Guerrilla Journalism

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:

"As a work of undercover journalism, the stunt is a mess, but an interesting one -- like something William Randolph Hearst might have conjured up for his sensationalistic New York Journal in the 1890s. O'Keefe and Giles didn't assume undercover identities so that they could gain a vantage point from which to observe wrongdoing. Instead, their goal was simply to costume themselves, assume outlandish personas, and ask ridiculous questions designed to elicit embarrassing responses, just as comedian Sacha Baron Cohen does in his various guises. (Here's Ali G pranking Noam Chomsky.) This isn't entrapment as much as it is improvisation. If it were being done for laughs, nobody would care.

"But although the clips are funny, O'Keefe and Giles were dead serious. About what? What are they trying to prove? That ACORN is in the business of assisting pimps and prostitutes in setting up brothels? Of all the things ACORN has been accused of -- voter registration fraud, embezzlement, and criminal conspiracy -- I don't think I've heard one critic claim that the group advises hookers and pimps. . . .

"The critics of Breitbart and the filmmakers don't really dispute the basic information unearthed by the videos. Instead, they take issue with the duo's spectrum of deception or their political motives in pursuing ACORN. . . .

"Would Washington or the press be giving ACORN a second look if Breitbart, O'Keefe, and Giles' prank hadn't revealed the, um, unknown dimension of the organization? I doubt it. And that brings me back to my original observation: One of the great strengths of American journalism is that it will accept contributions from everybody from amateurs to entertainers (I'm looking at you, Jon Stewart) to gadflies to billionaires to activists to students to genocidal tyrants. The system is so delightfully open that even pornographers can spill worthwhile journalistic ink. That Breitbart comes swinging a political ax should bother nobody, unless the journalism published in Mother Jones, The Nation, the Huffington Post, Salon, the New Republic, the American Prospect, Reason, the Weekly Standard, or the National Review gives them similar fits. Viewing the world through an ideological lens can sometimes help a journalist to discover a story."

That is true, if the facts are nailed down.

The group is playing defense, Politico reports, noting that "the mere word 'ACORN' is politically toxic:

"ACORN's top officials have been on a media apology tour and have dismissed the wayward employees in the infamous pimp video as bad apples who shouldn't diminish the important work the group does in housing and low-income assistance. . . .

"The group is launching a charm offensive on Capitol Hill, as its Washington lobbying shop has been quietly meeting with sympathetic congressional offices, reminding them that ACORN's services help low-income residents of urban areas. 'We were just as shocked and horrified as the American public was' over the pimp video, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

"But even as the group launched this rehabilitation effort and promised internal investigations, ACORN suffered more setbacks on Wednesday. The Internal Revenue Service cut off ties to the group, ending its volunteer tax services. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) -- a key supporter -- hurt the organization even more Wednesday when he backpedaled and said he would have voted to cut off the group's funding, after initially saying he would retain tax money for ACORN."

Is the lawsuit a smart strategy? Allahpundit scoffs at the notion:

"In one fell swoop, the lawsuit (a) gives Fox a reason to keep covering the story, (b) presents a thorny legal issue that'll attract media to the scandal who might not otherwise have touched it, and (c) makes ACORN look like they're trying to punish people who exposed taxpayer-funded corruption. Which, of course, they are. . . .

"My guess is that this is just an arm of their new PR offensive, aimed at proving that the group's still alive and kicking and ready to rally the left to its side before it gets defunded, but if even Barney Frank's ready to flush the toilet, the prognosis of success is grim."

At the Huffington Post, John Wellington Ennis (described as "filmmaker, activist, some dude") suggests that ACORN is being unfairly demonized:

"This is serious stuff here. This is not a game of gotcha, of cheap political points, of practical jokes -- not when this is money that helps in many real ways in impoverished communities around our country.

"It is vital to assess how this backlash was accepted so quickly in light of videos that were from someone whose films are funded by conservative backers, videos that misrepresented ACORN through editing and not disclosing other failed attempts at their desired response, which may well have been dubbed over, if O'Keefe would dare to release the unedited tapes in their real context to prove otherwise."

But Kevin Drum sees the lawsuit as a dumb idea:

"Points for chutzpah, I guess, but this is a bad idea on so many levels it hurts just to think about it. All they're doing is extending the news cycle on this whole debacle, making fools of themselves with transparently petty arguments, and just generally showing less common sense than your average mafia don caught on a 60 Minutes sting. At this point, ACORN needs to take their lumps, finish their internal investigation, and clean up their act. In the meantime, the least they can do is avoid handing the Glenn Beck crowd free additional ammunition. Fair or not, shooting the messenger isn't helping their cause."

