Right-wing agenda-driven journalism nothing new when it comes to ACORN

Blog ››› ››› JOHN V. SANTORE

Media Matters for America recently released a report documenting the obsessive attention Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have devoted to ACORN -- due, of course, to their self-professed determination to expose taxpayer-funded waste, fraud, and abuse wherever it appears. As such, Media Matters compared the focus each host's television programs have given to the story with their coverage of well-documented political scandals involving Jack Abramoff and Bob Ney, as well as massive corruption scandals engulfing Halliburton, Blackwater, and KBR -- corporations which have received thousands of times more money from the government than ACORN ever has.

The results were shocking: taken together, Beck and Hannity have been approximately 35 times more likely to reference ACORN than any of the military contractors, and 24 times more likely to reference ACORN than either Abramoff or Ney.

This is agenda-driven journalism at its worst -- and it's nothing new. An impressive study by the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at Occidental College has taken an even broader view of how ACORN has been portrayed in recent years, starting in 2006 and going through the 2008 presidential election. Rachel Maddow discussed it last night.

Among the study's conclusions (emphasis added):

The attacks on ACORN originated with business groups and political groups that opposed ACORN's organizing work around living wages, predatory lending, and registration of low-income and minority voters. These groups created frames to discredit ACORN that were utilized by conservative "opinion entrepreneurs" within the conservative "echo chamber" -- publications, TV and radio talk shows, blogs and websites, think tanks, and columnists -- to test, refine, and circulate narrative frames about ACORN. These conservative "opinion entrepreneurs" were successful in injecting their perspective on ACORN into the mainstream media.

What was the substance of the anti-ACORN campaign? If you had heard anything about ACORN before Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe burst on the scene, you had probably also heard that the group was guilty of systematic (and pro-Obama) voter fraud -- itself a fraudulent story line. From the Occidental study (emphasis added):

The mainstream news media failed to fact-check persistent allegations of "voter fraud" despite the existence of easily available countervailing evidence. The media also failed to distinguish allegations of voter registration problems from allegations of actual voting irregularities. They also failed to distinguish between allegations ofwrongdoing and actual wrongdoing.

More specifically, the Occidental study revealed that:

  • 82.8% of the stories about ACORN's alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to mention that actual voter fraud is very rare (only 17.2% did mention it)
  • 80.3% of the stories about ACORN's alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to mention that ACORN was reporting registration irregularities to authorities, as required to do by law
  • 85.1% of the stories about ACORN's alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to note that ACORN was acting to stop incidents of registration problems by its (mostly temporary) employees when it became aware of these problems

And perhaps most importantly:

  • 95.8% of the stories about ACORN's alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to provide deeper context, especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of "voter fraud" to dampen voting by low-income and minority Americans, including the firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to cooperate with the politicization of voter fraud accusations -- firings that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

It sounds familiar, doesn't it? The conservative media's coverage of the newest ACORN "scandal" has been defined by politically motivated journalistic malpractice, and once again, too many mainstream outlets have fallen in line, taking their cues from Fox instead of examining the story in a responsible way.

It's obvious that the right-wing media, and Fox in particular, will do anything it can to turn ACORN into a never-ending source of anti-progressive invective. But it remains the mainstream media's duty to serve as more than just a handmaiden for this conservative crusade. It may have failed before, but it owes it to the country not to fail again.

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