On October 7, less than a month from Election Day, Nevada law enforcement officials and the FBI raided the Las Vegas offices of the community activist group ACORN, alleging that it was running an illegal voter registration campaign to steal the election for its officially endorsed presidential candidate, Barack Obama. ACORN’s “fraud” dominated CNN and Fox News reporting for weeks. But instead of pointing out the basic flaws of this charge, corporate media coverage neglected the facts and hammered home a specious story.
Viewers were bombarded by reports that across the country, ACORN had turned in thousands of fake registration forms (e.g., using false or duplicated information). CNN‘s Anderson Cooper 360 aired an early report (10/9/08) by correspondent Drew Griffin that set the tone of the network’s coverage. As a Las Vegas election board official showed him piles of new registration forms, Griffin inspected some of those in question: “It’s not that some are bad. Once they started going through them, every one they looked at was bad.” After the segment ended, Griffin said: “It absolutely is a crime. That was a fraud, somebody who filled out those forms. And I looked at them, Anderson. They’re obviously a fraud.” The next day Griffin reiterated (American Newsroom, 10/10/08), “Well, it’s not even accused there, it’s fraud.” At the time, no charges had actually been filed against ACORN, let alone a verdict handed down.
In fact, Griffin’s find was more likely evidence that ACORN was doing its job: To guard against partisan filtering, nearly every state requires voter registration drives like ACORN’s to submit all completed registration forms, regardless of how questionable they appear; ACORN supervisors review every single form submitted by canvassers, flag the suspicious ones and even bundle them separately (Boston Globe, 10/22/08; Christian Science Monitor, 10/19/08).
But most initial coverage failed to acknowledge this basic fact of the story: “No real explanation from [ACORN attorney] Brian Mellor on how 2,100 applications—fraudulent applications—were turned in in the first place,” Griffin declared (CNN Newsroom, 10/9/08).
Some media—particularly Fox News—took the ACORN story as an opportunity both to attack the organization and to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election. Fox host Martha MacCullum asked (10/8/08): “Barack Obama is ahead right now in many of the battleground states, the same states where investigations are underway for voter fraud, allegedly. . . . Is this a coincidence?” (That would be some kind of vote fraud—altering poll results weeks before the election!) Fox News‘s John Gibson flat-out claimed (10/8/08), “ACORN is trying to steal the election for Obama,” while CNN‘s Lou Dobbs previewed a segment (10/9/08), “Are they trying to steal the election outright?” Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), appearing on Fox‘s Happening Now (10/10/08), claimed that ACORN “violated more Americans’ civil rights to have their vote counted than any group since the KKK.”
In fact, fraudulent voter registrations of the sort some ACORN canvassers turned in virtually never result in actual fraudulent votes, which are exceedingly rare: A 2006 Justice Department study (New York Times, 4/12/07) found that only 86 people had been convicted of vote fraud in the previous five years.
Voter suppression, on the other hand, is a very real and well-documented threat to “the fabric of democracy,” to borrow John McCain’s famous words about ACORN (see Brennan Center for Justice, 9/30/08; New York Times, 10/8/08; Rolling Stone, 10/30/08), but corporate media have generally put much greater emphasis on things like ACORN’s purported subterfuge. When asked to comment on voter suppression, CNN‘s Griffin replied (Situation Room, 10/16/08):
Well, how about the indictment two days earlier of former GOP operative James Tobin in connection with the conspiracy to jam Democratic get-out-the-vote phone-lines in New Hampshire in 2002, which helped “elect” Republican John Sununu to the Senate (AP, 10/14/08)? CNN never reported on it.
And if fraudulent voter registration is somehow more newsworthy than suppression efforts, there was plenty to report on the Republican side as well—for example, voter registration fraud by the Young Political Majors, a GOP group, resulted in perjury charges and one arrest (L.A. Times, 10/18/08, 10/19/08, 10/20/08).
Once it became clear that the election would not be close, the “ACORN steals election” story lost its traction, but it was not for lack of effort on the part of media. And while we may yet hear mea culpas about too much focus on personalities or polls, journalists will likely never address why they thought the fantasy of community activists engaging in fraud to elect a black candidate was a much more compelling story than ongoing, documented suppression of (primarily black) citizens’ right to vote.