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?

All Quiet from One-Time Supporters

With the exception of a handful of Democrats in the House and Senate, including New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who branded the Defund ACORN Act a “bill of attainder” and an unfair, punitive act by Congress, we’re left to wonder why so many Democrats abandoned ACORN? In the frenzied atmosphere created by the media, Democrats (with some aforementioned exceptions) ran to put as much distance as possible between them and the “corrupt” outfit portrayed on TV. Most members of Congress represent middle class and upscale constituents who had no first-hand knowledge of ACORN; they only knew what they saw on TV, heard on the radio, read in the newspaper, or gleaned from off-hand comments at work, at church, or at the mall, and didn’t know what ACORN had accomplished. For Obama, defending ACORN would have played into the Republican strategy of diverting public attention away from his legislative agenda, that is, fixing the economy, regulating the banking industry, passing health care reform, and addressing climate change.

Many foundations that had praised and funded ACORN’s work in the past, fearful that their grant money may be misused or that the controversy might lead to an attack by the organized right wing, either pulled the plug on ACORN or did not renew grants.

The mainstream press, particularly The Washington Post, contributed to the feeding frenzy. Gathering together every rumor and allegation ever made against ACORN, The Post made several factual errors. For example the reporters located the attacks by conservatives as beginning in 2008, when the attacks go back some 25 years. Like CNN and other members of the purported “liberal press,” several Post articles failed to introduce their stories by explaining this long conservative campaign to smear and vilify the group using any means necessary including lying and exaggeration. The Post reporters left the impression ACORN was funded only by government grants and foundations, leaving out that ACORN was a dues paying organization.

ACORN tried to counter the attacks. In October, ACORN engaged Scott Harshbarger, the former Massachusetts Attorney General and former president of Common Cause, to investigate the videotape incident and, more important, to recommend and implement necessary management reforms, but by November 2009 ACORN was financially on its heels. Conservative Republicans kept up the attack, and some of ACORN’s partners in the business community, such as Bank of America, Citibank, and even SEIU, cut off financial support pending Scott Harshbarger’s investigation.

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