The Media's Complicity: Analysis of ACORN Coverage

( The mainstream media were complicit in their coverage of the ACORN scandal. Their behavior was and continues to be an insult to democracy and journalistic responsibility as the Fourth Estate has ignored facts, engaged in one-sided sourcing, and avoided basic and inherently important journalistic questioning. 


  First, there was avoidance. Some media outlets simply ignored the story. On Sept. 15, five days after the Maryland tape was released, ABC’s Charlie Gibson said, “I don’t even know about it… so you’ve got me at a loss” and said that the story might be “just one you leave to the cables.” But, Gibson was not alone in his lack of knowledge. The New York Times did not cover the story for nearly a week. On Sept. 26, Clark Hoyt, The Times’ Public Editor, acknowledged the paper’s tardiness, but insinuated that the story was lacking in facts:

But for days, as more videos were posted and government authorities rushed to distance themselves from Acorn, The Times stood still.  Some stories, lacking facts, never catch fire…But others do, and a newspaper like The Times needs to be alert to them or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself. 


Then, there were cases of gratuitously sloppy journalism.  Some of the outlets that did cover the story simply skipped over basic interview questions. In several instances, Bertha Lewis made the false claim that the filmmakers were turned away in “dozens of cities.” In a CNN interview with Rick Sanchez, Lewis said, “…the filmmakers went to dozens of offices. They were turned away.” In a more flagrant example of corroborating untruths, Lewis reiterated her “dozens” on MSNBC, stating, “…They were thrown out of dozens of offices. And, in fact, in Philadelphia, we called the police, filed a police report.”

Similarly, Wolf Blitzer, failed to adequately question Lewis. While on his show, Lewis made the following statement: “This sort of notorious crew went around to dozens of our offices. What you don’t see are the offices that threw them out offices that filed police complaints.”

The lack of depth of these interviews with Lewis has been egregious. Upon hearing of the “dozens,” even the most unseasoned journalist would know to ask, “What were the cities where filmmakers were thrown out?” And, what about the police reports (plural) that were filed by multiple “offices”? Like Sanchez’s treatment of the “dozens,” Blitzer failed to ask for a list of cities that took such action. Lewis was granted a free pass, as no probing questions were asked about the issues in question.

On Sept. 12, just two days after the Maryland tape was made public, Lewis released a statement on ACORN’s Web site, writing, “This recent scam, which was attempted in San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia to name a few places, had failed for months before the results we’ve all recently seen.”

Following subsequent video releases, New York and San Diego were dropped from ACORN’s list of cities where the filmmakers were allegedly “turned away” and the aforementioned statement was removed from ACORN’s Web site, thus erasing evidence of inconsistency.  Big Government copied her statement and posted it in it’s entirety at the time of it’s release (notice the broken link to the ACORN website in the Big Government post). This change can also be viewed in a story published on Sept. 17 byThe Washington Post. According to the Post, “An ACORN spokesman said they were turned away in Miami, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, where workers called police and filed a report.”  Notice the missing cities.

Where were the media to catch this glaring glitch in ACORN’s own reporting? The answer: Nowhere to be found. And, it was on the same day (Sept. 17), that Lewis appeared on MSNBC to discuss the fact that “dozens” of cities turned the filmmakers away.

And who could forget the glaring corrections that were issued by The Associated Press and The Washington Post. Both the AP and the Post published stories that attributed an incorrect, racially-driven motive for O’Keefe’s decision to conduct the ACORN investigation . Fortunately, the outlets were forced to correct their journalistic faux pas. Here is the Post’s correction:

A Sept. 18 Page One article about the community organizing group ACORN incorrectly said that a conservative journalist targeted the organization for hidden-camera videos partly because its voter-registration drives bring Latinos and African Americans to the polls. Although ACORN registers people mostly from those groups, the maker of the videos, James E. O’Keefe, did not specifically mention them.


Despite the fact that Bertha Lewis’ credibility had been completely compromised on September 14th with with the release of the New York ACORN investigation (not to mention the San Diego videos released on Sept. 17), she was granted a forum with The National Press Club on Oct. 6; the conference was broadcast on C-SPAN. In that presser, Lewis used the debunked information from the Associated Pressand Washington Post articles that had since been correctedYes, the NPC gave her a platform to continue touting untruths that were previously purveyed by the supine media. She said, “O’Keefe, himself, told The Washington Post, ‘They’re registering too many minorities. They usually vote Democratic. Somebody’s got to stop them’…”

Perhaps the most perplexing media coverage – or lack thereof – surrounds a video that ACORN Housing’s Philadelphia office released back in September. On Sept. 16, a YouTube account was created and on Sept. 17, a video featuring Philadelphia Office Director Katherine Conway Russell was released.The video, which is intended to respond to O’Keefe and Giles while defending the Philadelphia office’s handling of the filmmakers went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media.

In the video, Russell describes a July meeting with O’Keefe and Giles and uses a police report filed after the filmmakers left the office as evidence that the Philadelphia office was taken aback by the prostitution story line. Aside from the fact that the series of events that lead up to the police filing described in the video lead to more questions, the police report itself does not mention anything about discussion content; the report merely claims that O’Keefe was responsible for a verbal “disturbance.”

While the media vastly ignored this important video, many outlets did delve into the police report. According to The Washington Post, “ACORN emailed a copy of a Philadelphia police report dated July 24 to The Post to verify its account that police were called and the couple was shown the door.” And concerning the Philadelphia office’s involvement, WPVI Philadelphia wrote, “…by every account, the Philadelphia office is not part of the problem.” And, WBUR-FM wrote, “…in ACORN Housing’s North Philadelphia office, the scene is far from the one seen in the videos, which were made by a conservative activist”

Here, the media takes sides without interviewing or speaking with O’Keefe and Giles. Aside from the issue of ignoring ACORN’s own video, such selective sourcing is disturbing. Nowhere in the police report is ACORN’s rejection of any subject matter mentioned, therefore the report, in itself, does not prove wholeheartedly what ACORN’s officials in that city have said.

And finally: The insinuation that the videos were creatively edited was repeated in a plethora of mainstream news media. In an opinion piece for True/Slant, Allison Kilkenny wrote,

The videos are edited very creatively — if I’m being generous — to show only the ACORN employees who engaged in shady behavior, and not the dozens of other ACORN offices from which O’Keefe and Company were ejected, and in a few cases, ACORN employees called the police on the duo.


Aside from the fact that the videos weren’t edited in any way to deceive the viewers, that dozens of offices did not dispel O’Keefe and Giles, and only one office has come forward with a report, entire audio and transcript versions of the investigations are available on, right at the top of the homepage. This falsehood (that full versions are not available) has been repeated by Lewis herself on CNN and in other mainstream outlets (and, surprise, virtually no journalist has corrected her).

The ACORN story has, once again, shown the media’s inability to fulfill its duties. The media should adequately inform the public while asking the questions needed to provide a full and robust picture of what is occurring. ACORN coverage has been biased, incomplete, and sloppily mishandled. Let’s hope the aforementioned examples help to set the record straight.