News & Criticism

An ACORN in the Media's _____

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Your mileage will vary, but for my money the most entertaining part of the ACORN undercover video sting–which, dollar for dollar, has been the most impactful piece of journalism this year (that I'm aware of anyway)–is watching Respectable News Outlets approach the controversy with radiation-resistant tongs. For instance, the New York Times' reliably pompous Dean Baquet:

So totally not Glenn Beck

"For Glenn Beck to devote 45 minutes of his show to ACORN and Van Jones says more about his news judgment than mine," said Dean Baquet, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times.

"He's not a newsman and that's not a news show," Baquet continued. "He's not trying to cover the economy, two wars, health care, the aftermath from one administration to another, negotiations with Iran or North Korea."

Note what he's doing there: While reluctanctly acknowledging his own organization's slow response to a story, Baquet haughtily attacks the news values of the organizations that got it first. Accountability journalism!

When the Washington Post got around to writing about the fake pimp/ho documentary combo, it was soaked in what's-their-real-motives innuendo:

Shadowy cabalster!

O'Keefe insists that he and Giles's work was done independently and rejects liberal suggestions that the videos were bankrolled by conservative organizations. He does, however, acknowledge receiving help and advice from a conservative columnist and Web entrepreneur. […]

Though O'Keefe described himself as a progressive radical, not a conservative, he said he targeted ACORN for the same reasons that the political right does: its massive voter registration drives that turn out poor African Americans and Latinos against Republicans.

Even when WashPost Ombudsdman Andrew Alexander agreed with critics of the paper's coverage on the topic, he could only do so with a big to-be-sure about the nassty right wingersses:

Yes, the building is that communist

It's tempting to dismiss such gimmicks. Fox News, joined by right-leaning talk radio and bloggers, often hypes stories to apocalyptic proportions while casting competitors as too liberal or too lazy to report the truth.

But they're also occasionally pumping legitimate stories.

One of the more convincing non-coverage defenses came from Austin American-Statesman Editor Fred Zipp ("First, it's a local story set elsewhere," he explained last week). But Zipp couldn't leave well enough alone:

So totally not Fox News' agenda

Second, we're not Fox, and we resist letting Fox set our agenda. The story is only now beginning to catch fire among the news sources that we trust. As they offer stories that dissect ACORN, its activities, the origin of the controversy and the credibility of its principal antagonists, we will publish them.

At best, this is an example of outsourcing news judgment. At worst, it's a classic example of pointless (and, likely, politically one-sided) media shadowboxing. As an editor, by definition you set your "agenda"; defining yourself in opposition to others' is a game that has no logical conclusion, and says more about who you are pre-emptively biased against than what you tangibly stand for. Does Zipp offer equal resistance to agenda-setting from The Huffington Post? The Daily Kos? Texas Monthly?

A final bit of tut-tutting–directed equally at those who initially broke, publicized, and consumed the story–comes from reliably yawn-inducing L.A. Times media columnist James Rainey:

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. […]

B-b-b-b-b-ut the SPJ said to gatekeep!

[T]he 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. […]

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. […]

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. […]

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.

These gatekeepery examples of pretzel logic are by no means monolithic–see Jon Stewart, or Ken Silverstein at Harpers, for example. But they illustrate a tendency that's been mostly dominant since long before Matt Drudge published information about Monica Lewinsky's dress: Newspapers, especially those with national aspirations, still lack the ability to process or even talk about news that emanates from frowned-upon pockets in the great media ecosystem. And in hiding behind the shield of News Judgment, they all too frequently advertise the fact that theirs is being proven inadequate.

See Greg Beato's great column on the ACORN sting here.