On Sept. 10, two now-infamous videos of ACORN employees giving a faux prostitute and pimp advice on tax breaks and home loans for a business involving underage El Salvadoran girls were posted at biggovernment.com.
The website, launched that day, was the brainchild of Andrew Breibart, a conservative who helped make the Drudge Report famous. Breibart advised the two posing conservative activists that the mainstream media would never believe their damning videos.
He was right.
The conservative-leaning Fox News broke the story that day, but the rest of mainstream media, including NPR, was slow to respond. There may be a good reason.
"Why has NPR totally ignored an important story about illegal activities with this organization, ACORN?" asked Marilu Orozco-Peterson, of Ft. Collins, CO on Sept. 16. "Maybe America should vote to stop funding for NPR if you have such a radical political agenda and don't relate important information that may embarrass a liberal president."
NPR hasn't ignored the videos story, which ultimately damaged ACORN, a community organizing group that's been around since the 1970s helping low-income people. Last week, Congress voted to deny federal funds for ACORN.
Four days after the videos appeared on Fox, NPR first mentioned the video story on its blog, The Two Way at 7:39 pm. The posting was extensive and gave the views of ACORN and its critics but, overall, seemed primarily to ask why conservatives are so focused on this one group.
On Sept. 15, NPR's Pam Fessler, who covers poverty and philanthropy, conducted a "two-way" interview about the ACORN videos on All Things Considered with host Melissa Block.
"This is very much a story of accumulation," Fessler told me. "The first two videotapes were of interest, but did not necessarily warrant a piece by us initially, considering all the other things going on in the world that we need to cover."
Fessler said the story took on more importance after the Census Bureau cut ACORN's funding on Sept. 11 and the Senate voted to cut housing funding on Sept. 14. "When that happened, we did in fact report on the issue," said Fessler.
The Two Way did two more postings on the story on Sept. 16. Talk of the Nation discussed ACORN that same day.
Fessler did a second report for Morning Edition on Sept. 17 — a week after the videos appeared online — about how ACORN was dealing with fallout from the videos.
"Hindsight is 20/20 and it's always better to be out in front of a story than behind it," said Steven Drummond, NPR national editor. "But the idea that we were intentionally late, that's ridiculous. No one likes to play catch up. At the end of the weekend, it was clear this was a story that moved beyond being an Internet prank to raise broader, serious concerns."
While the videos are certainly riveting, in the age of Internet hoaxes it was critical for NPR's credibility to verify that the videos were real.
"There are many, many aspects to this story — large number of them political," noted Fessler, who joined NPR in 1993. "I think it's important that we not rush on air things that need to be checked out. Those videotapes could have been completely phony, and initially ACORN did charge that they were doctored."
Christopher Martin, a journalism professor at University of Northern Iowa, points out that the mainstream media needed initially to be wary of the videos.
The videos were posted on a conservative website (same would be true if videos were posted on a liberal website). Videographer James O'Keefe was not well-known at the time the videos emerged, nor were his motives in what amounted to a private sting operation against ACORN. Also, the videos were edited, so there was no way of knowing what, if anything had been excluded.
"Who knows what journalistic standards went into creating this?" said Eric Deggans, media critic for the St. Petersburg Times on CNN.
Initially, for example, O'Keefe, 25, did not publicize that he and his actress partner, Hannah Giles, 20, were thrown out of ACORN's Philadelphia office, which also called the police. That said, O'Keefe did capture ACORN employees in Baltimore, Brooklyn and Washington, DC on camera trying to help the pair with their supposed plans to carry out illegal activities.
It was clear the videos were real before Fessler's first report aired the evening of Sept. 15.
But according to a research study released Wednesday on press coverage of ACORN, NPR and others in the mainstream media had reason to be cautious. The report outlines — using empirical data compiled by academic researchers — how successful the right has been in going after ACORN.
"What we found is there had been a concerted campaign for several years against ACORN by conservative media and some Republican politicians and it came to a head in October 2008 as a campaign issue," said Martin, the Iowa journalism professor who co-authored the study "Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN was in the News and What the News Got Wrong." Martin's co-author was Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College. Neither is connected to ACORN nor did they take outside funding.
The study notes the Republican National Committee in May 2009 launched a website, stopacorn.gop.com, targeting the group.
The study evaluated 647 stories about ACORN by 15 major news organizations, including NPR. The data portion of the study looked at stories from 2007-2008, but the analysis included ACORN news developments through August. More than half (55 percent) of the 647 stories included allegations of "voter fraud" by ACORN.
Martin said the media did a terrible job of fact-checking allegations against ACORN.
Most of the news media coverage about ACORN was one-sided and repeated conservative and Republican criticisms of the group, said the study, "without seeking to verify them or provide ACORN or its supporters with a reasonable opportunity to respond to allegations."
A common mistake in the mainstream media, the study said, was to confuse voter registration fraud with voter fraud. Registration fraud involves collecting names of people who aren't eligible to vote. An example of voter fraud would be helping people vote more than once.
ACORN is being investigated for voter registration fraud, but there is no evidence of voter fraud, a far more serious charge.
"The mainstream media rarely acknowledged that those two things were different," said Martin. "They tended to use voter fraud when meaning voter registration fraud, so those issues were confused."
NPR did well in the study. "NPR spent a lot of time on the voter fraud story, sometimes providing important background on the story's history," said the study.
"We meant that NPR, more than any other news organization we studied, had a higher percentage of its stories covering the theme or narrative of ACORN's voter registration work," said Martin. "That is, not talking about it in terms of voter fraud allegations, but in terms of work ACORN does in assisting in the registration of voters."
The study's message is that journalists were too quick to buy conservative condemnations of ACORN without checking facts. News reports also rarely gave ACORN credit for its successes during the last four decades helping low-income people register to vote and get higher minimum wages and better housing. (Martin believes conservatives are anti-ACORN because the group helps low-income people and minorities who are not likely to vote Republican.)
The conservative media's campaign against ACORN, as documented by Martin, may well be one reason why the mainstream media was slow to pick up or trust biggovernment.com's story.
Even if Martin's study correctly documents an effort to discredit ACORN with the help of unquestioning journalists, that doesn't mean that the news media should automatically disregard claims made by interest groups with conservative (or any) agendas.
This issue should remind journalists that claims from any interest group should be checked out and then reported — if proven to be credible. Obviously, not every group or claim deserves scrutiny, but the ACORN situation certainly meets the test of an issue of public importance.
ACORN may or may not deserve all the criticism heaped on it. But in this case, ACORN deserved intense — not halting — scrutiny from any reputable media organization. The same is true for the groups that have raised allegations against ACORN. Allegations need to be checked out — not just repeated.
For all ACORN stories on NPR, click here.