Last September 12, when the story of undercover ACORN surveillance videos was just breaking, conservative activist Hannah Giles, who starred in the clips as a wannabe prostitute, appeared on Fox News. Host Greg Gutfeld was positively giddy during his Giles interview, as he mocked the ACORN employees who were caught on tape giving Giles and her undercover partner, James O'Keefe, all kinds of misguided advice on how a prostitute could pay* taxes on her late-night income.
The wisecracking Gutfeld especially loved the whole pimp-'n'-ho premise of the sting and was stunned that ACORN staffers bought the ruse, considering the outlandish way Giles and O'Keefe were dressed when they strolled into the community organizers' offices. In the ACORN clips posted online, viewers could see Giles strutting around outside in a revealing outfit, while O'Keefe was decked out in fur with sunglasses and a goofy-looking cane.
As Gutfeld excitedly mentioned to Giles [emphasis added]:
GUTFELD: It's amazing to me because, seriously, you guys look like you came from a frat party where it was pimps 'n' hos. I would think they just would've said, "Get out of here!" But in fact they were trying to help you set up a brothel.
According to Gutfeld, O'Keefe walked right into the ACORN offices looking like he came from a costume party, and they still didn't catch on.
But, of course, we now know Gutfeld had the story all wrong. As I noted last week, and as blogger Brad Friedman had pointed out previously, James O'Keefe never wore his crazy hustler outfit to meet with community organizers. Instead, the '70s-style blaxploitation pimp costume O'Keefe helped make famous was a propaganda tool used after the fact to deceive the public about the undercover operation.
Yet in the very infancy of the ACORN scandal, Fox News host Gutfeld was peddling a false story about O'Keefe's pimp costume, a false story that quickly morphed into accepted fact. (Eventually, after an avalanche of repetition, didn't pretty much everyone believe O'Keefe was decked out as a pimp?)
It quickly morphed into fact because the lead propagandists helped to spread the tall tale. And now they won't come clean about their role.
For instance, during that September 12 broadcast, Giles said nothing to set the record straight. That night, she sat and listened to Gutfeld tell the phony pimp story, and she became complicit in the lie. Obviously, Giles knew her undercover pal didn't look like he just came from a costume party when he walked into ACORN outposts with his undercover camera. But on Fox News, when Gutfeld spread that tale, Giles did nothing to correct the record.
Soon, her undercover cohort joined in the misinformation campaign. Two days later, O'Keefe appeared on Fox & Friends decked out as a pimp. Host Steve Doocy announced that O'Keefe was "dressed exactly in the same outfit that he wore to these ACORN offices up and down the Eastern Seaboard."
O'Keefe made no effort to correct Doocy's falsehood.
And then one week later, writing in The Washington Times, O'Keefe and Giles' mentor, conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, whose website Big Government first hosted the ACORN clips, added to the misinformation movement. He wrote that O'Keefe had been "dressed as a pimp" while "getting" tax advice inside ACORN offices.
It was all part of a campaign, often fueled by winks and nods, to plant the indelible image of O'Keefe strolling into inner-city ACORN workplaces on summer afternoons decked out in his furry pimp costume and clueless employees not batting an eye.
It wasn't enough to uncover dubious practices inside the offices. Breitbart and his colleagues, consumed by hatred for an underfunded and somewhat adrift nonprofit, were determined to demonize ACORN (a "thug organization," as Giles put it) and paint its workers as immoral fools for not being able to spot the spoof a mile away. (In truth, O'Keefe was dressed rather conservatively -- slacks and dress shirt -- when he talked to ACORN staffers, and he often presented himself as an aspiring politician.)
Last week, when highlighting how the pimp story was a fake, I stressed two things. First, that fact does not change what happened on the Candid Camera tapes, and it certainly doesn't excuse the behavior of the low-level ACORN staffers who seemed shockingly eager to help people skirt the law. Second, the pimp revelation does raise all sorts of questions about the ethics and accuracy of Breitbart, O'Keefe, and Giles and indicate that the hoax should send up a red flag among journalists. Breitbart claims he's championing a new breed of "journalism." But is his brand built on lies?
