The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Few Bad Nuts Are Still Too Many

ACORN Simply Grew Too Large to Control Its Own Staff

Now that the trickle of shocking videos appears to have dried up, perhaps right-wing attacks against the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) can be reasonably evaluated as to what they have and have not proved. James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, with a mere $1,300 budget, brought a hidden camera into a series of ACORN offices across the country and conducted a sting operation against the organization.

Posing as a pimp and prostitute, they sought advice from ACORN employees about how to buy a house intended for use as a brothel, exploiting teenage girls from El Salvador no less. In at least a half-dozen locations – including Brooklyn, Washington DC, Baltimore, and San Bernadino – they encountered ACORN staff who seemed sympathetic to their nefarious faux plot and offered helpful advice on how to skirt the law on getting a mortgage loan and avoiding tax payments.

After compiling their evidence, they contacted Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Washington Times columnist who had just started a new website, The videos’ content amazed Breitbart and he began releasing them through his site. The subsequent public outcry rocked ACORN’s leadership and left them scrambling.

Some have complained that O’Keefe and Giles are not journalists but hardcore conservative activists, whose purpose was not to objectively inform but rather entrap and destroy a rival liberal organization. These charges are probably true but do nothing to change the disturbing nature of what they uncovered. On the contrary, it underlines how freedom of the press can allow virtually anyone, no matter how small, to bring down large and powerful institutions that deserve chastisement.

However, the pair’s presentation skills were considerably below their investigation skills in terms of journalistic excellence. Breitbart suggested slowly releasing the videos as a series, rather than all at once – allegedly to prevent the story from being buried but also, of course, to accentuate and prolong its shock value. Post-release vetting has also found inaccuracies in the videos, with everything from unfounded rumors to conservative talking points reported as fact.

Nor did O’Keefe and Giles ever mention about the ACORN offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia that turned them away. An ACORN worker in Philadelphia even called the police on the pair.

Another staffer in National City California, who counseled the pretend prostitute and pimp, later called a relative in law enforcement to ask if they had crossed legal lines in doing so.

The outrageous claim of a San Bernadino ACORN worker, reassuring the scammers that she had once murdered her ex-husband – an assertion easily proven false by local police – tends to reinforce her subsequent contention that she was simply playing along with what she believed was a prank.

Again, O’Keefe and Giles deserve credit for their chutzpah and efforts in confirming that some of their own worst fears about ACORN had merit. However, conservative haughtiness is misplaced that an Obama-worshipping mainstream media has much to learn from them, unless it be lessons in what not to do.

And what about the oft-moaned conservative complaint that professional journalists have consistently sought to ignore ACORN?

Peter Dreier, Professor of Political Science at Occidental College and Christopher Martin, Professor of Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa, just completed a study of ACORN news coverage by newspapers and television networks over the past two years. They found no less than six hundred and forty-seven separate stories had run over this period alleging voter fraud against ACORN. What is more, Dreier and Martin report, “Only a handful of the stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal went on to report that actual cases of voter fraud were very rare.”

If the mainstream media is guilty of any complacency regarding ACORN, it was their passivity in allowing right-wing pundits and politicians to dictate the accusatory tone of reporting that dominated coverage of the organization. Yet even after putting these misrepresentations in perspective, I am forced to admit they are little more than quibbles against the main conclusion to be drawn – namely, that ACORN has proven itself unworthy of continued financial or any other kind of support.

ACORN’s chief executive, Bertha Lewis, famously vowed, “I will clean this house.” Alas, she finally sees the need for dusting after the property has been condemned; she brings a broom where a wrecking ball is the proper tool.

There are two defenses offered on ACORN’s behalf. A liberal blogger’s entry, quoted by Kathryn Jean Lopez in National Review, exemplifies the first, more extremist defense. “It’s also important to keep in mind that ACORN’s workers are coming from the same low-income neighborhoods the organization serves, with all that entails . . . So the flaws conservatives are pointing out about ACORN are not so much problems associated with that organization per se but more about the problems of being poor and minority in urban America.”

Nobody denies poverty is difficult but the role of community organizations must include teaching the disadvantaged responsibility and discipline as well as empowerment. Even the relatively small sampling of ACORN officers visited by O’Keefe and Giles reveal far too many ACORN workers as poorly trained and/or disinterested about operating within the laws of the neighborhoods and cities they serve.

The second, more reasonable defense argues that it is unfair to punish an entire organization for the unfortunate actions of a few employees. However, what was just uncovered goes far beyond self-policing the sloppy work of day hires doing voter registration. This is blatant criminality by core ACORN staff and it is not the first behavior of such extreme severity in the group’s history.

None of this erases ACORN’s legacy of good work. But it seems clear ACORN has been almost too successful for its own good. Having grown large and complex, its top leadership appears consistently unable to control its staff or infrastructure.

It was not always so. A group of impoverished mothers in Arkansas first formed ACORN in 1970 as an attempt to acquire school supplies for their children. As documented yesterday by Harold Myerson in the Washington Post, ACORN has been a leader over the years in such areas as raising the minimum wage, limiting interest and fees that banks charge homeowners, and, yes, registering new voters.

Today, ACORN has become a behemoth – with nearly half a million dues-paying members, chapters in over one hundred cities across forty states, and employing more than a thousand full-time staffers.

The videos made by O’Keefe and Giles, in and of themselves, do not prove corruption within ACORN is systemic, although they do argue strongly for further investigation. This is beside the point, however. A few bad apples or, more appropriately in ACORN’s case, a few bad nuts are still too many. Conservative activists and news coverage may exacerbate their actions but the damage done by them is now too extensive to repair.

“ACORN's name has become toxic,” stated Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker on Wednesday. To that end, I am happy to see sufficient number of Democrats in Congress have voted to block further federal funding to ACORN, happy to see the Census Bureau cut all official ties with ACORN, happy to see President Obama call for an investigation of ACORN, happy to see ACORN select former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to lead an independent self-investigation.

Like its large corporate peers riddled by scandal, ACORN will not be destroyed by its current plight but will instead slowly dissolve into the woodwork for awhile, only to eventually re-emerge in smaller, trimmer versions under new names or be absorbed into other organizations. Such downsizing will only benefit the sincere and honest workers within ACORN. First, it will reduce the huge sums of money flowing through limited numbers of hands. Second, it will prevent the harm of corruption in one city or neighborhood from spreading nationwide through a common name.

When addressing its current troubles, ACORN would do well to remember its own mantra – all problems are ultimately local problems and best solved locally.

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