Last September, when the ACORN scandal that his website helped launch was breaking in the press, Andrew Breitbart wrote a column for The Washington Times detailing the rollout of the undercover, right-wing gotcha. He recalled a 2009 meeting with "filmmaker and provocateur James O'Keefe" that took place in Breitbart's office in June. It was there that O'Keefe played the columnist the surreptitiously recorded videos he'd made with his sidekick, Hannah Giles, and which captured the two famously getting advice from ACORN workers on how prostitutes could skirt tax laws.
In his Times column, Breitbart was quite clear about what he saw that day in his office: He watched videos of O'Keefe "dressed as a pimp" sitting inside ACORN offices "asking for -- and getting -- help" from the misguided employees.
But today we know that's almost certainly not true. Breitbart didn't huddle in his office and watch clips of O'Keefe "dressed as a pimp" chatting with ACORN employees, because based on all the available evidence, O'Keefe wasn't dressed as a pimp while taping inside the ACORN offices.
Make no mistake: Last fall, both Breitbart and O'Keefe, with the help of Fox News, did their best to confuse people about that fact. It's true the duo seemed to purposefully push that falsehood and mislead the public and the press about the ACORN story. And more importantly, they did it to make the ACORN workers captured on video look like complete jackasses for not being able to spot O'Keefe's pimp ruse a mile away.
But the story was not true.
Fact: On the guerilla clips posted online and aired on Fox News, O'Keefe was featured in lots of cutaway shots that were filmed outside and showed him parading around with Giles in his outlandish cane/top hat/sunglasses/fur coat pimp costume.
The cutaway shots certainly left the impression that that's how O'Keefe was dressed when he spoke to ACORN workers.
But inside each and every office, according to one independent review that looked at the public videos, O'Keefe entered sans the pimp get-up. In fact, he was dressed rather conservatively. During his visit to the Baltimore ACORN office, he wore a dress shirt and khaki pants. For the Philadelphia sting, he added a tie to the ensemble.
Instead, the '70s-era, blacksploitation pimp costume was a propaganda tool used to later deceive the public about the undercover operation. It was a prop that was quickly embraced by the mainstream media and turned into a central part of the ACORN story.
It's true that Giles was seen on the ACORN office tapes scantily clad as she discussed her future prostitution plans with ACORN workers. But it was the pimp costume, or the idea that O'Keefe was sitting there getting ACORN advice while decked out in it, that really hit the laughter button and caused the press -- and public -- to guffaw at ACORN's apparent cluelessness. Read: Not only were the ACORN employees morally suspect for doling out tax advice to a would-be prostitute, but the low-income advocates were dumb as stumps to boot!
"I can't believe ACORN believes this dude is a pimp!" exclaimed a Washington City Paper blogger last year, falsely reporting that O'Keefe arrived inside ACORN offices "looking like he had recently crawled from a frat house basement."
There's no doubt the pimp costume story worked. (Raise your hand if you were duped.) My guess is if you polled Americans today, and even ones who followed the story closely last year (including right-wing partisans), at least 90 percent would say O'Keefe sat inside ACORN offices while decked out in his pimp costume.
But it's not true. At least there have not been any publicly released ACORN videos to suggest otherwise.
And no, by pointing out the holes in the ACORN sting story, I'm not trying to excuse what was captured (illegally?) on tape. Everyone knows the embarrassing mistakes the poorly trained, low-level ACORN employees made when dealing with O'Keefe and Giles. That situation, and the continued fallout surrounding it, is for the organization to deal with.
Why the costume story is still important, though, is that it highlights the almost pathological streak that runs through Breitbart and O'Keefe's work, and how the press too often falls for their concocted cover stories. (See below; and yes, Media Matters has, at times, incorrectly stated O'Keefe wore his pimp outfit while meeting with ACORN workers.)
It's important to understand how Breitbart and O'Keefe were able to so easily plant the ACORN falsehood. That's especially true in the wake of O'Keefe's recent arrest in New Orleans, where he was cuffed with entering a federal building under false pretense and tagged with intent to commit a felony. As blogger Marcy Wheeler noted, O'Keefe's cover story for that failed caper is riddled with holes, which should be a red flag for journalists as Breitbart concocts his contradictory spin.
Wrote blogger Brad Friedman last week, as he highlighted the pimp falsehood against the backdrop of the New Orleans arrest:
If O'Keefe, and Breitbart, who still employs him, were that willing to out-and-out lie about the ACORN scam, seen as a successful one, just how far would the two GOP operatives be willing to go to get off the hook for what appears to be a very serious federal felony?
More importantly, if news organizations are still making the dressed-like-a-pimp mistake, it's time that they stop. And yes, that means you, New York Times.
Friedman has been trying to get the newspaper of record to correct its inaccurate reporting on the pimp issue -- reporting that appeared as recently as last month, following O'Keefe's New Orleans arrest. When one of Friedman's readers contacted the newspaper urging the same request, the reader was informed, via email by a Times senior editor for standards, that because O'Keefe claimed he'd been dressed as a pimp inside ACORN offices, and because O'Keefe had appeared on Fox News and made that claim, the Times did not need to post a correction.
Wrote the Times standards editor: "We believe" O'Keefe. (Yikes!)
