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ACORN Is Back in the News, but Right Wing and MSP Still Gets it Wrong

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Last week, the FBI arrested 25-year old James O'Keefe and three other men, charging them with plotting to tamper with phones in the New Orleans office of Senator Mary Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana. The four men appeared in federal court Tuesday afternoon before U.S. Magistrate Judge Louis Moore wearing red inmate jumpsuits from St. Bernard Parish Prison. They were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony, according to the United States Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana. If convicted, the four would face sentences ranging from a fine to 10 years in prison.

The case has many similarities to the famous Watergate burglary, except that the players are not part of a scheme linked to the Republican White House against its liberal enemies, but instead a group of right-wing zealots seeking to embarrass the current occupant of the White House, a Democrat, and his liberal supporters.

This is the same James O'Keefe who last year achieved some modest notoriety last year when he secretly recorded a few low-level ACORN staff and volunteers giving him and another conservative activist advice on buying a home and paying their taxes. What made the videos newsworthy is that O'Keefe's colleague, 20-year Hannah Giles, pretended to be a prostitute and, in some cases, told ACORN staff that she intended to set up a brothel. O'Keefe's antics might have been dismissed as a clever college-age prank except that, with the help of veteran right-wing journalist Andrew Breitbart, who runs the website and once worked for the Drudge Report, the videos became part of a right-wing campaign to destroy ACORN, a progressive grassroots anti-poverty community organization.

Fox News broadcast those videos on a virtual round-the-clock basis, causing a controversy far out of proportion to its news value. The conservative echo chamber, particularly Glenn Beck and his Fox News cohorts, treated O"Keefe like a celebrity hero. Their videos and other attacks on ACORN became a regular staple of the right-wing blogosphere. The conservatives sought to discredit ACORN and, by linking the group to President Obama, undermine Obama and his liberal agenda.

Now ACORN is back in the news, but as part of the "back story" linked to O'Keefe's arrest. In reporting on O'Keefe's arrest, however, the mainstream press continues to botch the ACORN story. In her report for National Public Radio, for example, reporter Eileen Fleming said that in reaction to the controversy over ACORN, Congress had blocked federal funds going to the group, without mentioning that a federal district court ruling had overturned Congress' action on December 12, 2009. The Associated Press omitted the same important fact. Reporting in the The Times-Picayune, David Hammer, repeated the myth that O'Keefe was dressed as a pimp when taping ACORN employees. In fact, O'Keefe presented himself to ACORN staffers as a friend, or boyfriend, of his colleague, Ms. Giles, who was posing as a prostitute. O'Keefe wore a dress shirt and normal clothing when he was in the ACORN offices, but spliced in shots of himself wearing the pimp outfit in the final videos to make it appear that he had worn them in the meetings with ACORN. The New York Times' story on Tuesday, by Campbell Robertson and Liz Robbins, made the same mistake.

In a bizarre two paragraphs, the Times quoted O'Keefe's father saying that he had no idea what his son was doing in Landrieu's office, but nevertheless praising his son as "an outstanding young man doing investigative journalism" who "pushes the limits a bit." The Times reported that "Mr. O'Keefe's Acorn videos won credit from several quarters for drawing attention to long-held conservative suspicions about the group," without reporting that ACORN has been exonerated of any illegal actions by several reports, including a December report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The Times quoted two conservative activists -- Scott W. Johnson, a co-founder of the conservative Power Line blog, and Richard W. Rahn of the libertarian Cato Institute -- lauding O'Keefe for his journalistic initiatives, but quoted no liberals (except ACORN's chief executive, Bertha Lewis) questioning O'Keefe's techniques and veracity.

Arrested with O'Keefe this week were Joseph Basel, Robert Flanagan, and Stan Dai, federal officials said. Flanagan is the son of William Flanagan, the interim United States attorney for the Western District of Louisiana.

According to an affidavit signed by Steven Rayes, a special agent for the F.B.I., the O'Keefe operation began about 11 a.m. on Monday. Basel and Flanagan entered the building dressed in "blue denim pants, blue work shirts, light green fluorescent vests, tool belts, and construction-style hard hats."

They said they were there to perform repair work on the telephone system. O'Keefe who was waiting in Landrieu's office for his comrades was "holding a cellular phone so as to record" video of Basel and Flanagan's actions.

Basel picked up the handset of the main telephone at the reception desk. Both he and Flanagan told Landrieu's staff that the phones were down and asked to be led to the telephone closet, so they could fix the building's phone system. After the men were directed to the main General Services Administration office on the 10th floor, a GSA employee asked for the men's credentials. Flanagan and Basel claimed that they had left them in their vehicle.

Shortly afterward, United States marshals arrested all four men.

After he was let out on bail and released from jail pending his trial, O'Keefe hustled to a cab and as he slipped into the back seat, said, "The truth shall set me free."

O'Keefe, who has become a right-wing celebrity for his anti-ACORN antics, was in New Orleans to give a speech for the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, a libertarian research organization. The topic of the speech was "Exposing Truth: Undercover Video, New Media and Creativity."

In fact, the truth and James O'Keefe rarely inhabit the same space.

Last year, the mainstream media treated O'Keefe's exploits against ACORN as an example of investigative "gotcha" journalism. TV stations broadcast the videos without providing viewers with context. Most newspapers, too, acted more like stenographers than reporters. Few of the stories in newspapers, magazines, and TV pointed out that O'Keefe and his friends had doctored the videos before they were released, or that they refused to release the original footage. Not surprisingly, the videos failed to reveal that some ACORN offices turned the pair away or refused to provide them any aid. In no ACORN office did employees file any paperwork on the duo's behalf. The group has sued O'Keefe and Giles, saying the secret recordings were illegal.

Almost every major TV station and newspaper reported the controversy, allowing Fox News, O'Keefe, and his cohorts to set the agenda. Their film damaged ACORN's reputation.

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John Atlas is President of the Montclair, NJ based National Housing Institute and contributing editor of Shelterforce magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming book SEEDS OF CHANGE.The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty (more...)
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