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Guerrilla Journalism

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009; 8:56 AM

Two Facebook friends with a hidden video camera have done more than shake the foundations of ACORN. They have sparked a debate about the parameters of journalism.

The community organizing group sued James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles yesterday, charging that they violated Maryland wiretap law by secretly taping employees at the group's Baltimore office.

But even if the multimillion-dollar suit gets some traction -- and I am not a fan of secret taping, even when news organizations do it -- the damage is done. When people think of ACORN now, they think of the pimp-and-ho image, of staffers offering advice on how to avoid getting caught while using teenage Salvadoran girls as prostitutes.

O'Keefe and Giles eventually made the WP's front page, but is what they did journalism?

The labeling debate is pointless. It was ideologically driven reporting. It was two activists using deception to try to make an organization look bad -- all the more reason for skepticism.

But the pair hit paydirt. The ACORNers' behavior was nutty. Who offers advice about pimping out 13-year-old girls? What planet were these people living on?

Did O'Keefe and Giles produce a fair and balanced story that included how many ACORN offices rejected their scheme? No. They released the worst stuff. But they've never hidden their motivation. Nor has their ally and Web guru, Andrew Breitbart, whose company was also named in the ACORN suit.

I don't put much stock in the argument that mainstream journalists should have done something like this. People may think we're whores, but we don't look good in the getup. Plus, lying is a firing offense at many news organizations.

But I do think the press didn't do much in the way of other ACORN reporting, such as the recent WashPost report on its screwed-up finances. It's not the most important issue facing the Republic. But when the House and Senate vote to cut off funding to one organization, it makes you wonder if those of us in the news business were lamentably late.

That doesn't make O'Keefe and Giles into Woodward and Bernstein, but it sure has gotten them plenty of attention. Especially on Fox.

Breitbart told the Washington Independent: "The unorthodox roll-out was orchestrated to protect James and Hannah. The moment that their peril ended, was when Jon Stewart reported on this, making fun of the media for missing the story. At that moment I called James and Hannah and said, 'You're mostly in the clear, and the only people left who'll attack you will be some liberal bloggers.' "

O'Keefe and Giles get their due in this piece by Slate media columnist Jack Shafer:


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