How ACORN Helped Its Enemies

How ACORN Helped Its Enemies

By Clarence Page - September 27, 2009

Never underestimate the power of a 20-year-old woman in hot pants.

Just hook her up with an apple-cheeked young man dressed as a sort of preppy pimp, add a video camera and send them off for a chat with some dimwitted neighborhood financial counselors for ACORN. Stir in enough chutzpah to make Borat look like a shrinking violet and you've got one heckuva scandal.

Young conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles hardened up their fresh-faced looks just enough to pose as a pimp and prostitute seeking advice at ACORN offices on setting up a brothel. Their hidden-camera videos have provided a bonanza of what President Barack Obama characterizes as "catnip" for commentators and late-night comedians.

They've also spurred Washington's usually sluggish funding gears to spin into warp drive. The Democratic Congress and Washington's bureaucracy have cut off funds to ACORN.

Suddenly an activist organization that used to beg for media attention to the issues for which it campaigned is receiving an abundance of the sort of attention that nobody wants. Of course, you'd never guess that from the hyperventilated claims of conservative talk show hosts who regard ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, to be a bigger menace than the swine flu.

Most of the right's recent obsession with ACORN, founded in 1970 in Arkansas as an organization for poor people, does not grow out of concern for poor people. It grows largely out of a faint hope that bringing down ACORN will help them to bring down Obama. Back in 1995, young Harvard Law grad Barack Obama helped ACORN and a team of Chicago attorneys -- along with the U. S. Department of Justice -- win a lawsuit forcing the state of Illinois to implement the federal "motor-voter" bill. The organization and the former community organizer have not had much contact since, other than connections that have been alleged or exaggerated by conservative media.

Yet mere mention of ACORN can transform Fox News' Glenn Beck into Howard Beale, the deranged commentator in the movie "Network" who leads the nation in shouting, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."

"Right now, get off the couch," Beck demanded in a recent broadcast. "While I'm talking, you pick up the phone. You call the newspaper." If ACORN isn't a top priority with your newspaper, he said, "then what the hell are they good for?"

Yet, conservatives underestimate their successes in framing this debate long before Hannah put on her hot pants. Most ACORN coverage in major media has been overwhelmingly negative, according to a recently released study by Peter Dreier, a professor of politics at Occidental College, and Christopher R. Martin, a professor of journalism at University of Northern Iowa. Of the 647 newspaper and broadcast news stories about ACORN that they found in 2007 and 2008, most were on allegations of massive voter registration fraud against the organization.

Some of the names included "Mickey Mouse" and other questionable celebrities. Yet more than 80 percent of those stories failed to mention that there is no record, for example, of Mister "Mouse" actually casting a vote and almost all of the other allegations proved to be unfounded, too.

You may recall, in fact, that failure to find cases of voter fraud to prosecute led to the controversial firing of some U.S. attorneys under pressure from President George Bush's political czar Karl Rove. That does not excuse the stupid, immoral and possibly criminal assistance that several ACORN staffers were caught on video offering to the young pimp-and-ho duo. But it does offer a valuable lesson: When people are out to get you, try not to hand them more ammunition.

It is somewhat reassuring that the video pranksters reportedly were turned away at some offices, including two that actually reported the phony clients to the police. It is also comforting to know that ACORN immediately fired the offending employees and has since hired Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general, to conduct what he calls a "robust, no-holds-barred" and transparent review -- even if it resembles closing the barn door after the pimp and prostitute have run away.

Nevertheless, ACORN activists brought most of their troubles on themselves long before conservatives piled on. The group's enormous growth since its humble start around a kitchen table in 1970 has brought scandal, financial calamity and internal rifts over charges of bad management. ACORN was an inviting target for political adversaries. The invitation was cheerfully accepted. Now ACORN's big embarrassment sends to the world the worst possible picture of low-income Americans, the very people whom ACORN is supposed to help.


Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. E-mail:

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