Saturday, October 17, 2009

Falling from the tree

It was easy to guess that Acorn's time in the public spotlight would have some major bumps in the road. Still, the organization's latest problems raise a troubling new issue that has little to do with inner-city politics.

If you weren't paying attention last fall, Acorn came under scrutiny during the Presidential election. Barack Obama had done some work for the group, which specializes in inner-city matters such as housing and voter registration. The organization has done some really good work right here in Buffalo, for what it's worth. Acorn came under fire because it hired people to sign up potential voters, and those people -- who usually are unemployed and often homeless -- made up names to submit to a city's Board of Elections. I believe the Chicago Bears defense all signed up to vote. The Board of Elections threw out the names -- that's its job -- and life moved on.

Except, the matter became something of a campaign issue among some conservative circles. Inner-city residents tend to vote Democratic, so some Republicans were quick to discredit Acorn -- and thus Obama. It was all a bit silly to most, but election season is silly season.

Lately, though, matters took a more serious turn. Filmmaker James O'Keefe staged some meetings with Acorn representatives, as he asked for (and received) advice on how to skirt the law in setting up a sex smuggling operation. O'Keefe filmed the results and gave them to Andrew Breitbart, who rolled them out on Fox News and his own Web site.

"This plan wasn't just a means to defend against the media's desire to attack the messenger," Mr. Breitbart says in the article. "It was also a means to attack the media and to expose them ... for the partisan hacks that they are."

The dominoes started falling from there. Acorn fired some employees, and federal legislators and agencies started sprinting to get away from Acorn's suddenly toxic fumes. Can't say the Democrats showed a whole lot of political courage in this one. In today's Wall St. Journal, Breitbart essentially brags about how smart he was to get the story out and harm Acorn, even if the ethics of the matter were a bit on the, um, shady side. As in, ever hear of entrapment?

One of the appealing parts of journalism to me is the chance to practice standards of professionalism and ethics. Even the WSJ's article author, James Taranto, admits that no "legitimate" newsgathering organization would have used such techniques.

Yet, when the story did come out through the Internet and a probably sympathetic news source in Fox News (Probably? Who am I kidding?), it became a issue that attracted attention -- just as the perpetrators planned. It took a while, at least in part because of the methods used. Do the ends justify the means? For Breitbart and O'Keefe, apparently.

I'm not sure what the rules are in cases like this, and the journalism business will have to deal with such matters in the months and years to come. I'm only sure of one point. If I ever do happen to meet Breitbart in person, I'll feel like taking a shower as soon as I can in order to wash him off me.

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