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May 24, 2018

ACORN and the Firestorm (Film Review)

By Michael McCray

ACORN and the Firestorm, a new documentary about the rise and fall of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, recently aired on PBS. Michael McCray attended the debut of the film at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival -- in Arkansas, the birth place of ACORN. The following is a Film Review and Critique of the documentary from a former ACORN National Board Member and ACORN Whistleblower.

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Left to Right: Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF Zach Polett, Former ACORN, Political Director John Atlas, Author / Producer Neil Sealy, Head Organizer for Arkansas Community Organizations
Left to Right: Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF Zach Polett, Former ACORN, Political Director John Atlas, Author / Producer Neil Sealy, Head Organizer for Arkansas Community Organizations
(Image by Michael McCray)
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A jazz band was playing like the house band at an old time speakeasy on Central Avenue. I walked into a bar and ordered a whiskey sour from a smoothing talking bartender named Robert. Rob has a way with phrases and reminds you of a young Steve Buscemi. The Ohio Club is one of the old-style taverns in Hot Springs that dates back to the turn of the century. It was a favorite of Al Capone and a life size manikin sits outside. Gangsters and gambling were always associated with the Ohio Club. It originally opened as a speakeasy (illegal gaming house) that fronts as a tavern--after prohibition, it was a speak easy that fronts as a tavern, fronting as a cigar store. So, I was sitting at a bar, eating a bacon double pepper-cheese slider made just like Al Capone had his--drinking whiskey, served by a bartender who sounds like "Nucky Thompson" from Boardwalk Empire. This is the type of experience you have when you attend the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas.

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Program Book
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Program Book
(Image by Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute)
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I attended the 26th Annual Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival--unlike most film festivals like Sundance or Tribeca, which cater to Hollywood power brokers; here the Documentary Filmmakers are the stars. I was drawn to see the screenings of "ACORN and the Firestorm." This was a documentary about the rise and fall of ACORN--which was originally, Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now. The film is based on a book called "Seeds of Change" written by John Atlas.

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Poster
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Poster
(Image by Michael McCray)
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John Atlas is the first journalist that has been given full access to ACORN board and staff meetings. He was imbedded in ACORN for five years. This is unique access to a notoriously secretive organization, but it also makes his reporting susceptible to bias or influence. It is easy to be seduced by Wade Rathke--as a seasoned organizer, that is what he does best. The movie was written and directed by Reuben Atlas (his son) and Samuel Pollard. John Atlas was a Producer--and attended the film festival. He also brought other ACORN acolytes with him to share in Questions & Answers. I like to attend all things about ACORN, because I am a former ACORN Board Member and whistleblower. I also wrote a book about my inside experiences with the association called "ACORN 8--Race, Power & Politics: Memoirs of An ACORN Whistleblower."

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Ticket Stub
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival Ticket Stub
(Image by Michael McCray)
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I watched the movie"

The film starts with Travis from Orlando who is a Confederate Flag owning Republican who joins ACORN to save his home from foreclosure. The film focuses on the exploits of Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe, two conservative activists who orchestrate an elaborate media hoax that ultimately destroys the once venerable association with the help of Andrew Breitbart. The film is a cautionary tale of how easily the media can be manipulated to disastrous ends. And how ACORN became the first casualty of the "fake news" by Andrew Breitbart.

The film juxtaposes the story of Bertha Lewis, an African-American community organizer who rises up and becomes the first Black CEO of ACORN, with the story of Hannah Giles, a wannabe student-journalist who desires to destroy the group. The film also includes interviews with Wade Rathke, the putative "founder" and Chief Organizer of ACORN, Madeline Talbott, Head Organizer for Chicago ACORN, and Maud Hurd, former National President of ACORN.

The film gives the history of the ACORN, how it started in Arkansas and grew to 400,000 member families in over two dozen states. The way the film is presented gives the viewer a glimpse of the 40-year rise of the association as an effective advocate for poor and working class families, before Hannah Giles decides to expose the group.

ACORN was a good organization which did good work and produced powerful enemies. Hannah solicited James O'Keefe and they decided to film undercover videos in ACORN offices posing as pose as a "pimp" and "prostitute." When an embezzlement was discovered--during their sting, Wade Rathke was ousted and Bertha Lewis became CEO. James O'Keefe spliced the footage and Andrew Breitbart made the highly-edited videos go viral

As a result of the fake pimp, the mainstream media finally picked up on the false ACORN story and ran with it. The ensuing media firestorm caused Congress to cut ties and funding to ACORN, which eventually bankrupted the association. Republican Congressman Steven King introduced a bill to defund ACORN; surprisingly, Democrats went along with it, and former ACORN community organizer President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

The film presents this as a simple story of media manipulation and a conservative agenda. This is a good story--but a false narrative.

