Ignoring calls from numerous critics, the New York Times refuses to own up to mistakes in the paper's coverage of the now-famous right-wing videotapes attacking the community organizing group ACORN. Instead, the paper's public editor, Clark Hoyt, is relying on an absurd semantic justification in order to claim the paper does not need to print any corrections.
As conventionally reported in the Times and elsewhere, right-wing activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles dressed up as a pimp and a prostitute and visited several local ACORN offices, where office workers gave the duo advice on setting up a brothel, concealing a child prostitution ring and so forth. But many of the key "facts" surrounding the videos are either in dispute or are demonstrable fabrications.
Though O'Keefe appears in various scenes in the videos wearing a garish and absurd "pimp" costume, he in fact did not wear the outfit when he appeared in the ACORN offices (Washington Independent, 2/19/10); he was dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks. This fact undermines one of the key contentions of the ACORN smear--that the group is so hopelessly corrupt that they would dispense advice to an obvious criminal.
What's more, the "advice" that they received, according to the transcripts released by O'Keefe and Giles, does not appear to be as incriminating as it was portrayed in the videos--and echoed in outlets like the New York Times.
A review of the Times coverage:
--In an early piece (9/16/09), readers were told of the "amateur actors, posing as a prostitute and a pimp and recorded on hidden cameras in visits to ACORN offices.... Conservative advocates and broadcasters were gleeful about the success of the tactics in exposing ACORN workers, who appeared to blithely encourage prostitution and tax evasion." The Times explained:
The undercover videos showed a scantily dressed young woman, Hannah Giles, posing as a prostitute, while a young man, James O'Keefe, played her pimp. They visited ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, Brooklyn and San Bernardino, Calif., candidly describing their illicit business and asking the advice of ACORN workers. Among other questions, they asked how to buy a house to use as a brothel employing underage girls from El Salvador.
The paper also reported that O'Keefe "was dressed so outlandishly that he might have been playing in a risque high school play. But in the footage made public--initially by a new website, BigGovernment.com--ACORN employees raised no objections to the criminal plans. Instead, they eagerly counseled the couple on how to hide their activities from the authorities, avoid taxes and make the brothel scheme work."
--Three days later (9/19/09): "Their travels in the gaudy guise of pimp and prostitute through various offices of ACORN, the national community organizing group, caught its low-level employees in five cities sounding eager to assist with tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution."
--New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt weighed in (9/27/09), chiding the paper for not being more aggressive in promoting the ACORN videos--lamenting that Times readers weren't as up-to-speed on the story as "followers of Fox News," who already knew "that a video sting had caught ACORN workers counseling a bogus prostitute and pimp on how to set up a brothel staffed by under-age girls, avoid detection and cheat on taxes."
--The following week (10/4/09), Hoyt was on the ACORN case again: "To recap: Two conservative activists with a concealed video camera, posing as a prostitute and her pimp, visited offices of ACORN, the community organizing group, and lured employees into bizarre conversations about how to establish a bordello, cheat on taxes and smuggle in underage girls from Central America."
--After O'Keefe was charged in January with attempting to tamper with the phone system in Sen. Mary Landrieu's office, the Times reported under the headline, "After Arrest, Provocateur's Tactics Are Questioned" (1/28/10): "Mr. O'Keefe is a conservative activist who gained fame last year by posing as a pimp and secretly recording members of the community group ACORN giving him advice on how to set up a brothel."
---On January 31, 2010: "Mr. O'Keefe made his biggest national splash last year when he dressed up as a pimp and trained his secret camera on counselors with the liberal community group ACORN--eliciting advice on financing a brothel on videos that would threaten to become ACORN's undoing.
--On March 2, 2010, under the headline, "ACORN's Advice to Fake Pimp Was No Crime, Prosecutor Says, "the Times reported: "The ACORN employees in Brooklyn who were captured on a hidden camera seeming to offer conservative activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute creative advice on how to get a mortgage have been cleared of wrongdoing by the Brooklyn district attorney's office."
But the story the Times continues to tell is wildly misleading, as a review of the publicly available transcripts of his visit (BigGovernment.com) makes clear. O'Keefe never dressed as a pimp during his visits to ACORN offices, seems to never actually represent himself as a "pimp," and the advice he solicits is usually about how to file income taxes (which is not "tax evasion"). In at least one encounter (at a Baltimore ACORN office), the pair seemed to first insist that Giles was a dancer, not a prostitute.
In the case recounted in the March 2 Times story, the transcripts show that O'Keefe did not portray himself as a pimp to the ACORN workers in Brooklyn, but told them that he was trying to help his prostitute girlfriend. In part of the exchange, O'Keefe and his accomplice seem to be telling ACORN staffers that they are attempting to buy a house to protect child prostitutes from an abusive pimp.
Throughout the months the Times covered the story, it made a major mistake: believing that Internet videos produced by right-wing activists were to be trusted uncritically, rather than approached with the skepticism due to anything you'd come across on the Web. O'Keefe and the Web publisher Andrew Breitbart refused to make unedited copies of the videotape public, and with good reason: A more complete viewing, as the transcripts show, would produce a much different impression.
While the Times decide to skip the standard rules of journalism, ACORN commissioned an independent investigation led by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger (12/7/09), which noted that the
So what has the Times done in response? As reported extensively by blogger Brad Friedman (Brad Blog), several Times staffers have been asked to justify the paper's lack of accountability. In the most remarkable exchange, public editor Clark Hoyt--who had criticized the paper for not doing enough reporting on the tapes--wrote that the paper had made no errors that merited a correction (Brad Blog, 2/23/10). He explained that the January 31 story "says O'Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on ACORN counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time."
It is hard to believe that Hoyt actually believes what he's saying here. The obvious implication from the language of the article (and the others documented above) is that ACORN was dispensing advice to someone dressed up in an absurd pimp outfit. The Times chose to believe that O'Keefe's work was journalism that didn't need to be treated skeptically. The videos were in fact a hoax, and the Times was duped. Its readers deserve to know as much--and ACORN, which suffered serious political damage as a result of the false stories, deserves an apology.
In his September column criticizing the paper for being slow to report the ACORN videos, Hoyt wrote: "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." Worse than looking partisan, though, is being wrong.
ACTION: Encourage New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt to recommend that the paper investigate the ACORN videos and produce a report that clarifies the record.
New York Times
Clark Hoyt, Public Editor
Phone: (212) 556-7652