Mar 22 2010

NYT Public Editor Admits ACORN Errors

In a response to a FAIR action alert (3/11/10), New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt (3/21/10) acknowledged that the paper got key facts wrong in reporting on the undercover videos attacking the community organizing group ACORN.

The main issue was the fact that James O’Keefe, the activist who produced the videos, did not actually dress up like a “pimp” when he visited the offices. This was a major theme in stories that appeared in the Times and elsewhere: As FAIR pointed out, O’Keefe’s supposed get-up was 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.”

Hoyt had maintained–in emails with critics of the paper like blogger Brad Friedman (Brad Blog, 2/23/10)–that the Times had made no correctable errors in its coverage of story. Now the public editor has returned to the issue with a new point of view, crediting the “hundreds of readers I’ve heard from since liberal groups like FAIR–Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting–took up the cause.” In his latest column, Hoyt wrote:

Here is what I found: O’Keefe almost certainly did not go into the ACORN offices in the outlandish costume–fur coat, goggle-like sunglasses, walking stick and broad-brimmed hat–in which he appeared at the beginning and end of most of his videos. It is easy to see why the Times and other news organizations got a different impression. At one point, as the videos were being released, O’Keefe wore the get-up on Fox News, and a host said he was “dressed exactly in the same outfit he wore to these ACORN offices.” He did not argue.

He added that “I am satisfied that the Times was wrong on this point, and I have been wrong in defending the paper’s phrasing. Editors say they are considering a correction.” That is obviously a welcome development, though it remains puzzling why Hoyt would claim that it is “easy to see why the Times and other news organizations” got this wrong. Journalistically speaking, there was no reason to take O’Keefe’s videos (or the assertions of Fox News) at face value–unless Hoyt’s real point is that reporters are easily fooled.

Hoyt also acknowledged that the “videos were heavily edited. The sequence of some conversations was changed. Some workers seemed concerned for Giles [O’Keefe’s collaborator], one advising her to get legal help.”

Hoyt sought out the opinion of Scott Harshbarger, the former Massachusetts attorney general who was commissioned by ACORN to write a report about the organzation’s management problems: “He also said the news media should have been far more skeptical, demanding the raw video from which the edited versions were produced. ‘It’s outrageous that this could have had this effect without being questioned more,’ he said.”

As FAIR argued in its alert, the problems with the Times story were bigger than O’Keefe’s wardrobe. Throughout its coverage, the Times has reported that O’Keefe–playing the part of a pimp–was given assistance on a number of fronts, from tax evasion to “how to set up a brothel.” That sweeping conclusion seemed to be at odds with the transcripts released by O’Keefe, which were far more ambiguous. Hoyt failed to address most of that criticism, but remained confident that ACORN workers were still assisting in some sort of criminal enterprise:

FAIR said that in Brooklyn, O’Keefe and Giles seemed to be telling ACORN staffers that “they are attempting to buy a house to protect child prostitutes from an abusive pimp.” That’s right, but FAIR left out the part about their clear intention to operate a brothel, which the ACORN workers seemed to take in stride, with one warning: “Don’t get caught, ’cause it is against the law.”

Hoyt’s account is misleading. In that part of the conversation, the ACORN workers seem to be counseling Giles to try and get away from prostitution after she told them that she had been threatened by an abusive pimp. One of the ACORN workers tells her that she has personally seen young girls involved in prostitution: “You have got to start thinking…. I can’t tell you, ‘Don’t do it,’ because you will never listen to me. Right now, that’s all you’re seeing, OK?” It is in that part of the conversation that Giles is told, “Don’t get caught, ’cause it is against the law.”

As Hoyt noted, ACORN is facing serious problems right now, in large part due to the negative publicity surrounding these fraudulent videos. If the O’Keefe videos had been treated more skeptically by the Times and other outlets, ACORN would likely be facing a far brighter future. Hoyt wrote:

It remains a fascinating story. To conservatives, ACORN is virtually a criminal organization that was guilty of extensive voter registration fraud in 2008. To its supporters, ACORN is a community service organization that has helped millions of disadvantaged Americans by organizing to confront powerful institutions like banks and developers.

This is, in a sense, precisely the problem. What conservatives believe ACORN is doing has virtually no connection with reality, but has gotten ample exposure in corporate news media; ACORN’s actual record of highly successful advocacy on behalf of poor people gets relatively less media attention. (See Christopher Martin and Peter Dreier’s study, “Manipulating the Public Agenda,” 9/09.)

One account of O’Keefe’s interest in ACORN (L.A. Times, 9/23/09) explained that “he had become convinced of ACORN’s ‘regard for thug criminality’ in part after seeing a YouTube video of the group’s workers breaking into foreclosed homes.” That far-right worldview has driven the public debate about ACORN, thanks in no small part to outlets like the Times treating these videos as if they were investigative reporting rather than crude propaganda.