If you follow the news, you probably caught a glimpse recently of the Ghost Of Journalism Yet To Come: It appeared as the “investigative reporting” team of Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe.
The duo captured hidden-camera video of employees of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, advising an ersatz prostitute and her pimp on how to launch a taxpayer-funded venture using underage girls. The footage, from ACORN offices in five cities, first appeared on the right-wing Web site Big Government.com, which then peddled the videos to Fox News.
The fallout from this “reporting” would make any journalist proud: Congress has cut off funding to ACORN, which has received about $53 million since 1994; the Department of Justice is now investigating the organization; and the Census Bureau, which is relying on community groups like ACORN to raise awareness of the 2010 count, has severed its ties with the group, citing “sufficient concern in the general public.”
ACORN responded by firing several employees, ordering additional training for workers and hiring a former Massachusetts attorney general to audit its operations. The organization has also challenged Fox to show “complete, unedited versions” of the videos, which the group says would show Giles and O’Keefe being turned away by workers at seven offices.
ACORN has sued Giles, O’Keefe and Big Government founder Andrew Breitbart, claiming that video captured in ACORN’s Baltimore office was done on the sly. That would be a violation of Maryland law. And it would, for real journalists, be a serious breach of professional ethics.
Nonetheless, the video sting is the latest blight on ACORN’s reputation. For years, the organization has been under attack from the right for alleged involvement in widespread “voter fraud.” The allegations aren’t true, but as a study by Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin for the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College found, that’s beside the point.
Dreier and Martin looked at 647 news stories in 2007 and 2008 and found that the fraud allegations led to “overwhelmingly negative” coverage of ACORN. Yet, with few exceptions, the reporters working the ACORN beat didn’t bother to verify the allegations. Most of the coverage, according to Dreier and Martin, “carried one-sided frames, repeating conservative and Republican criticisms of the group without seeking to verify them or provide ACORN and its supporters with a reasonable opportunity to respond ...”
Martin and Dreier concluded that reporters for the nation’s top news organizations were led on the ACORN story by a “chain of influence” that includes Republican politicians, the banking industry and right-wing “opinion entrepreneurs” — all of whom oppose the organization’s work on behalf of low-income and minority families.
This bog of smear and innuendo no doubt had a certain appeal to Giles and O’Keefe.
Giles, a 20-year-old Florida International University journalism student, said she came up with the sting idea while interning last summer at the National Journalism Center.
The center was founded in 1977 to combat “media bias” by training aspiring journalists in “the values of balanced, responsible, and accurate reporting.” Among its alum is Maggie Gallagher, a syndicated columnist who, while writing for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others, was working off a $21,500 contract from the Bush administration to promote the president’s marriage initiatives. In 2001, the NJC partnered with Young America’s Foundation, which describes itself as “the principal outreach organization of the Conservative Movement.”
O’Keefe, a 25-year-old “independent filmmaker,” once worked for the Leadership Institute, which grooms future policy leaders committed to core conservative values. Its alumni include Karl Rove and South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, of “You lie!” fame.
The institute’s link in the anti-ACORN chain of influence is a social networking site called CampusReform.org, which has issued a “call to action” to protest banks that continue to fund the group’s “corruption.” (You can also win $100 dollars in a contest where you report leftist abuse on your campus.)
The Leadership Institute is also in the business of disseminating conservative doctrine through the media. Aspiring reporters can attend a two-day Broadcast Journalism School ($75, meals included), which promises to impart “the skills necessary to bring balance to the media.” According to the institute, more than 90 graduates now work for national and local TV news operations.
A couple of observations: first, the Leadership Institute sounds a little like an ACORN for the right-wing; second, the people and institutions who, for years now, have been complaining of media bias now seem to have no problem teaching it.
Unfortunately, we may be in for more of this kind of thing. Stung by criticism that they didn’t cover the ACORN sting with the same zeal as Fox News, the New York Times and the Washington Post have vowed to be more attentive to news that appeals to conservatives. The Times, in fact, has assigned an editor “to monitor opinion media” for controversies “bubbling” in the cauldron of the right.
I’ll admit it bothers me that Giles and O’Keefe succeeded in bringing down an organization dedicated to helping the poor and the working class. But not nearly as much as the fact that they did it under the cover of journalism.
Brian Wallstin is a Columbia resident and a former city editor for the Missourian. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.