Acorn Controversy Hits Tipping Point

For nearly four decades, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — better known as ACORN — has tried to be a voice and power for poor people in America. This week, undercover videos that show ACORN employees advising clients how to break the law prompted the House and Senate to cut off federal funds to the group. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR news analyst Juan Williams about the scandal involving the community organizing group — and the political ramifications.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

For nearly four decades, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN, has tried to be a voice and a power for poor people in America. This week, undercover videos show that ACORN employees advised clients how(ph) to break the law, prompted the House and Senate to cut off federal funds to the group.

For more on the politics in play, we're joined by NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Juan, thanks very much for being with us.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to see you, Scott.

SIMON: And ACORN has had its controversies. But…

WILLIAMS: Without a doubt.

SIMON: …there's certainly been something special about these videos. And let's listen to a clip, if we could, from an undercover video made at the Baltimore ACORN office. And two people - one posing as - forgive me, this early in the morning, the pimp, another a prostitute, tell ACORN housing representatives they want to bring in underage girls from El Salvador to the United States and the ACORN rep tells them how to skirt the law to get a housing loan.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Woman #1: And these will be the terms, these will be (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: Okay.

Unidentified Woman #2: Okay.

Unidentified Woman #1: If they come to your house, they're exchange students. You don't, you just don't…

Unidentified Man: Exchange students, (unintelligible)…

Unidentified Woman #1: Exactly.

Unidentified Man Okay.

Unidentified Woman #1: So don't worry. You're fine.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.

SIMON: Now, ACORN says these are isolated incidents and points out that some other offices refused to bite, and says workers at the Philadelphia office actually called the police. Could there be other explanations at work here?

WILLIAMS: Well, not really. It's sort of indefensible. But Bertha Lewis, who's the chief organizer, has said, you know, look, it's a handful of employees. In many other places that these videographers went to pull this stunt, they didn't get ACORN employees to bite, so to speak.

But there is no defense for what you see on the tape. It's interesting though. You could argue that it's entrapment - and some have - others say, no, this is just good investigative journalism, the kind of thing that, you know, "60 Minutes" or one of the other TV magazines might do.

But, you know, it's interesting. Bob Borsay(ph), who's a left wing activist here in Washington, said he thought that a lot of this videotaping was McCarthyite and it really harped on minor feelings and distorted admirable work that ACORN has done over the years. It's been around since the '70s helping low-income people around the country.

SIMON: Has there been a divide in the media over covering this story?

WILLIAMS: Sure has. If you look at it, I think the most celebrated moment this week was when Charlie Gibson of ABC was on a radio show and asked about this ACORN controversy, and he said, oh, it's just something you leave to the cables. And it really fed the idea that especially conservative media feels that mainstream media is left-leaning and ignores a major controversy about this group breaking the law.

Jon Stewart, who normally would be perceived as left-leaning with his "Daily Show," however, has played up the absurdity of these two people dressed up as a pimp and a prostitute and the fact that these workers were actually trying to help them with their illegal enterprises.

Planned Parenthood has said that the same group has stung them and got people on their lines to say, oh yes, you can donate funds directly just for the abortion of black babies. And they say, you know, these people are just setting folks up and trying to embarrass them for political reasons.

SIMON: So is this a proxy controversy at this point?

WILLIAMS: A proxy? Yes. I think President Obama is really much of the target. You know, this group last year, in terms of voter registration - they're under investigation for voter registration fraud - but got about a million people to register to vote. And a lot of people think that this is the right wing firing back at them and trying to pull them away from Democratic political causes.

SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

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