Post ombudsman adopts right-wing mantra that ACORN videos are a major story


Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander criticized the newspaper for "tardiness" in covering the ACORN videotape controversy, arguing that newspapers should pay more attention to right-wing media outlets and that the Post's purportedly slow reaction to the ACORN story is related to institutional liberal bias. In doing so, Alexander adopted the right-wing argument that the ACORN videos are a major story when, in fact, the government was not harmed as a result of ACORN's actions; the workers involved constituted a tiny fraction of ACORN's workforce; other organizations involved in scandal receive far more government funding than ACORN; and the videos are part of a longstanding effort by the right to use ACORN as a scapegoat and to distract from more important issues.

From Alexander's September 20 column:

It's tempting to dismiss such gimmicks. Fox News, joined by right-leaning talk radio and bloggers, often hypes stories to apocalyptic proportions while casting competitors as too liberal or too lazy to report the truth.

But they're also occasionally pumping legitimate stories. I thought that was the case with ACORN and, before it, the Fox-fueled controversy that led to the resignation of White House environmental adviser Van Jones.


With ACORN, The Post wrote about it two days after the first of several explosive hidden-camera videos were aired showing the group's employees giving tax advice to young conservative activists posing as a prostitute and her pimp. Three days passed before The Post ran a short Associated Press story about the Senate halting Housing and Urban Development grants to ACORN, which operates in 110 cities. But by that time, the Census Bureau had severed ties with ACORN. State and city investigations had been launched. It wasn't until late in the week that The Post weighed in with two solid pieces.

Why the tardiness?

One explanation may be that traditional news outlets like The Post simply don't pay sufficient attention to conservative media or viewpoints.

It "can't be discounted," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. "Complaints by conservatives are slower to be picked up by non-ideological media because there are not enough conservatives and too many liberals in most newsrooms." [The Washington Post, 9/20/09]

Alexander ignored that ACORN's actions did not harm the government

ACORN provided only counseling to the activists, and no harm came to the government as a result of the sessions. Alexander did not mention that there were no actual consequences, financial or otherwise, to the government as a result of ACORN's actions, given that there is no evidence the ACORN employees provided anything beyond counseling sessions to conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe and columnist Hannah Giles, who secretly videotaped the sessions.

ACORN receives a small amount of government funding compared to other groups. In a post on, Glenn Greenwald noted that conservative media "focus the vast bulk of their resentment and anxieties on largely powerless and downtrodden factions, while ignoring, and even revering, the outright pillaging by virtually omnipotent corporate interests that own and control their Government." As evidence, he noted that ACORN receives a fraction of what controversial corporate interests, such as Halliburton, have received from the government. From Greenwald's post:

ACORN has received a grand total of $53 million in federal funds over the last 15 years -- an average of $3.5 million per year. Meanwhile, not millions, not billions, but trillions of dollars of public funds have been, in the last year alone, transferred to or otherwise used for the benefit of Wall Street. Billions of dollars in American taxpayer money vanished into thin air, eaten by private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, led by Halliburton subsidiary KBR. All of those corporate interests employ armies of lobbyists and bottomless donor activities that ensure they dominate our legislative and regulatory processes, and to be extra certain, the revolving door between industry and government is more prolific than ever, with key corporate officials constantly ending up occupying the government positions with the most influence over those industries.

Videos came from only a small percentage of ACORN offices

Interactions occurred at a small percentage of total number of ACORN offices nationwide. O'Keefe and Giles have posted video of interactions with ACORN employees at five offices, which represent a fraction of ACORN locations nationwide. According to its website, ACORN has more than 100 offices, with locations in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

O'Keefe, Giles, Breitbart falsely claimed each ACORN office visited was complicit. O'Keefe and founder Andrew Breitbart both have claimed the filmmakers were never turned away from a single ACORN office they visited. Giles and Mike Flynn, the editor-in-chief of, both claimed that in not a single office visited were they not assisted.

