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Guerrilla stings of ACORN don’t meet standards of journalism

It’s been two months since a couple of young political guerrillas made a splash with a series of hidden-camera videos about the liberal social service organization ACORN.

Now agents provocateurs James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles have released their latest installment via the Internet and Sean Hannity’s program on Fox News, with the promise that there could be more to come.

Fans of O’Keefe and Giles -- and they have many on the political right -- describe them as heroes. They win cheers at conservative gatherings. Hannity said last week that they deserved a journalism award.

The duo certainly has caused a stir -- and raised questions about an organization that in the past had received substantial government funding -- but, sorry folks, please don’t call this journalism.

That profession has been under considerable attack and retrenching in the face of daunting economic forces, but it still attempts to live by a set of standards. That includes getting a fair representation of all sides.

Giles and O’Keefe have made no bones about living by a different code. Giles, 20, advised a recent leadership conference for young conservatives on how to take down liberal groups. “Above all, attack, attack, attack,” she urged the enthusiastic crowd. “Never defend.”

O’Keefe, 25, told the Washington Post that he had grown furious at ACORN (Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now) after viewing a YouTube video of workers from the group breaking off the locks of foreclosed homes and barging inside. He said in an interview that the deception involved in video stings is warranted if it exposes what he believes are greater evils.

Armed with that zeal and a hidden video camera, O’Keefe and Giles visited a series of ACORN offices this summer, with the scantily clad young woman presenting herself as a prostitute and O’Keefe often posing as her boyfriend.

The duo presented ACORN employees with outlandish scenarios, including one about starting a house of prostitution with underage immigrant girls and then hiding the source of the income so O’Keefe could one day use some of the money to run for political office.

I wrote a couple of months ago that “no mitigating factors can explain away the behavior of pathetically accommodating ACORN workers (some since terminated) captured on some of the video.” The employees went along with the unsavory and illegal proposals. As I wrote: “Here’s how to conceal your prostitution income! How about cutting your taxes by claiming those underage immigrants as dependents!” I reach the same conclusion today that I did then: “Not pretty.”

The coverage of the ACORN “stings” has centered on the videos and replies from the organization. ACORN leaders argued that the interactions were taken out of context and that mitigating events were edited out of the final videos.

As has been noted previously, the response from ACORN employees was not so uniformly compliant as the videographers have implied. Workers in a couple of offices called police after the stings to report, or inquire how to handle, the unusual visitors. An employee at an Inland Empire ACORN office responded by spinning out a wild fantasy of her own (describing how she murdered her ex-husband), suggesting she had played the undercover players.

Despite all that, anti-ACORN activists previously have insisted that none of the organization’s employees demonstrated any qualms about the corrupt proposals. Yet last week, in the newest ACORN video, O’Keefe shows an employee at one of the group’s L.A. offices and says he “wouldn’t offer us any help.” (When I asked about the apparent discrepancy, O’Keefe claimed that even this worker’s actions were equivocal.)

Who knows what we might find -- either damaging or benefiting ACORN’s image -- if we could see the unedited video of these encounters? The raw material could be posted on YouTube for all to see.

Again, none of this would grant a free pass to those ACORN workers in some videos who demonstrated a remarkable failure to come up with one word: no. As in: No, we don’t engage in that kind of activity or help anyone who does.

It might seem surprising given their conservative credentials, but both O’Keefe and Giles have talked of employing the combative tactics of the leftist political strategist Saul Alinsky and his “Rules for Radicals.”

Alinsky recommended, among other things, relentless and persistent attacks on an enemy, giving no quarter, with the “conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.”

I’ve managed to get caught up in such a drumbeat myself in recent days by suggesting in that September column that the video stings couldn’t be fully understood without more context.

I provoked particular wrath by writing about the videographers’ visit to another ACORN office in L.A., quoting Lavelle Stewart, a fair housing coordinator there who told me she had not offered any direct assistance to the “prostitute.”

Stewart said back then that she tried to redirect the young woman -- who described being abused by her pimp -- to a neighboring agency that helps the victims of violence.

The latest video, taken during an August visit to the ACORN office on South Grand Avenue, shows Stewart guiding Giles toward a door down the hall from ACORN, labeled Program for Torture Victims, an agency that focuses on aiding the victims of state-sponsored terror but that maintains a referral list for other abuse victims.

But that’s not all the video shows. It also shows an apparently untroubled Stewart listening to the undercover duo’s unsavory and inappropriate schemes. At one point, the ACORN worker suggests that Giles might seek a business arrangement with porn magnate Larry Flynt. At another, responding to O’Keefe’s query, Stewart seems to puzzle over how he might hide the source of his “girlfriend’s” prostitution income.

When I called Stewart to ask why she would offer such suggestions, she said that the duo kept persisting and that she had groped for a way to satisfy them enough to get them to leave.

Viewers of the video will doubtless reach varying conclusions about Stewart’s credibility and the dynamics in the office that day. But, clearly, the new video helped reinvigorate the campaign of embarrassment.

I regret that I didn’t get through in September when I tried to obtain O’Keefe’s response to Stewart’s comments. He said he didn’t receive the e-mail I sent via the website that posts his videos. He told me this week via e-mail that Stewart has no legitimate defense for her “outrageous” comments and that release of unedited video would do nothing to make her look better.

So what sort of creature does this make O’Keefe? I don’t disagree with his observation in a previous interview with The Times that he follows the mold of filmmaker Michael Moore, using confrontation to get at his version of the truth.

He’s already filled the public psyche with shaky images of ACORN employees and helped cut the organization’s federal funding.

At least a small portion of the population -- based on the vitriolic e-mail I’ve received -- thinks the videos should spell the end of ACORN and the end of the story.

But most people still don’t have a clue what the organization does or how well it fulfills its mission.

If anyone is going to answer those questions, it will have to be journalists, while the political theater goes on and on.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimesrainey


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