The New York Times
What was the accusation?
In late 2009, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) became a subject of national interest following the release of videos recorded by undercover conservative activists that appeared to show Baltimore-based ACORN employees advising a pimp and a prostitute on how to evade the law while conducting their illegal business. The incident, reported by The New York Times, led to ACORN suspending its operations in Maryland as well as a federal investigation into the organization. Supporters of ACORN argued that The New York Times failed to properly authenticate the video footage and, thus, accurately report the whole story. In response, Clark Hoyt, then public editor for The New York Times, reviewed the paper’s reporting process and offered his assessment of the situation in a Times opinion piece.
Key Apologia Strategies:
Mortification, Corrective Action, Bolstering, Attacking the Accuser
The Times reported Saturday that Acorn, once considered the nation’s largest community organizing group for the poor and powerless, is on the verge of filing for bankruptcy. It has already ceased operating in many states, including Maryland, where two conservative activists pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute used a hidden camera and recorded Acorn employees advising them on how to conceal the source of illegal income and manage 14-year-old Salvadoran prostitutes in the country illegally: “Train them to keep their mouth shut.”
The Times was slow last fall to cover that sting in Baltimore, similar ones at Acorn offices in Brooklyn, Washington and other cities, and the resulting uproar, including criminal investigations and votes in Congress to cut off funds for the group. But the paper finally described how a succession of Acorn employees had advised the pair on obviously improper activities and how, as a result, many of the group’s allies had deserted it. Now Acorn and its supporters say The Times got the story wrong and, by failing to correct it, has played into the hands of a campaign that has pushed the group near extinction.
Since the story broke, Acorn’s contributions have dried up, its national staff has been cut by more than three-quarters, services for the poor have been suspended, and chapters have closed or reorganized under other names, even though a district attorney found that Acorn employees in Brooklyn did nothing illegal and a federal judge ruled that Congress acted unconstitutionally in cutting off funding as punishment.
Acorn’s defenders say it was all because of an unethical, even illegal prank that is now unraveling. “A groundswell of public indignation is gathering strength in calling for the retraction and correction of the reporting of this story by the NYT,” wrote Joseph Holder of Manteca, Calif., one of hundreds of readers I’ve heard from since liberal groups like FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) took up the cause. They argue that The Times was wrong when it said that James O’Keefe, who shot the videos, was in the “gaudy guise” of a pimp when he accompanied Hannah Giles, dressed as a streetwalker, into Acorn offices, and that the paper mischaracterized what happened in the offices. O’Keefe didn’t present himself as a pimp, the argument goes, but as a clean-cut young man, sometimes a college student, trying to rescue his girlfriend and under-age girls from an abusive pimp. The Times’ version of events, FAIR said, was “wildly misleading.”
With two associates, Michael McElroy and Rebecca Ruiz, I have reviewed the entire available public record, including the O’Keefe videos and what are represented on a conservative Web site as the full transcripts and audio of his visits to the Acorn offices. It is the same record from which FAIR and others are getting their alternative interpretation. I have talked with Andrew Breitbart, the conservative Web entrepreneur who arranged the release of the videos; Bertha Lewis, the chief executive of Acorn; and Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general, and his associate, Amy Crafts, who were hired by Acorn last year to investigate what happened and to evaluate the group’s management.
Here is what I found: O’Keefe almost certainly did not go into the Acorn offices in the outlandish costume, fur coat, goggle-like sunglasses, walking stick and broad-brimmed hat, in which he appeared at the beginning and end of most of his videos. It is easy to see why The Times and other news organizations got a different impression. At one point, as the videos were being released, O’Keefe wore the get-up on Fox News, and a host said he was “dressed exactly in the same outfit he wore to these Acorn offices.” He did not argue.
But Breitbart told me that, after doing his own examination, “I am under the impression that at no time was he ever dressed as an elaborate pimp” in the offices. Because O’Keefe was apparently carrying the hidden camera, he is generally not visible in the videos, but he is seen briefly entering the Baltimore office wearing a blue shirt and chinos.
I could not reach O’Keefe, who is facing federal criminal charges of tampering with a Democratic senator’s phone in a different attempted sting, or Giles. But I am satisfied that The Times was wrong on this point, and I have been wrong in defending the paper’s phrasing. Editors say they are considering a correction.
Acorn’s supporters appear to hope that the whole story will fall apart over the issue of what O’Keefe wore: if that was wrong, everything else must be wrong. The record does not support them. If O’Keefe did not dress as a pimp, he clearly presented himself as one: a fellow trying to set up a woman, sometimes along with under-age girls, in a house where they would work as prostitutes. In Washington, he said the prostitution was to finance his future in politics. A worker for Acorn Housing, an allied group, warned him to stay away from the brothel lest someone “get wind that you got a house and that your girlfriend is over there running a house of women of the night. You will not have a career.”
FAIR said that in Brooklyn, O’Keefe and Giles seemed to be telling Acorn staffers that “they are attempting to buy a house to protect child prostitutes from an abusive pimp.” That’s right, but FAIR left out the part about their clear intention to operate a brothel, which the Acorn workers seemed to take in stride, with one warning: “Don’t get caught, ’cause it is against the law.”
The videos were heavily edited. The sequence of some conversations was changed. Some workers seemed concerned for Giles, one advising her to get legal help. In two cities, Acorn workers called the police. But the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context. Harshbarger’s report to Acorn found no “pattern of illegal conduct” by its employees. But, he told me: “They said what they said. There’s no way to make this look good.”
He also said the news media should have been far more skeptical, demanding the raw video from which the edited versions were produced. “It’s outrageous that this could have had this effect without being questioned more,” he said.
The report by Harshbarger and Crafts was not covered by The Times. It should have been, but the Acorn/O’Keefe story became something of an orphan at the paper. At least 14 reporters, reporting to different sets of editors, have touched it since last fall. Nobody owns it. Bill Keller, the executive editor, said that, “sensing the story would not go away and would be part of a larger narrative,” the paper should have assigned one reporter to be responsible for it.
It remains a fascinating story. To conservatives, Acorn is virtually a criminal organization that was guilty of extensive voter registration fraud in 2008. To its supporters, Acorn is a community service organization that has helped millions of disadvantaged Americans by organizing to confront powerful institutions like banks and developers.
Harshbarger’s report focused heavily on Acorn’s “longstanding management weaknesses, including lack of training, a lack of procedures and a lack of on-site supervision” that he said provided fertile ground for O’Keefe’s sting. Lewis, who took over less than two years ago, said she has been working aggressively to reform the organization.
The story now is whether she has run out of time.
Hoyt, C. (2010, March 20). The Acorn sting revisited. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/opinion/21pubed.html
Jones, B. (2010, March 16). ACORN’s Maryland chapter is shuttered. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2010-03-16/news/bal-md.acorn16mar16_1_acorn-affiliates-videos-national-scandal