The New York Times admits, sort of, that it got duped by right-wing propagandists who appear to have succeeded in a plot to destroy ACORN, an organization that has aided and defended the poor and powerless across the United States for four decades.
In an op-ed column Sunday, the Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt said he has reviewed the available information and concluded that some key points of the right-wing video presentation were false or misleading, including the claim that right-wing media activist James O’Keefe showed up at ACORN offices dressed in a pimp costume before getting legal advice on setting up a brothel.
“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,” Hoyt wrote, adding that the Times was considering a correction regarding its earlier reporting that had accepted this misleading point.
Hoyt also acknowledged that perhaps the most damning part of the ACORN sting story was wrong: ACORN staffers did not go along with a plan to use under-aged Salvadoran girls as prostitutes. Indeed, the staffers may have thought they were helping to protect the girls.
After reviewing transcripts provided by a conservative organization, Hoyt accepted a criticism of the Times made by the liberal media critics at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, that the Times' earlier reporting on the video gave the impression that O’Keefe and his supposed girlfriend were going to exploit the girls as prostitutes. FAIR said the fuller transcript suggests that the ACORN staffers thought the couple was trying “to buy a house to protect child prostitutes from an abusive pimp.”
“That’s right,” Hoyt wrote, regarding FAIR’s characterization of the child-prostitute point.
However, Hoyt, who earlier had chastised the Times for not jumping on the ACORN scandal faster, insisted that the ACORN employees still deserved criticism for not objecting to other apparent illegalities in O’Keefe’s fictitious schemes. Hoyt said the ACORN workers should have protested any plans regarding a brothel, noting that one ACORN worker blithely warned, “Don’t get caught, ‘cause it is against the law.”
In other words, Hoyt isn’t ready to admit that he joined the Times in a rush to judgment and thus helped destroy ACORN, which has seen its funding dry up, has shuttered many of its offices, and is expected to file for bankruptcy soon.
The ACORN case also underscores how vulnerable liberal and leftist groups are to the Right’s enormous media power. One environmental activist told me recently that every progressive organization in Washington lives in fear that one mis-dotted “I”or one mis-crossed “T” could mean the end.
The massive right-wing media – stretching from magazines, newspapers and books to radio, TV and the Internet – also gives the Right the capability of stampeding the mainstream press against some disfavored politician or even against another media outlet that digs up unwelcomed information.
Think back, for instance, to 2004 and how a few right-wing operatives smeared Sen. John Kerry over his Vietnam War service, as CNN and other key mainstream outlets bought into the tales.
Or how right-wing bloggers put in play a claim that CBS’s “60 Minutes -2” had published bogus memos about George W. Bush blowing off his Vietnam-era National Guard duty. The right-wing claim was that IBM Selectric typewriters in the early 1970s couldn’t do superscripts for the “th” or “st” after a number, when, in fact, they could.
Even though the Selectric claim proved false – and despite the fact that the content of the purported memos was true – CBS succumbed to furious complaints from Bush’s media defenders. Four producers were fired; longtime anchor Dan Rather was forced out; and the program was shut down.
So, from the point of view of mainstream journalists, it’s clear that the smart career path is to run with the right-wing stampedes – and never to get caught in the way.
Yet, the American Left continues to downplay or ignore the need to support independent media that could resist or counter the Right’s pressures.
That means that virtually all the meaningful pressure on the mainstream media comes from the Right. The most that progressives can hope for is something like the tepid commentary from Hoyt, in which a few points are accepted and the Times is portrayed more as a victim than as part of a journalistic lynch mob that dragged ACORN to its demise.
Regarding the point that ACORN employees did not give helpful advice to some guy in a “pimp” costume – since O’Keefe wasn’t wearing the costume – Hoyt wrote: “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.”
Even Andrew Breitbart, the person who promoted the damaging video, conceded that the pimp costume was a hoax. “I am under the impression that at no time was he [O’Keefe] ever dressed as an elaborate pimp” in the ACORN offices, Breitbart said.
Instead, O’Keefe apparently was dressed quite respectably, wearing a blue shirt and chinos. Hoyt said he could not reach O’Keefe – who was arrested recently over another undercover video attempt which led to a criminal charge for allegedly tampering with Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office phones.
Regarding O'Keefe's pimp costume, Hoyt concluded that “I am satisfied that The Times was wrong on this point, and I have been wrong in defending the paper’s phrasing” of its stories, which included reference to O’Keefe’s “gaudy guise” as a pimp.
Hoyt also acknowledged that the devastating charge that ACORN employees acquiesced to the use of child prostitutes was misleading.
Yet, despite those admissions, Hoyt defended the overall negative tenor of the stories about ACORN.
“Acorn’s supporters appear to hope that the whole story will fall apart over the issue of what O’Keefe wore: if that was wrong, everything else must be wrong,” Hoyt wrote. “The record does not support them.”
Hoyt argued that ACORN employees still should have objected strenuously when O’Keefe and his “prostitute” girl friend outlined illegal acts. Hoyt noted that even ACORN officials have conceded that some low-level staffers were not adequately trained in responding to such situations.
For its part, FAIR has tried to push the onus onto the Times and other mainstream news outlets that bought into the video uncritically. According to FAIR, the Times’ version of events was “wildly misleading.”
In an "action alert," FAIR maintained that Hoyt and the Times failed to vet Breitbart’s online video to determine whether it was cut and spliced to make the ACORN workers look bad. FAIR's complaint could apply to the rest of the major U.S. news media, too.
This line of argument has similarities to the Right’s complaint about CBS using the questioned National Guard memos about Bush in 2004. Even though those memos were never shown to be fabrications, the producers were nevertheless fired for not going the extra mile in authenticating them.
It is sure bet, however, that no one at the Times will be fired for failing to fully check out the anti-ACORN videos. At most, ACORN and its defenders might get a mealy-mouthed “correction” from the Times that won’t admit much and may use the opportunity to reprise the attacks on ACORN.
While this media double standard may be outrageous, it is what the American Left can expect until it gets serious about investing in media.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on March 19, 2010.