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For ACORN, Truth Lost Amid the Din

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By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, September 24, 2009

So what does ACORN actually do, anyway?

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The embattled community organizing group is much in the news these days, thanks to the idiocies of a handful of now-suspended staffers having been filmed and YouTubed by a right-wing sting squad. Most of the stories present ACORN as, at best, a shady organization up to no good in America's inner cities, not to mention the nation's primary source of voting fraud.

What's been obscured amid all the polemics, or the polemics passing as news reports, is what ACORN is and does. Founded in Little Rock in 1970 as an organization agitating for free school lunches, Vietnam veterans' rights and more hospital emergency rooms, ACORN has grown in the past four decades into the nation's largest community organizing group. Based in low-income neighborhoods, it has nearly 500,000 dues-paying members, recruited by door-to-door canvassers, with chapters in 110 cities in 40 states. Nationwide, it has more than 1,000 staffers.

What are the projects on which all these staffers and members work? Raising the minimum wage, for one. ACORN conceived and led the successful initiative campaign to raise the wage in Florida in 2004 and in four more states in 2006. In the past four years, it successfully pressured seven legislatures in other states to raise their minimum wage as well.

Another major campaign has been to limit the interest and fees that banks charge homeowners. In the 1990s, ACORN spearheaded a number of legal actions, often joined by states' attorneys general, that compelled such lenders as Citigroup to change many of their practices. The group has led successful drives to outlaw the most egregious predatory lending in nine states. It also counsels thousands of inner-city homeowners and home buyers.

ACORN's third focus has been to expand the electorate. In the 2007-08 election cycle, it registered 1.3 million new voters in the nation's inner cities. This activity particularly vexed many Republican politicians, who have repeatedly accused the organization of massive voter fraud. The Bush administration's politicization of the Justice Department -- its widely reported firing of U.S. attorneys for their failure to bring voter fraud indictments (all of them looked and could find scarcely any instances of same) -- stemmed from the administration's apparent desire to depress minority turnout, a goal it sought to accomplish by demonizing ACORN.

Now, how much of this would you know from following the stories about ACORN that have been running in even the best of the media? Little to nothing, as Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, and Christopher R. Martin, a professor of journalism at University of Northern Iowa, just concluded in an exhaustive study of news coverage of ACORN. Looking at the 647 stories on the group that ran in leading newspapers and broadcast networks in 2007 and 2008, they found that not only did a majority of such stories focus on allegations of voter fraud but also that 83 percent of the stories that linked ACORN to those allegations failed to mention that actual instances of voter fraud were all but nonexistent.

"Only a handful of the stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal," Dreier and Martin note, "mentioned that actual cases of voter fraud were very rare" -- even though all three papers had covered the firings of the U.S. attorneys for their failure to find such cases. But the steady drumbeat from right-wing pundits and journalists about ACORN and voter fraud, the authors conclude, eventually set the terms of discussion even at elite mainstream media.

Nonetheless, the mainstream media have also come under attack for not giving greater play to the most recent round of alleged ACORN scandals because the stories were first aired on the TV broadcasts of such right-wing polemicists as Glenn Beck. On Sunday, The Post's ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, wrote that "one explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don't pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints." Dreier and Martin's study makes clear that in the case of ACORN, the reverse is true.

Dreier and Martin also note that newspapers in cities where ACORN has long been active against predatory lending and in voter registration -- they studied the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Cleveland Plain Dealer -- provided more balanced stories and relied less on partisan sources than the national papers did. But with some national newspapers shuttering their domestic bureaus, the truth about ACORN -- the nation's premier tribune for the poor -- may be harder and harder to find.

meyersonh@washpost.com


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