If the trio's willing to obfuscate about clothing, then reporters and pundits need to use extreme caution when dealing with any claim they make in the future. And that probably goes double for O'Keefe, who offered up pretty dubious spin following his arrest in New Orleans last month in connection with the Keystone Kop capering inside Sen. Mary Landrieu's office.
So last week, Media Matters helped highlight how the pimp story was bogus, and what did Breitbart do in response? Did he accept responsibility and make plain to his Big Government readers that any confusion on the pimp issue was his fault and that he regrets not being straight about it?
Of course not. Breitbart, allergic to fair play and decency, at first insisted he had nothing to correct in his Washington Times column, even though he falsely reported O'Keefe was "dressed as a pimp" while receiving ACORN advice. He then posted a nasty, insincere "correction" via Twitter. And at CPAC last weekend, his voice dripping with contempt, Breitbart announced he was "so sorry" that O'Keefe "apparently" hadn't been dressed as a flamboyant pimp when taping ACORN. (Breitbart ought to take lessons from fellow conservative Michelle Malkin on how grown-ups post corrections.)
Meanwhile, Giles last week flatly denied they had ever claimed O'Keefe entered ACORN offices as a pimp:
"We never claimed that he went in with a pimp costume," said Giles. "That was b-roll. It was purely b-roll. He was a pimp, I was a prostitute, and we were walking in front of government buildings to show how the government was whoring out the American people."
Ah, the B-roll. For those unfamiliar with the video production term, B-roll is secondary footage often included in TV reports that shows the featured subjects in some sort of pedestrian action mode, like walking through their office or taking a phone call at their desk.
When the ACORN tapes were first posted at Big Government, they contained plenty of B-roll, or cutaway shots, featuring O'Keefe in his flamboyant pimp outfit outside. And, of course, that's a key reason viewers and news consumers first got the false notion that O'Keefe did his entire undercover sting in the costume, because the video-makers left that obvious impression. (Since O'Keefe did the ACORN filming, he's rarely seen on tape inside the offices.)
Indeed, wasn't the entire point of the deceptively edited B-roll clips to create confusion from the outset? Giles says they "never claimed" O'Keefe wore a pimp outfit, but why else would they purposefully include footage of him in the video if not to create that false impression? Meaning, the videos in and of themselves represent proof that Breitbart, O'Keefe, and Giles knowingly tried to peddle the pimp lie.
As blogger Conor Friedersdorf sensibly noted last week:
After watching the ACORN videos, I shared them with several apolitical friends who don't follow the blogosphere very closely. All assumed Mr. O'Keefe walked into the ACORN offices wearing the pimp suit.
For me, the "Hey, look, I'm dressed like a pimp" B-roll clips posted on Big Government tell us all we need to know about the purposeful attempt to mislead the public. But if you want more proof, let's continue.
Let's go back and reread a Washington Post article from last September and note the picture painted by O'Keefe. It seems pretty definitive [emphasis added]:
The proposition was outrageous, outlandish and right up James E. O'Keefe III's alley. Hannah Giles was on the phone from Washington, D.C., and she was asking him to dress as her pimp, walk into the offices of the ACORN community activist group, openly admit to wanting to buy a house to run as a brothel and see what happened.
It was serendipity, O'Keefe said Thursday. On that day in May, he was still burning mad after watching a YouTube video of ACORN workers breaking padlocks off foreclosed homes and barging in. "I was upset," he said.
O'Keefe, 25, packed his grandfather's old wide-brimmed derby hat from his swing-dancing days, his grandmother's ratty chinchilla shoulder throw, and a cane he bought at a dollar store, then drove from his parents' home in northern New Jersey to the District to execute the idea with Giles, 20.
