09.15.09

The Right's Bob Woodward?

A hidden-camera report showed ACORN staffers offering to help set up a brothel. Conor Friedersdorf applauds the right’s new investigative zeal—and makes the case for taping public servants.

Prior to this week, the idea that the community organizers at ACORN would willingly help a pimp and his hooker girlfriend establish a brothel staffed by underage El Salvadorans would have beggared belief. Could Bob Woodward himself have persuaded editors to back an undercover investigation premised on that possibility?

Yet staffers at three separate offices run by the national non-profit abetted what they believed to be that very scheme. Credit is due to 25-year-old independent filmmaker James O'Keefe and his accomplice Hannah Giles for dreaming up the over-the-top scenario, costuming themselves in attire so exaggerated as to suggest a "Pimp & Ho"-themed fraternity party, and capturing the whole thing on hidden video. The pair even baited their marks into offering advice on how a brothel might launder its profits into a future congressional campaign! Were these ACORN folks the same people who advised Rod Blagojevich?

Video screenshot

The story, published on Andrew Breitbart's newly launched Web site Big Government, marks a new era in partisan journalism. As recently as 2004, the right counted as its greatest new media triumph a cooperative effort to debunk a CBS story on President Bush's National Guard service. How quickly the bar has been raised. The ACORN expose offered original reporting, broke on a movement blog, released updates in a way calculated to maximize the damage to its target, and produced immediate results: already the United Stated Census Bureau has informed the organization that its services are no longer wanted, and the United States Senate voted Monday to prevent it from receiving federal housing funds.

The independent filmmaker and his accomplice even baited their marks into offering advice on how a brothel might launder its profits into a future congressional campaign! Were these ACORN folks the same people who advised Rod Blagojevich?

All that's missing is appropriate recognition by the national press that a worthy, significant scoop has been produced. So far that hasn't happened, despite the fact that equivalent information garnered by a newspaper and displayed over three days in a multi-part series would contend for a Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps unaffiliated news organizations are hesitant to weigh in on a matter so fraught with political baggage until they've done their own reporting to verify the scoop. Delay on those grounds is forgivable.

But it would be folly for news organizations to ignore this story out of pettiness or snobbery. Though everyone involved in producing the ACORN expose had ideological ends, they used journalistic means to achieve them—in fact, hyperpartisan impulses that produce muckraking scoops are the rare variety that should be celebrated. Who cares whether a reporter or an activist happened to do the reporting? Everyone benefits when indefensible deeds are accurately exposed and the perpetrators made accountable.

"This isn’t your mother’s '60 Minutes'," Mr. Breitbart conceded. "But then again, why would a twenty five-year old even think straight journalism? His crowd doesn’t even know who Don Hewitt is. They need it quick cut, set to music and packaged to go viral on YouTube."

He added, "But I also know how my journalist friends are going to react. And so my advice to James is this: You can put this thing out your way, but you should also offer the full audio and full transcript so that people can hear and see them in their entirety – sans edits. So they can judge for themselves."

A wise approach—I'm writing this column only after having read the full transcripts. (ACORN has said that the videos were “doctored, edited and in no way the result of the fabricated story being portrayed by conservative activist ‘filmmaker’ James O’Keefe and his partner in crime”—and threatened to sue.)

Of course, traditional journalists and ideological activists are both needed if we're to maintain a healthy polity. And this ACORN expose suggests one area where the two groups can make common cause. Shortly after Big Government posted its initial scoop of hidden camera footage from the ACORN office in Baltimore, people began asking whether criminal charges would be brought against the organization or its employees. Here is how the State Attorney's office in Baltimore responded: "The audio portion could possibly have been obtained in violation of Maryland Law, which requires two party consent." The statement went on to say: "If it is determined that the audio portion now being heard on YouTube was illegally obtained, it is also illegal under Maryland Law to willfully use or willfully disclose the content of said audio." Put more simply, in some states there are laws against recording people without their knowledge, and Maryland is one of them -- thus it is possible that the filmmakers and anyone who spreads their work online would face criminal prosecution.

Journalists and activists alike can cry foul at that potential injustice.

As a First Amendment extremist, I'd prefer that anyone doing journalism, of the citizen or professional variety, be exempted from wiretap laws. My guess is that the benefits of that approach would outweigh the costs, though I acknowledge the latter, and that reasonable people might disagree.

So here I propose a less sweeping piece of legislation: it ought to be legal for any citizen of the United States to record any elected official or employee whose salary is partly or wholly paid with taxpayer dollars, whether he or she is a police officer, an esteemed United States Senator, or a lowly community organizer. That rule would help undercover sleuths keep government and the enterprises it funds accountable, whether through ideologically motivated activism, journalistically motivated investigative reporting, or whatever mix arises in this new era of democratized media.

Conor Friedersdorf writes for The American Scene and The Atlantic Online's ideas blog.