How Did the Media Fail ACORN and Organizing?

Organizing has been under attack for years, but this time around, the media has been directly complicit in severely damaging one of most influential advocates for low- and moderate-income families in the country. How did the media miss the real story behind the assault on ACORN?

ACORN Helping in Foreclosure

ACORN engaged in myriad initiatives to help people facing foreclosure:

  • The ACORN Housing Home Equity Loss Prevention program (HELP) helped prevent housing foreclosures for 8,000 homeowners by obtaining favorable mortgage changes, and at the time of this writing, was in the process of helping 18,000 more save their home through a loan modification process.
  • In California, ACORN sponsored a bill to protect consumers from rip-offs by mortgage brokers, including, for example, prohibiting them from steering borrowers to loans that are more costly than other loans they qualify for. The organization worked for two years to ensure its passage, despite the opposition of the powerful bankers and brokers. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law.
  • ACORN was pivotal in protecting and expanding affordable housing in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Even HUD officials in the George W. Bush administration viewed ACORN’s nonprofit housing programs as among the best in the country.
  • ACORN led a successful effort to save New York City’s Starrett City housing complex, the nation’s largest federally supported working-class apartment complex, from being sold to a housing speculator.

Of course, the Republican Party and the right wing media posed a threat to everything ACORN does. From Glenn Beck’s assertion that ACORN’s founders were inspired by a “strategy” to “transform” the United States “into a socialist-Marxist state” to the hidden camera incident, where conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles began visiting ACORN offices with a hidden video camera and trying to lure ACORN staff into providing advice to a prostitute about buying a house for the purposes of operating a brothel.

What wasn’t reported: To further sensationalize the tape, O’Keefe wore a dress shirt and khakis while he was secretly videotaping in the ACORN offices, but then taped himself dressed as a cartoonish pimp and spliced that footage into the tape, making it appear that ACORN workers were talking to what appeared to be a pimp straight out of central casting.

ACORN’s employees did not create client files or bills, file tax returns, sign or submit loan documents, or arrange bank loans for Giles and O’Keefe, though you’d never know it by watching the videotapes aired on Fox in the days that followed the incident. Those tapes appeared to implicate ACORN’s staff in four other offices in giving advice to the make-believe prostitute.

After that, the floodgates opened, and The New York Post, CNN, and soon the rest of the mainstream media picked up on the story. There was a lack of uniformity in ACORN’s hiring process, as well as a weakness in staff training and supervision of their service work, but no evidence existed indicating ACORN staff did anything illegal or that the filmed employees typified the organization’s staff rather than being a few “bad apples.”

And yet, the damage was done and the political fallout, swift and severe, began: the U.S. Census Bureau dismissed ACORN as one of its 80 nonprofit partners and the U.S. House of Representatives voted, in a show of bipartisanship rare these days, to strip federal funding from ACORN, blocking HUD from giving it grants. Congress assumed the truth of the Republican allegations against ACORN without troubling to confirm them or even ask ACORN to present their side of the story.

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