How many of us remember the Pimp/Prostitute Hoax that brought down ACORN, a low-income advocacy group? Not too many I would imagine. Here is a quick recap: Acorn, which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was created in 1970 and has fought for liberal causes like raising the minimum wage, registering the poor to vote, stopping predatory lending and expanding affordable housing. For example, the organization helped roughly 150,000 lower-income families prepare their tax returns and obtain $190 million in tax refunds between 2004 and 2009. But it was mismanaged and got overly-involved in politics with particularly strong ties to the Working Families Party. During the last presidential election, it became a favorite target of the right-wing talking headers.
Then, a young man named James O’Keefe released clips of a video that appeared to show an ACORN employee telling a pimp and prostitute how to hide their income to be eligible for government benefits. He and his female cohort appeared in a garish pimp and prostitute get-up that they claimed they wore to ACORN offices. It made the agency look like they were complicit in helping criminals perpetrate welfare fraud and idiots for not commenting on O’Keefe’s outrageous halloween-worthy clothes. The clips spread like wild fire on conservative websites; it was especially prominent and promoted on Andrew Breitbart’s website, breitbart.com.
The video was devastating to ACORN nearly every state in the union froze its payments to ACORN and stopped them from receiving any future contracts. A NY Times article in March of this year, reporting how ACORN was heading into bankruptcy, included this quote:
” That 20-minute video ruined 40 years of good work,” said Sonja Merchant-Jones, former co-chairwoman of Acorn’s Maryland chapter. (Former because the Maryland chapter was shut down cold after the video).
Problem was it was all a hoax! Not only did fake pimp O’Keefe not wear that over-the-top costume, he wore a white button-down shirt and khaki pants. Even worse, he did not portray himself as a pimp, instead he told the ACORN staffer in the tape that his cohort was an ex-hooker trying to get away from her ex-pimp and that he was a law student and aspiring politician trying to help her. The truth was revealed when the whole videotape (and not just the snippets) became available. Breitbart then had to confess that he had never even seen the whole unedited tape before going on his rampages and calling for ACORN’s demise. See http://mediamatters.org/columns/201003020001 (“Breitbart Confirms He Was Duped by Acorn Hoax”)
And now comes news that James O’Keefe has been arrested and sentenced to 3 years probation for illegally breaking into US Senator Mary Landrieu (Dem. from Louisiana) office to try to wiretap her phones. Here’s our hero on his sentence date:
Not that there would be any justifiable defense to this type of burglary but here’s why O’Keefe said he did it:
“O’Keefe claimed he and his co-defendants were investigating allegations that Landrieu was ignoring constituent calls during the healthcare debate.”
Well, there’s a groundbreaking, earth-shattering news item worth recreating Watergate for. A US senator is putting people on hold! But the real blame lies not only with O’Keefe but with all of us who have forgotten what an investigative news program was. Having dealt with many cases that end up in the news and on politicized talk shows, shouting and shady antics now seem to count as journalism. This guy was encouraged by Breitbart to do the Acorn video and he was undoubtedly put up to this latest shenanigan as well.
We need to slow down the rhetoric, name-calling and over-the-top sensationalism that has become the staple of cable news programs. Network news now is struggling to catch up making sure a sensational story (or the weather) lead every broadcast. What’s disturbing is that when these stories end up not being what they originally appeared to be the apologetic blurb is about 10% the size of the original headline piece announcing the first story.