Left to Right: Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF Zach Polett, Former ACORN, Political Director John Atlas, Author / Producer Neil Sealy, Head Organizer for Arkansas Community Organizations
Left to Right: Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF Zach Polett, Former ACORN, Political Director John Atlas, Author / Producer Neil Sealy, Head Organizer for Arkansas Community Organizations
(Image by Michael McCray)
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Atlas presents the attacks as purely partisan or ideological. It is true that conservative activists wanted to destroy the most effective progressive organization in 40 years. But the fact that the ACORN whistleblowers are liberals and they attacked ACORN from the left does not fit this narrative, which is why John Atlas chose to ignore the ACORN 8 story. The way the film is edited, clips from a 2015 deposition of Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe are presented in the context of 2008 as proceeding their publicity stunt. What this does is it gives the audience an omnipotent point of view. We're in on the hoax from the very beginning; but it also distorts the chronology of events. In this case, because important information is selectively deleted, it distorts the viewers ability to discern cause and effect. This is another form of media manipulation.

Q & A Session

After the first screening, the moderator opened the questions and answers session with a frank discussion about how horrible Hannah Giles was as a human being. I asked John Atlas, a documentary filmmaker, why did he feel that it was okay to exclude the story about the ACORN 8 and ACORN whistleblowers from the film, from a journalism perspective? His response was short and flippant. "I'm not the director--that's my son." He later explained that he did not feel that the ACORN 8 or ACORN whistleblowers were significant to the story of ACORN.

A blond woman in a pink blouse asked a follow up question. "I want to know more about the ACORN 8" she said. The panel allowed me to briefly address the audience. "A civil war within ACORN broke out after revelation that a multi-million dollar embezzlement and cover up reached the board of directors. ACORN supporters went public in an effort to root out the corruption and reform the once venerable association. This became an internal battle about 'right vs wrong,' and not 'left vs right' waged by (liberal) ACORN Board Members, who were not conservative activists. This ACORN civil war spilled over to cable news and mainstream media outlets including FOX News, CNN and NBC. The ACORN whistleblowers, collectively known as the ACORN 8, broke through; which laid the ground work that the fake pimp news story exploited. ACORN was already in a firestorm sparked by liberal whistleblowers, before Hannah and the fake pimp ever strolled along."

"Contrary to this film, the real story is about ACORN whistleblowers. The ACORN story broke through because Marcel Reid and Karen Inman (from the ACORN 8) went on Glenn Beck. Hannah Giles appeared on Glenn Beck after the story was in full string. However, that appearance drove the rest of the main stream media coverage. The ACORN whistleblowers lit the powder keg, that exploded with the fake pimp Breitbart videos. That is the whole truth which still needs to be told--and one day will be."

Left to Right: Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF Tony Orr, Head Organizer for SEIU Local 100 John Atlas, Author / Producer
Left to Right: Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF Tony Orr, Head Organizer for SEIU Local 100 John Atlas, Author / Producer
(Image by Michael McCray)
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Following the second screening, I asked John Atlas if he recognized the irony that he was acting like Andrew Breitbart? The difference is Andrew Breitbart had committed a "lie of commission" by manipulating and inserting footage that created a false impression that ACORN was corrupt. While John Atlas had committed a "lie of omission" be rearranging and deleting footage that created a false impression that ACORN was innocent. One thing we learned from the ACORN ordeal as whistleblowers was that the truth can become the victim of the political narrative, either from the right or the left.

o Hanna Giles and James O'Keefe were the filmmakers; Andrew Breitbart was the producer who selectively edited their videos to promote a conservative, right-wing conservative agenda. The truth be damned.

o Reuben Atlas and Samuel Pollard were the filmmakers; John Atlas is the author and producer; and they selectively edit the film to promote a left-wing, progressive agenda. The truth be damned.

John Atlas paused, and reiterated his earlier statement. He felt that the story about the ACORN whistleblowers was insignificant to this story. Like most journalists, who use whistleblowers as information sources to break news stories, but often find them expendable after the news cycle is over. But Atlas he went further this time and said what was important to him was the embezzlement that removed Wade Rathke ('The Pope') from ACORN, the racial tensions within the association and Bertha Lewis becoming a "Bishop" in the ACORN hierarchy, and Rathke's top down leadership and management style.

Overall recommendation: borrowing a term from HBO "ACORN and the Firestorm" is a Game Changer and must see political documentary. Most people will learn a lot about an important grassroots political organization. Things they would never know. Ironically, it is also a powerful critique of modern media manipulation; using manipulated media techniques.

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Photo Credits: Michael McCray

Screening One

Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF

Zach Polett, Former ACORN, Political Director

John Atlas, Author / Producer

Neil Sealy, Head Organizer for Arkansas Community Organizations

Screening Two

Derek Horne , Moderator, HSDFF

Tony Orr, Head Organizer for SEIU Local 100

John Atlas, Author / Producer

Follow him on Twitter @McCrayAuthor



Authors Website: http://www.WhistleBlowerSummit.com

Authors Bio:

Michael McCray is a public interest advocate who combats racism and corruption in the government and other institutions which deprive individuals of their basic civil rights, human rights and constitutional liberties. McCray is co-chair of the International Association of Whistleblowers (IAW), and a National Board Member for Federally Employed Women Legal Education Fund (FEW/LEF). McCray is the Author of ACORN 8: RACE, POWER & POLITICS--Memoirs of an ACORN Whistleblower; and he also hosts "The Fifth Estate" on Pacifica Radio, the only show made by whistleblowers--about whistleblowers.


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