Just what ACORN needs now, to be tied to the debacle on Wall Street. National Review makes the connection:

"Jamie Dimon has been described as 'Obama's favorite banker' by the New York Times. He's ACORN's favorite banker, too, and with good reason. Mr. Dimon is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, which operates a charitable foundation that gave ACORN $1 million in 2007, along with a smaller grant to the ACORN Institute. Beyond the charitable grants, ACORN and its affiliates have long profited from their 'partnerships' with the big banks, taking a cut of subprime loans marketed to low-income borrowers in poor neighborhoods.

"However, JPMorgan Chase isn't the only big offender here. According to Peter Flaherty -- president of the National Legal and Policy Center, which is tracking corporate America's underwriting of the Left -- other big ACORN benefactors include such TARPalicious names as Bank of America and Citigroup. Taxpayers bail out the banks, the banks fund ACORN, and ACORN dispenses advice on human trafficking and tax evasion to aspiring pimps and hookers. Not America's proudest moment."

Unhealthy Findings

The good news in this survey: Obama has a 56 percent approval rating. The bad news? He "is confronting declining support for his handling of the war in Afghanistan and an electorate confused and anxious about the proposed health care overhaul as he prepares for pivotal battles over both issues, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."

And the impact of the Letterman-Kroft-5 Sunday shows blitz?

"The poll found that an intense campaign by Mr. Obama to rally support behind his health care plan -- including an address to Congress, a schedule of campaign events across the country and an aggressive run of television interviews -- appears to have done little to allay concerns about the proposal. Majorities of respondents said that they were confused about the health care argument and that Mr. Obama had not a good job in explaining what he was trying to accomplish."

And then there's this: "Half of all Americans, and six in 10 Democrats, oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows, underscoring the pressures on President Obama as he re-evaluates his approach to what he calls 'a war of necessity.' "

McCain and the Media

John McCain has long been a Sunday show fixture, and Washington Monthly's Steve Benen seems offended that he's booked for ABC's "This Week":

"For those keeping score at home, this will be McCain's 13th Sunday morning appearance since President Obama's inauguration in January. That's 36 Sundays, for an average of a McCain appearance every 2.7 weeks.

"Since the president took office, McCain has been on 'Meet the Press' twice (July 12 and March 29), 'Face the Nation' three times (August 30, April 26, and February 8), CNN's 'State of the Union' twice (August 2 and February 15), and 'Fox News Sunday' three times (July 2, March 8, and January 25). His appearance on 'This Week' on Sunday will be his third visit in five months (September 27, August 23, and May 10).

"I can appreciate the fact that Stephanopoulos may perceive McCain as having a unique perspective and/or expertise on Afghanistan, but he doesn't . . . It's the Sunday shows' obsession with McCain that continues to be so absurd. The Arizona Republican, after a wildly unsuccessful presidential campaign, is just another conservative member of a 40-seat minority."

True, but how many of those 40 are nationally known names, not to mention war heroes? And anyone who wants to argue excessive coziness should remember how vociferously the McCain campaign attacked the media last year.

Stephanopoulos has no apologies for inviting McCain, and says he often tried to get John Kerry after the 2004 election.

The real news this Sunday is that Bill and Hillary will be competing, he on "Meet the Press" and she on "Face the Nation." Who gets to brag over winning the ratings faceoff?

Journalism on Ice

The latest fallout from the shrinking news business, from blogger Paul Oberjuerge:

"This is a milestone in sports journalism. And could be the start of a trend.

"The Los Angeles Kings announced that they have hired Rich Hammond of the Los Angeles Daily News . . . to cover their team.

"Not to work as a publicist. Not to write press releases. To cover the team the way a newspaper reporter normally would cover a team. Thoroughly, daily, home or road, game day or off day . . . but with the edge and skepticism that a veteran newspaperman brings to any beat.

"A team hiring its own beat writer? I'm fairly sure this has never happened before.

"This is really interesting, on several levels. The print implosion of 2008-09 (and massive layoffs and major cuts in travel budgets) has left dozens of 'major league' sports franchises with very little day-to-day newspaper coverage . . . Like many lesser pro beats around the country (and hockey never has been big in L.A., aside from about 15 minutes after the trade for Wayne Gretzky), the Kings have seen their print coverage shrivel into near-nothingness."

A Broadly Worded Apology

At the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Managing Editor Rod Boyce writes:

"I must apologize to Mrs. Palin personally and on behalf of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner for the choice of words used on the bottom of Wednesday's front page regarding her speaking engagement in Hong Kong this week to a group of global investors.

"We used offensive language -- 'A broad in Asia' -- above a small photograph of the former governor to direct readers inside the newspaper to a full story of her Hong Kong appearance.

"There can be no argument that our use of the word 'broad' is anything but offensive. To use this word to describe someone of the stature of the former governor -- who is also the former vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party -- only adds to the anger that many people appropriately feel."

How on earth did that get in the paper?

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company