That's nuts. It's one thing to be suckered in by Breitbart and O'Keefe's pimp costume tale, it's another for the Times to now defend its erroneous reporting. And even worse is the Times' implication that it's O'Keefe who gets to decide which version of the pimp story is true, despite all the contrary evidence.
Last December, former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, commissioned by ACORN to independently review the facts surrounding the scandal, released his findings. Highly critical of ACORN and its employees, Harshbarger nonetheless concluded the undercover sting did not catch any employees breaking the law.
Harshbarger also shed light on the controversial videos, noting that portions had been "substantially" edited, including some voice overdubbing. And because O'Keefe and Breitbart refuse to let any outside observers -- including journalists -- view the full collection of unedited tapes, it's impossible to tell just how significantly the tapes were manipulated prior to their release.
This was another key, albeit mostly overlooked, finding from the report:
Although Mr. O'Keefe appeared in all videos dressed as a pimp, in fact, when he appeared at each and every office, he was dressed like a college student -- in slacks and a button down shirt.
It's worth nothing that if O'Keefe and Breitbart wanted to rebut Harshbarger's damaging claim about the lack of pimp costume -- a narrative both men worked hard to prop up last year -- it's logical they would release clips to disprove Harshbarger's finding. They would release a video that showed O'Keefe clearly dressed outlandishly as a pimp while sitting inside ACORN offices. But two months after the release of Harshbarger's report, Breitbart and O'Keefe have not done that.
Also note that earlier this month, after Friedman once again highlighted Harshbarger's finding, Breitbart posted this tweet:
How did the story first come to life? Not surprisingly, Fox News played a key role in hyping the phony pimp tale. During the second week in September 2009 when the ACORN story was breaking, O'Keefe appeared on Fox & Friends dressed up in his eccentric pimp get-up. Co-host Steve Doocy introduced O'Keefe as being "dressed exactly in the same outfit that he wore to these ACORN offices up and down the Eastern Seaboard" [emphasis added].
O'Keefe made no effort to correct Doocy's falsehood. Indeed, the entire point of O'Keefe dressing up that morning was so that Doocy could spread the pimp costume falsehood, which is why O'Keefe told Fox News viewers during the show: "I'm one of the whitest guys ever. I just wear ridiculous stuff and put people in ridiculous situations." The clear implication was that he wore "ridiculous stuff" into the ACORN offices.
There's just no proof he ever did.
Initially, many news outlets referred to O'Keefe as having "posed" as a pimp inside ACORN offices. And while there were problems with that wording, it was certainly better than claiming the undercover cameraman was "dressed" as a pimp while talking to ACORN employees. Yet for some reason, many journalists couldn't resist the lure of the "dressed" storyline.
Here's how CNN.com first reported the story on September 10, 2009:
Two employees at the Baltimore, Maryland, branch of the liberal community organizing group ACORN were caught on tape allegedly offering advice to a pair posing as a pimp and prostitute on setting up a prostitution ring and evading the IRS.
But note the erroneous change CNN made the following day:
T.J. HOLMES: Allegedly video out there taken by a conservative activist who dressed up like a pimp and had someone with him that was dressed up like a prostitute. They go into an office in Baltimore, one of these ACORN offices.
Soon, claiming O'Keefe was decked out in his comical pimp outfit while sitting inside the ACORN offices became the accepted norm.
They visited Acorn offices in Baltimore, Washington, Brooklyn and San Bernardino, Calif., candidly describing their illicit business and asking the advice of Acorn workers. Among other questions, they asked how to buy a house to use as a brothel employing under-age girls from El Salvador. Mr. O'Keefe, 25, a filmmaker and conservative activist, was dressed so outlandishly that he might have been playing in a risque high school play.
O'Keefe and Giles were garishly dressed as a stereotypical pimp and prostitute. O'Keefe was decked out in excessively snazzy flesh-peddler couture, and Giles, going by the name "Eden," wore almost nothing. The ACORN workers were not the slightest bit judgmental or put off by the request for help in getting financing for a brothel.
O'Keefe and Giles were dressed as a pimp and prostitute, just as they were during undercover visits to ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, Brooklyn and San Bernardino, Calif., over the summer.
If you watch cable TV at all this week, you've almost certainly seen the images again and again -- a young man dressed as a pimp with a young woman posing as a prostitute. They are with ACORN workers who were supposed to be advising low-income people on taxes and home loans, but instead you hear this.
James O'Keefe, 25, dressed up as a cartoon version of a pimp. Hannah Giles, 20, barely dressed as a stereotypical hooker (or "freelance performing artist," as one Baltimore ACORN worker helpfully suggested). They stashed their camera and walked into ACORN offices from coast to coast, blatantly asking for help setting up housing for a prostitution business, which also would employ underage prostitutes from El Salvador.
The video sounds like a satire: A young man and woman, dressed as caricatures of a pimp and prostitute, walk into the Baltimore office of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and spin an outrageous story about how the woman needs help buying a house to set up as a brothel for underage Salvadoran girls.
Breitbart and O'Keefe have made it clear that they think they've stumbled onto the future of "conservative journalism" in the form of undercover pranks, so look for more Punk'd-style capers to come. But based on the trumped-up pimp story, and the fact that they chose to mislead the public about something as trivial as clothing, it should be clear journalists cannot accept as fact anything either man says.
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