What's the difference between James O'Keefe, who made national headlines with his ACORN undercover video, and ACORN? O'Keefe is a criminal and ACORN is not. Yesterday O'Keefe pleaded guilty to charges of entering federal property under false pretenses when he attempted to embarrass Senator Mary Landrieu because of her support for the health care legislation. O'Keefe, along with three co-defendants, said their goal was to show that the Senator's office phones were working, yet people opposed to health care reform could not get through to register their opinions. He was sentenced to three years probation, 100 hours of community service, and a $1,500 fine.
Despite numerous official investigations and innuendos by the extremists, like Republicans Rep. Darrell Issa (CA), the Ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, ACORN has never been convicted of a crime. Issa released a report in 2009 falsely accusing ACORN of hiding "behind a paper wall of nonprofit corporate protections to conceal a criminal conspiracy ... to manipulate the American electorate."
A related story has emerged concerning O'Keefe and New Yorker magazine. I love the New Yorker, read it every week, and once believed its well-earned reputation for fact checking. But then I read Rebecca Mead's story in the May 24 issue about Andrew Breitbart, the right wing media provocateur. Breitbart had advised conservative activists O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, a young journalism student and the daughter of a conservative Christian minister, on how and when to release their provocative gotcha video tapes many of you have seen. They purport to show ACORN staffers across the country giving illegal advice to O'Keefe and Giles who disguised themselves as a pimp and prostitute.
Mead reported the incident this way:
"Breitbart's biggest scoop thus far has been a series of videos made by ... James O'Keefe, which was posted on Big Government last September. O'Keefe, along with Hannah Giles...travelled across the nation and entered several offices of Acorn, the community-organizing association, with a hidden camera; they posed as a pimp and a prostitute who were seeking housing and business help."
Mead then vividly describes what occurred in one ACORN office:
"In a visit to an Acorn office in Baltimore, O'Keefe and Giles politely introduced themselves as having 'kind of a unique life situation.' As Acorn employees solicitously offered them routine small-business advice (file a 1099 tax form, look for deductions), O'Keefe and Giles slowly revealed what their unique life situation entailed, then presented an unorthodox business plan: to smuggle a number of underage Salvadoran girls into the country, with the goal of sexually enslaving them. The Acorn employees were, alarmingly, unalarmed by the proposal. 'My job is not to judge people,' one of them told O'Keefe and Giles."
What is wrong with this picture?
O'Keefe's tapes were misleading, doctored, and edited, yet reported as fact by the right wing press as well as CNN, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, and now the New Yorker.
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O'Keefe never posed as a pimp when he talked to ACORN staffers. He presented himself as a friend, or boyfriend, or a colleague of Giles, who was posing as the prostitute. O'Keefe wore a dress shirt and Khakis when he entered ACORN offices, and later spliced in shots of himself wearing the pimp outfit in the final videos to make it appear that he had worn them in the meetings with ACORN. To sensationalize the tape, O'Keefe dressed up in cartoonish pimp garb for the bumpers shown on television. The outlandish costume aimed to make ACORN's African-American intake staff look like buffoons. Despite O'Keefe's refusal to release the original, unedited footage, the media would be duped into erroneously reporting or suggesting that O'Keefe pretended to be her pimp.
ACORN's Baltimore office was just one of ten O'Keefe and Giles entered. In most of the offices ACORN's staff turned the pair away, reported the couple to the police, refused to provide them any aid, and in one case tried to convince the phony prostitute to get counseling. In no ACORN office did employees file any paperwork on the duo's behalf.
Independent investigations of the incident by the former Attorney General of Massachusetts, the Brooklyn District Attorney, California's Attorney General, a federal district court, the Congressional Research Office concluded that ACORN had done nothing illegal, the tapes were doctored, and O'Keefe never posed as a pimp inside ACORN's offices. In an interview with the Washington Independent, Giles admitted that the images of O'Keefe in an outlandish pimp outfit were edited in later. While Mead conceded that the tapes did not expose endemic corruption at ACORN or any evidence of any actual wrongdoing by Baltimore employees, her piece left the overall impression there was something very wrong at ACORN.
Further, like so many other media stories about ACORN, you don't learn anything about the group, besides the scandal. Meade supplies just one fact; ACORN is a "community-organizing association." Was it an effective one? Is the group large, small, new, old? What else did ACORN do besides provide advice? Was it similar to other groups? Why did Breitbart go after ACORN? What is a community organizing association? What is the context for the controversy besides involving Breitbart?
Mead does not report that several scholars say ACORN, a predominately African-American group, is one of the most effective anti-poverty groups in the country and that it had office in more than 700 neighborhoods of 70 cities across the country. Its 400,000 dues paying low and moderated income members successfully fought banks that engaged in predatory lending, employers that paid poverty wages, and developers that gentrified low-income neighborhoods. There's no mention that ACORN has strengthened our democracy by registering more than a million low-income, minority and young voters, the hardest to register groups in America. Many in the media got the story wrong, but only Jon Stewart (who had joined in the anti-ACORN chorus after the O'Keefe videos were initially broadcast) made a public correction. He devoted a segment on his January 27, 2010 Daily Show to making fun of O'Keefe's credibility and praising ACORN for doing "God's work."
Inaccurate reporting by the mainstream press about the accusations against ACORN began with the voter fraud controversy. For example, ACORN itself reported voter-registration irregularities to authorities, as required by law, yet 80 percent of the print and broadcast stories about ACORN's alleged voter fraud failed to mention that.
The voter fraud allegations and the O'Keefe videos led to ACORN's lost credibility with foundations and one-time political allies. Congress voted to cut off ACORN's federal funds (a tiny part of its overall budget) and to end ACORN's ability to provide free tax preparation clinics for the poor and to help Census workers recruit people to fill out the forms. Because of the pivotal role the video deception had in bringing down ACORN, the New Yorker should make a correction and perhaps even do some honest journalism about ACORN's success.
I am beginning to believe that most well-paid liberal journalists, who are unfamiliar with urban issues and what it's like to be poor in a wealthy society, are quick to believe any story about an African American group screwing up.