Last September, the Post interviewed O'Keefe, who told the newspaper all about how the ACORN videos came to be. According to his telling, Giles called and asked him to dress as a pimp and "walk into the offices of the ACORN community activist group," as the Post relayed it. And after getting Giles' call, O'Keefe told the Post, he packed up his pimp costume and drove south to execute the plan.
But today, Giles claims they never claimed O'Keefe was dressed as a pimp for the sting.
Meanwhile, I already noted the time when Giles appeared on Fox News and remained silent while the host pushed the bogus talking point about the pimp costume. But that wasn't the only time Breitbart and friends remained mum.
Question: Isn't sitting idly by while a lie is broadcast about your story nearly as bad as broadcasting the lie yourself?
Let's go back to Sean Hannity's show on September 14, 2009. (That's the same day O'Keefe appeared on Fox News in his full pimp costume.) Giles and Breitbart were the guests, and host Hannity was hyping the ACORN clips (transcript from the Nexis database):
GILES: Yes. Imagine that. Everyone is suffering and looking for a loan and they tell us and you know, we're going through all this financial problems, and they're telling me to bury funds in the back yard so that the government or my pimp can't come steal the money.
HANNITY: And by the way, and he is the least convincing pimp that I would think in the world. But he pulled -- you guys pulled it off and did a great job.
Hannity claimed O'Keefe wasn't even convincing as a pimp, yet was still able to fool ACORN employees, to "pull it off." Of course, as we now know, O'Keefe wasn't dressed as a pimp inside the offices, so that didn't fool any of the employees.
So what did Breitbart and Giles do as Hannity pushed the phony pimp story on national TV? Did they jump in quickly to set the record straight, so no misinformation spread across the airwaves? Did they stress how important it was to be factually accurate about the ACORN sting operation and that neither one of them wanted to mislead Hannity's viewers into thinking O'Keefe was actually dressed as a pimp on the undercover videos?
Nope. Neither Breitbart nor Giles tried to correct Hannity, because by all indications, O'Keefe, Giles, and Breitbart wanted the bogus pimp story to be pushed in the press.
The same dance played out on November 16, 2009, when Hannity again hyped the tapes. His guests that night were O'Keefe and Giles (transcript from Nexis):
HANNITY: All right. You were both dressed as -- and by the way, you are the least convincing pimp in the entire world. I mean, I just don't -- I don't get it.
O'KEEFE: It's pretty outrageous. It's ridiculous. And look at the way that Hannah's dressed. They didn't blink an eye.
HANNITY: And by the way, Hannah, you are the least convincing prostitute. I want that to be clear, too, in the entire world.
But in all honesty, it is outrageous.
Not only did Giles and O'Keefe fail to correct Hannity's false implication that O'Keefe had worn the pimp outfit while secretly filming, but O'Keefe enthusiastically agreed the whole thing was "pretty ridiculous."
Last point: When many in the mainstream press began to erroneously report the pimp costume falsehood, did Breitbart or O'Keefe or Giles contact reporters to set them straight? Out of a concern for accuracy and fair play, did any of them step forward and spell out the facts, which were routinely mangled in the press? Did Breitbart, who seems obsessed with seeking corrections, contact New York Times editors, for instance, when the newspaper last year mistakenly reported that when he "visited ACORN offices," O'Keefe was "dressed so outlandishly that he might have been playing in a risque high school play"? Did Breitbart get in touch with the New York Post when it made a similar blunder? NPR? The Dallas Morning News?
I suspect the answer is no, because the right-wing activists wanted the falsehood to flourish. And, as I've detailed, they helped plant it in the first place.
But now the fooling is over, and it's time for Breitbart, O'Keefe, and Giles to come clean about the ACORN pimp hoax and their role in spreading it.
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Correction: I originally wrote that ACORN workers provided advice on how a prostitute could avoid paying her taxes. That's incorrect, and I regret the error.