First the verdict, then the proof

Blog ››› ››› JOHN V. SANTORE

It is clear that serious questions have been raised concerning the actions of several of the ACORN employees recently featured in surveillance videos, each of whom apparently attempted to help conservative activists in disguise evade taxes and engage in prostitution. However, also deserving of investigation is the systematic journalistic malpractice embodied in the current right-wing campaign against the organization.

As is always the case with such conservative political activism, the greatest irony is that Fox News and a myriad of right-wing talkers are pretending that they are engaged in the investigative journalism the "mainstream media" refuses to do -- presumably because of its supposed allegiance to the Obama administration.

The truth is that the ACORN "investigation" currently underway violates virtually every principle of serious journalism. Red flags should have been raised as soon as it was clear which website was hosting and promoting the ACORN videos: Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com. Breitbart, a protégé of Matt Drudge, is hardly a trustworthy journalist or commentator. His public record speaks for itself. After the death of Ted Kennedy, Breitbart called the senator a "villain," a "duplicitous bastard," and a "prick." He has both suggested and asserted that President Obama is a racist and believes Obama is hiding a radical past. In June, he wrote that "Democrats would distribute needles, methadone, medical marijuana and biscotti in voter goodie bags if they could get away with it" and has said that the Democratic Party depends "on the ability to keep blacks in fear." He has even denied that the murder of Matthew Shepard was a hate crime. And we could go on.

What of the intrepid young muckrakers behind the supposed exposé? Quality citizen journalism is a friend to our democracy, but irresponsible citizen journalism isn't. On the September 10 edition of his Fox News show, Glenn Beck hosted Hannah Giles, the young woman portraying a prostitute in the surveillance videos. He asked her how she came to be involved in the project. Here are her exact words:

I had a summer internship with the National Journalism Center out in Washington, D.C., and they set me up with a job. But one day I was jogging after work and I saw an ACORN, and I was like, hmm, you know, I've never seen them before, I don't like them. And I came up with the idea: What if a prostitute walked into ACORN, had no legal paperwork at all, and wanted a house to set up her business?

Two elements of that testimony should call Ms. Giles' work into serious question. The first is her attendance at the National Journalism Center in Washington. The NJC is but one of the many right-wing institutions conservatives have established to flood the field with young, motivated, and rabidly partisan "reporters." The NJC was established with hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding from the Bradley and Olin foundations, both prominent conservative donors. Among its distinguished alumni are Ann Coulter and Debbie Schlussel.

But beyond this, consider the candid wording used by Ms. Giles -- who is the daughter of conservative blogger Doug Giles -- when talking to Beck: "But one day I was jogging after work and I saw an ACORN, and I was like, hmm, you know, I've never seen them before, I don't like them." In the same sentence, Giles is admitting that she simultaneously a) knew nothing about ACORN, and b) knew they were guilty of something awful. In no actual journalistic institution -- or any introductory logic class, for that matter -- would such a statement be allowed to go unchallenged. But Beck accepted it without comment.

Let us now turn to the content of the videos themselves. Again, it does appear than in certain cases, ACORN employees engaged in indefensible behavior, and they should be punished accordingly. But all of a sudden, these videos -- four, thus far -- are being promoted as unimpeachable proof that all of ACORN is equally corrupt -- all 1,200 chapters and hundereds of ACORN employees. This is literally the opposite of how a credible investigation is supposed to function. Sweeping conclusions should only be drawn after all the facts are in. By comparison, here, the conservative media has a few isolated facts but is willing to extrapolate an entire thesis from them.

Equally absent from the Right's coverage is any sense of the tapes' broader context. Bertha Lewis, a top ACORN official, has claimed that the surveillance plan was attempted in numerous cities and that it failed many times. That in and of itself would undermine the assertion that ACORN is universally corrupt. But Fox News, Breitbart, and others have made no attempt to assess this crucial reality. Instead, they have been deliberately deceptive, implying that the few shameful episodes available were filmed in the first four offices Giles and videographer James O'Keefe walked into.

Most critically, it is clear that Fox News has made virtually no attempt to verify the authenticity of the tapes before broadcasting them -- something no self-respecting journalistic organization would dare do. Consider the case of the San Bernardino ACORN office, which was featured in the most recent video to be released. The words of ACORN employee Tresa Kaelke appear to be damning. Not only does she offer assistance to Giles and O'Keefe, but she claims that she murdered her former husband following a period of domestic abuse.

On September 15, Beck and Sean Hannity both broadcast Kaelke's assertion. Beck, who had reported breathlessly on the supposed confession during his radio program, added on Fox, "She never spanked her kids, but she did shoot her husband dead." Later that night, Hannity played the same clip before commenting, "Specifically, now, she goes into this scenario about her husband and the killing of him."

The following morning, on September 16, Fox News' Gretchen Carlson repeated the allegation, saying, "She killed somebody? Despite this, some lawmakers want to keep funding the group."

The problem, of course, is that Kaelke was deliberately lying. The San Bernardino Police Department itself has now confirmed that her claim regarding her husband was untrue. A department statement released on September 15 reads: "The San Bernardino Police Department is investigating the claims made regarding the homicide. From the initial investigation conducted, the claims do not appear to be factual. Investigators have been in contact with the involved party's known former husbands, who are alive and well."

Furthermore, Kaelke has claimed that when she made the statement, she was seeking to mislead the undercover videographers, whom she was suspicious of. "They were not believable," Kaelke is quoted as saying in an ACORN press release. "Somewhat entertaining, but they weren't even good actors. I didn't know what to make of them. They were clearly playing with me. I decided to shock them as much as they were shocking me."

But none of these simple facts stopped anyone at Fox from running with the story. Any cub reporter would have thought to actually call the San Bernardino police before effectively alleging that ACORN was staffed by murderers. But such an act never occurred to people like Beck, Hannity, or Carlson. (In her defense, Carlson later added that the husband was still alive, "according to ACORN," but ignored the police report.)

We know Fox has a history of baselessly scapegoating ACORN, linking it to a broad array of issues. The network -- as well as its conservative accomplices -- obviously doesn't practice serious journalism. What other distortions might be lurking in the ACORN "reports" being filed on BigGovernment.com and hyped by the Right?

The conservative media machine picks its targets and then operates on a simple principle: first the verdict, then the proof. It's the opposite of what real journalism is, and it must continue to be exposed.

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