Philadelphia ACORN Housing official: "[W]e called the police and filed this report." In a YouTube video, Katherine Conway Russell, ACORN Housing Corp.'s Philadelphia office director, stated that O'Keefe visited the office "[l]ast July" with "another woman." Russell stated that "[a]fter asking several general questions, [O'Keefe] began to veer off into suspicious territory." Russell said that O'Keefe eventually "asked about bringing girls from El Salvador and getting them papers, et cetera," but that "I told them that there was nothing we could do to help them, that I didn't know anything about what they were asking about." Russell also said that after she contacted another ACORN official and it became clear that O'Keefe "lied to get his appointment," they contacted the police.

At least one video reportedly edited out a part of the filmmakers' visit. According to a report by CNN correspondent Casey Wian on the September 17 edition of Lou Dobbs Tonight, the filmmakers edited San Bernardino ACORN employee Tresa Kaelke's statement from one of the videos that ACORN would not associate itself with prostitution. Wian said: "Left out of the originally released tape but included in a transcript the filmmakers later released is Kaelke's statement that ACORN would have nothing to do with their prostitution business."

Conservative media routinely scapegoat ACORN, vilify it

Conservative media routinely scapegoat ACORN for country's problems. Media Matters for America has documented that in coverage of major news stories, conservative media figures have repeatedly fallen back on two of their favorite bogeymen -- ACORN and undocumented immigrants -- frequently blaming national crises on one or both groups or accusing them of receiving undeserved benefits from the government. At best, these scapegoats are tenuously connected to the issues those figures are discussing; at worst, they are entirely unrelated. In some instances, the media linked their scapegoats to major news stories by using misleading claims or advancing outright falsehoods. Conservatives in the media consistently weave ACORN and undocumented immigrants into their coverage instead of addressing the substantive policy issues. Other media outlets follow the conservatives' lead, uncritically advancing or reporting as fact their smears of ACORN and undocumented immigrants.

Conservatives use ACORN to fearmonger about unrelated issues. Conservatives in the media have also fearmongered about ACORN while attacking President Obama and his policies. For example, illustrating the conservative penchant for using ACORN as a bogeyman, Glenn Beck has devoted segments to tenuous or tangential "connections" between ACORN and the following people and groups: AmeriCorps, AARP, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, PRLDEF, and SEIU. Numerous media figures -- including Lou Dobbs, Dick Morris, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity -- have falsely asserted ACORN would receive stimulus funds in order to attack the stimulus bill. Additionally, Limbaugh and Beck have both invoked ACORN while discussing Obama's reaction to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Beck uses incendiary rhetoric when discussing ACORN. Media Matters has documented Beck repeatedly claiming that members of ACORN may harm him over his coverage of the group. Beck has also claimed that ACORN founders were inspired by a "strategy" to "transform" the United States "into a socialist-Marxist state" and are "enslaving people through ACORN." Beck has also referred to ACORN as "brownshirts."

Fox News used ACORN videos to change focus from health care

Following Beck's instructions, Fox News attempted to change story from health care to ACORN. On September 9, Beck said that while the media "says they're going to be talking about health care" the next day, he didn't "think so," later suggesting that a video of Baltimore ACORN employees would instead be the top story. Apparently taking its cues from Beck, through 7 p.m. the following day, Fox News devoted at least 17 segments on six programs to airing and discussing portions of the video.

Fox News repeatedly promoted the fake claim that an ACORN employee killed her former husband. On September 15 and 16, Fox News devoted significant programming to O'Keefe and Giles' video of their interactions with Kaelke, who claimed she murdered her ex-husband and gave advice on how to run a brothel. Fox News did this without fact-checking the allegation or indicating that it had contacted ACORN for a response. After the video was released, Kaelke stated that she had merely been attempting to "shock them as much as they were shocking me," and the San Bernardino police confirmed that investigators found her former husbands "alive and well."

The Washington Post
Andrew Alexander
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