Mainstream media and video stings


You’ve got to give James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles credit for abundant chutzpah and guile.

The two young political provocateurs decked themselves out as a pimp and prostitute and rocked ACORN with a series of secret videos showing the sketchy behavior of employees of the activist organization that registers voters, organizes communities and advocates for cheap housing for poor people.

O’Keefe and Giles’ takedown, a television staple for more than a week, likely will do for guerrilla video what Ashton Kutcher did for Twitter -- popularize and expand the form. Politicians have known for some time that they can be punked by hidden video. Now nurses, doctors, teachers, cops, social workers -- just about everyone -- ought to get ready for their unflattering close-ups.

“I’m a fake journalist, and I’m embarrassed these guys scooped me,” Jon Stewart shouted on his “Daily Show” as he lambasted news organizations for failing to expose ACORN.


It was a good line and rang true, as did Stewart’s incredulity that some ACORN employees would listen sympathetically, and even offer help, to a couple of flamboyantly attired goofballs who talked about setting up a brothel for 14-year-old girls from El Salvador.

But is Stewart right? Should news organizations be using this kind of subterfuge to get stories? If so, when? And when such hidden-camera theatrics come over the transom, how closely should they be scrutinized before they are thrown open to the public?

The answers -- surprise, surprise -- are not so simple.

Local and national television outlets have not been averse to assuming fake identities and sometimes using hidden cameras to expose, for example, unsafe factory working conditions or abuses in rest homes.

But the Society of Professional Journalists has set a standard that deception should be used only when every other reporting approach has been exhausted and only then in certain cases, most notably to reveal a severe social problem or to prevent people from being harmed.

Legal judgments against undercover journalists have also made TV producers and executives markedly less willing to use false pretenses to send their journalists on sting operations.

Particularly chilling was the pummeling (and, initially, a $5.5-million judgment) ABC took in the mid-1990s for deceiving the Food Lion supermarket chain into hiring workers who were really reporters trying to expose unsanitary conditions for the network’s “PrimeTime Live.”


Political nemesis

Giles and O’Keefe, of course, live outside the world of mainstream media. Both are conservative political activists who play by their own rules. Both have made clear that they saw ACORN -- with its liberal activism and history of signing on Democratic voters in scads -- as a political nemesis that deserved to be brought down.

Giles, 20, is the daughter of Doug Giles, a conservative pastor and columnist who routinely throttles President Obama. O’Keefe, 25, wrote in an essay on 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.

No mitigating factors can explain away the behavior of pathetically accommodating ACORN workers (some since terminated) captured on some of the video. Here’s how to conceal your prostitution income! How about cutting your taxes by claiming those underage immigrants as dependents! Not pretty.

Yet no legitimate news organization can claim editorial integrity if it merely regurgitates information from political activists without subjecting the material to serious scrutiny.

“The role of gatekeeper and arbiter is the main role left for the mainstream media,” said Jane Kirtley, professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “If they are not at least doing that, they might as well give up.”

Some news outlets have taken that responsibility on earnestly, but others, notably Fox News and its commentators, have taken a pass. They’ve offered little context and less proportion in recycling the ACORN story, day after day.

O’Keefe and his promoters insisted in Fox interviews that not a single ACORN worker had the slightest qualms when confronted with the prostitution scheme.

Yet a report from Philadelphia suggests an ACORN worker in that city called police after a visit by the odd duo. And another statement, from police in National City, Calif., seems to show that a suspended ACORN worker (who appeared far too accepting of the immigrant smuggling scheme on camera) later called his cousin, a police detective, to ask for advice about the matter.

Wild claims

No one at Fox apparently bothered to try to verify the fantastical claims of a San Bernardino ACORN worker who said on another video that she had killed her ex-husband. Police have since said her former spouses are alive and well.

And visits to other ACORN offices have gone almost entirely unmentioned. Lavelle Stewart, a fair-housing coordinator in the group’s Los Angeles office, told me this week that she tried to get the “prostitute,” who claimed she had been beaten by her pimp, to go to a women’s center.

“The fact she was not taking the help I offered her made me think something was not right,” Stewart said. “It raised a red flag.”

Does any of this mean ACORN gets a clean bill of health? Hardly. But it suggests that the full scope of the story, and a fair and balanced look at an organization that clearly has some problems, has not yet emerged.

Fox’s new emoter-in-chief, Glenn Beck, would have us believe that this is a story “so explosive it’s going to peel the skin right off of your face.”

And no wonder. The Foxites seem to accept on faith a claim from the youthful videographers that ACORN “stands to receive $8.5 billion in stimulus money.” Sean Hannity asserted last week that the video “probably saved the country billions and billions of dollars.”

But no one with any proximity to the facts believes anything like that. One of ACORN’s harshest critics, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), puts the group’s funding since 1994 at $53 million.

The Washington Post noted that, to reach the claimed $8.5 billion, the group would have to apply for and receive every penny of the $3 billion set aside for community revitalization in the economic stimulus bill, along with an additional $5.5 billion in federal community block grants.

ACORN said it has made no such applications. Even if it did, no rational being on Capitol Hill would think it would get a fraction of that ginormous payday.

Make-believe can be a powerful tactic for video stings and commentators out to stir the pot.

But then, journalists are supposed to take the raw material and meld it into something more meaningful. That requires context, proportion and, above all, a sense of reality.


On the Media also appears on Fridays on A2.