Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Breitbart, ACORN and New Media

I mostly agree with this article at Slate by Jack Shafer about Andrew Breitbart, those now-infamous undercover videos taken at various ACORN offices around the country and the nature of new media.

Among the many glorious things about American journalism is that no credentialing organization or regulatory body stands between an individual who wants to break a story and his public reporting of it.

In the old days, one significant barrier did deter aspiring reporters: If they couldn’t find a publisher for their piece or afford to self-publish, they were SOL. But now, thanks to the free-for-all environment created by the Web, those publication and distribution worries have evaporated. Anybody can be a journalist in the new regime, we’re told, and on some days, it seems as if everybody is.

So far so good, though this really has little to do with American journalism. The same is true in other countries and for the same reason, because the technology allows it to happen. And yes, this is a very good thing.

Last week, thanks to the sponsorship of Andrew Breitbart’s new site BigGovernment.com, self-described activist filmmaker James O’Keefe, 25, and his colleague Hannah Giles, 20, brought national scrutiny to the progressive Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, with a series of guerilla videos that are one part 60 Minutes, two parts Punk’d, three parts Ali G, and four parts Michael Moore, all bubbling under a whipped topping of yellow journalism.

If you’re late to the story, Andrew Breitbart is a conservative author, columnist, Web entrepreneur, and Matt Drudge protégé. Lately, he has distributed a series of videos made by O’Keefe and Giles in which the duo visits various ACORN offices with a hidden camera, pretending to be a pimp and prostitute seeking advice on setting up a brothel. ACORN workers in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; San Bernardino, Calif; and Brooklyn, N.Y., took the bait, and now ACORN is on the run, firing underlings, making excuses, and responding to charges of mismanagement and fraud. On Capitol Hill, Congress is getting ready to defund the organization, which has taken in at least $53 million in federal money since 1994.

As a work of undercover journalism, the stunt is a mess, but an interesting one–like something William Randolph Hearst might have conjured up for his sensationalistic New York Journal in the 1890s…

The primary take-away from the videos, as best as I can discern, is that a shocking number of low-level ACORN employees think that helping to relocate houses of prostitution is part of the group’s agenda. Such an oblique, rambling point is interesting enough by my measure to qualify as news.

The critics of Breitbart and the filmmakers don’t really dispute the basic information unearthed by the videos. Instead, they take issue with the duo’s spectrum of deception or their political motives in pursuing ACORN. The liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America complains that the ACORN videos, which aren’t a “major story,” are driving an “incomplete, misleading” media stampede.

But Media Matters is wrong. Independent news organizations, including the Washington Post, the New York Post, and the Baltimore Sun, are chasing the ACORN story not because they’ve been bamboozled by the Breitbart exposé but because the dress-up stunt has pointed them toward what could be fertile grounds for wrongdoing.

I agree. I defended ACORN throughout last year’s election because the accusations made against them were wildly exaggerated and sometimes highly distorted. And I stand by all of the reporting I did on it. But these new videos, regardless of how they were gotten, clearly expose, at bare minimum, a serious, serious problem with hiring and training at ACORN.

Does that cancel out all the good things they’ve done for the poor and underprivileged in this nation? No, I don’t think so. But it’s still a good news story and it should at least be added to the ledger so people can make that judgment for themselves. Attacking the motives of the people who exposed it has nothing to do with the validity of the evidence they revealed to the world. And the fact that it was revealed is a good thing.

I have a strong distaste for Breitbart. I’ve seen him interviewed many times and he comes across as one part dumbass right wing chatroom bully and two parts overly enthusiastic frat boy. He’s a thoroughly loathsome character to me. But the story he broke here is news that the public needed to know – even if some are going overboard in their assessment of the situation and even if I hate seeing that asshole benefit from it.

And by the way, I also agree with Kevin Drum that ACORN’s lawsuit against the folks who made the undercover videos is world-class stupid. Very, very bad move on their part.