ACORN’s Family Tree

Was the Baltimore video journalism? Does it matter?

In a piece in the October 2009 issue of The Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Story,” journalist Mark Bowden examines the source of the Sonia Sotomayor video clips that surfaced during her Supreme Court nomination—and what happens when ideologues step forward to provide the reporting that journalists don’t have the resources to do.

The background: within minutes of Sotomayor’s nomination ceremony at the White House, two now-infamous sound bytes were all over television news. One showed Sotomayor at Berkeley Law School in 2001 appearing to claim that her life experience as a “wise Latina woman” would make her judgment better than that of a white male; the other was shot at Duke University in 2005, where Sotomayor appeared to make the assertion that appellate judges should legislate from the bench.

The videos weren’t unearthed by enterprising journalists at Fox News or CNN. And they weren’t broken by CBS or ABC, either—although all four aired the incendiary clips, almost simultaneously. In fact, the videos were dug up by two conservative bloggers to serve a singular political purpose: sink Sotomayor.

On its own, that’s not a problem. The problem instead, Bowden puts it, is that working journalists failed to vet the videos before they aired them. If they had, they would have seen that the clips were taken out of context. And if they had done the digging themselves, they would have never flagged them to begin with. Bowden writes:

The reporting we saw on TV and on the Internet that day was the work not of journalists, but of political hit men.

Bowden calls his piece a “lament” for troubling times in journalism. In an age where time and money are scarce resources and the news hole is larger than ever thanks to twenty-four-hour cable news and the insatiable maw of the Internet, Bowden says that the people who will step up to fill the void and work for free will not be journalists. They’ll be, rather, political activists.

People like Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe—the duo who spent $1,300 of their own money to finance the ACORN sting that is dominating headlines this week.

“The young woman and filmmaker who visited those ACORN offices were political activists, and they put together what is, in essence, a very effective political protest against an organization they would like to damage,” Bowden said in a telephone interview today. “And they’ve done a very effective job of doing that. But I think they’re clearly not journalists.”

The question is: does that matter?

Ken Silverstein, the Washington, D.C. editor for Harper’s magazine—who came under fire for his own undercover investigation of D.C. lobbyists in 2007—said it doesn’t matter where the videos came from. Their damning evidence is what counts.

“This is a revelation, and it doesn’t matter what their agenda is,” Silverstein said of O’Keefe and Giles. “To suggest that they don’t have the right to do it because they’re political operatives or that it’s less valid or credible—no. Let’s roll the videotape, as they say.”

Bowden agrees that the videotape is valid. But calling it journalism, he says, is not. “In our exhausting, twenty-four-seven news cycle, demand for timely information and analysis is greater than ever,” he points out.

With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery. The very smart and capable young men…who actually dug up and initially posted the Sotomayor clips both originally described themselves to me as part-time, or aspiring, journalists.

Giles appears to fit this mold exactly. In an interview with Glenn Beck, Giles told her host that the idea to pose as a prostitute to set up ACORN came to her this summer, when she worked as an intern at the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C.—a foundation established with hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the Bradley and Olin foundations, both prominent conservative donors. Its alumni include Ann Coulter and Debbie Schlussel.

“One day I was jogging after work,” Giles told Beck, “and I saw an ACORN, and I was like, hmmm, you know I’ve never seen them before, I don’t like them. And I came up with the idea…”

In other words: in the same breath, Giles admitted she knew nothing about ACORN but had made up her mind that she didn’t like them.

This would be stunning if it were coming from a real journalist. But the very fact that she says it with a straight face suggests that a journalist Giles is not, as Media Matters wrote earlier this week. As does the following exchange among Giles, Sean Hannity, and conservative media mogul Andrew Breitbart:

HANNITY: You know, what you guys did was incredibly courageous. Incredibly brave. I think you exposed the media to be shallow, inept, ineffective, biased, all the things we discussed. And I think people have really learned a lot about a group.

And you probably have saved the country billions of dollars. Billions, which they were scheduled to get at ACORN.

ANDREW BREITBART: I think — look, I think that they’re going to be a zillion other James and Hannahs out there who have been inspired by this.

HANNITY: I agree.

GILES: I completely agree.

HANNITY: You inspired me. I got to tell you, congratulations and thank you. And thank James for us. And Andrew, you’re a great American. We always thank you.


GILES: I think journalists have a big future. And young kids need to step up so.

HANNITY: I think, you know, FOX News is in your future. Come on over.

Well, okay. And certainly, there are elements of the ACORN reporting—shadows of journalism’s muckraking past—that are commendable in Giles’s and O’Keefe’s reporting effort.

Still, though, what they obtained was raw information; what journalists produce are stories. A lot hinges on that distinction.

Take, for example, a traditionally journalistic treatment of the ACORN story: the examination of the ACORN videos published in today’s Washington Post. The story includes several pieces of key information—also known as context—that the politically motivated O’Keefe/Giles piece did not. It also corrects the assertion that ACORN is slated for $8.5 billion in stimulus money, and quotes Andrew Breitbart—whose Web site,, hosts the O’Keefe/Giles videos—acknowledging that he did no fact-checking.

“Giles and O’Keefe have been criticized for accuracy problems,” the article notes. “Their videos include the oft-repeated conservative claim that ACORN is expected to get up to $8.5 billion in government funds.”

But that’s a bold exaggeration, as it includes $3 billion in stimulus funds set aside for revitalization efforts nationwide, and $5.5 billion in federal community development grants. The number assumes ACORN would apply for and win every project and grant in the country, while ACORN says it is not applying for any of the stimulus funds.

“I’ve not owned that $8.5 billion number and tied it to ACORN, because I’m the publisher of this story,” Breitbart said. “I ask the journalists to check their facts.”

The Post also obtained a July 24 police report that showed police were called when O’Keefe and Giles attempted their sting at ACORN’s Philadelphia offices—and that the couple were escorted out of those offices. While that hardly negates the sensational ethical breaches that Giles and O’Keefe did capture, it still adds some context to the video.

And: that’s how it’s supposed to work, Ken Silverstein says.

“Should there be more context provided? Yeah. And other people will report the story and provide the context. I’m not advocating in any way for ACORN to have its money taken away. The revelation will be exploited by people who want to just tarnish the organization. There’s a long history there, and that should be discussed and debated,” Silverstein says.

Indeed, in a democracy like ours, debate is an outcome whose value is hard to…debate with. The O’Keefe/Giles finding, Mark Bowden says, is “not a story.” Still, though, it’s something. “It’s a political protest. It’s a revelation,” he says. “But it’s not a work of journalism. The video itself is the piece of information and the question then becomes, ‘How do you present it?’ As long as it’s not misrepresented as a work of journalism, I don’t have a problem with that.”

In his Atlantic essay, Bowden describes such an ideology-infused approach to shaping news as “post-journalistic.”

It sees democracy, by definition, as perpetual political battle. The blogger’s role is to help his side. Distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context—all of these things matter only a little, because they are committed by both sides, and tend to come out a wash. Nobody is actually right about anything, no matter how certain they pretend to be. The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement.

There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism. Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all “news” is unapologetically propaganda.

So ACORN got caught on candid camera, and they got caught good. Does it matter who shot the video and what their motivations were? Maybe not. Just don’t call it journalism.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.