggest national splash last year when he dressed
up as a pimp and trained his secret camera on counselors with the
liberal community group ACORN--eliciting advice on financing a brothel
on videos that would threaten to become ACORN's undoing.

--On March 2, 2010, under the headline, "ACORN's Advice to Fake Pimp Was No Crime, Prosecutor Says, "the Times
reported: "The ACORN employees in Brooklyn who were captured on a
hidden camera seeming to offer conservative activists posing as a pimp
and a prostitute creative advice on how to get a mortgage have been
cleared of wrongdoing by the Brooklyn district attorney's office."

But the story the Times continues to tell is wildly misleading, as a review of the publicly available transcripts of his visit (BigGovernment.com)
makes clear. O'Keefe never dressed as a pimp during his visits to ACORN
offices, seems to never actually represent himself as a "pimp," and the
advice he solicits is usually about how to file income taxes (which is
not "tax evasion"). In at least one encounter (at a Baltimore ACORN office), the pair seemed to first insist that Giles was a dancer, not a prostitute.

In the case recounted in the March 2 Times story, the transcripts
show that O'Keefe did not portray himself as a pimp to the ACORN
workers in Brooklyn, but told them that he was trying to help his
prostitute girlfriend. In part of the exchange, O'Keefe and his
accomplice seem to be telling ACORN staffers that they are attempting
to buy a house to protect child prostitutes from an abusive pimp.

Throughout the months the Times
covered the story, it made a major mistake: believing that Internet
videos produced by right-wing activists were to be trusted
uncritically, rather than approached with the skepticism due to
anything you'd come across on the Web. O'Keefe and the Web publisher
Andrew Breitbart refused to make unedited copies of the videotape
public, and with good reason: A more complete viewing, as the
transcripts show, would produce a much different impression.

While the Times decide to skip
the standard rules of journalism, ACORN commissioned an independent
investigation led by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott
Harshbarger (12/7/09), which noted that the

unedited videos have never been made public.
The videos that have been released appear to have been edited, in some
cases substantially, including the insertion of a substitute voiceover
for significant portions of Mr. O'Keefe's and Ms.Giles' comments, which
makes it difficult to determine the questions to which ACORN employees
are responding. A comparison of the publicly available transcripts to
the released videos confirms that large portions of the original video
have been omitted from the released versions.

So what has the Times done in response? As reported extensively by blogger Brad Friedman (Brad Blog), several Times
staffers have been asked to justify the paper's lack of accountability.
In the most remarkable exchange, public editor Clark Hoyt--who had
criticized the paper for not doing enough reporting on the tapes--wrote
that the paper had made no errors that merited a correction (Brad Blog, 2/23/10).
He explained that the January 31 story "says O'Keefe dressed up as a
pimp and trained his hidden camera on ACORN counselors. It does not say
he did those two things at the same time."

It is hard to believe that Hoyt actually believes what he's saying
here. The obvious implication from the language of the article (and the
others documented above) is that ACORN was dispensing advice to someone
dressed up in an absurd pimp outfit. The Times
chose to believe that O'Keefe's work was journalism that didn't need to
be treated skeptically. The videos were in fact a hoax, and the Times
was duped. Its readers deserve to know as much--and ACORN, which
suffered serious political damage as a result of the false stories,
deserves an apology.

In his September column criticizing the paper for being slow to report
the ACORN videos, Hoyt wrote: "Some stories, lacking facts, never catch
fire. But others do, and a newspaper like the Times
needs to be alert to them or wind up looking clueless or, worse,
partisan itself." Worse than looking partisan, though, is being wrong.

ACTION:
Encourage New York Times
public editor Clark Hoyt to recommond that the paper investigate the
ACORN videos and produce a report that clarifies the record.

CONTACT:
New York Times
Clark Hoyt, Public Editor

public@nytimes.com

Phone: (212) 556-7652

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FAIR, the national media watch group, has been offering well-documented criticism of media bias and censorship since 1986. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints.

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