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ACORN: Just Stop Now

Adam Rust's picture

Posted February 3, 2010

OK, I am going to have to derivate from talking about banks to just weigh in with a brief editorial.

ACORN's Bertha Lewis sent out an email 12 minutes ago entitled "Sting the Stinger." You got the email if you are on one of their mailing lists.  I am on one of their mailing lists, because our organization is a member of a non-profit coalition that includes representatives from the North Carolina division of Acorn.  You could infer that I'm hardly someone with a predisposition against ACORN, or against the progressive causes that they have worked to support for years.

Lewis is out for blood, specifically the blood that would come from the scalp of James O'Keefe.  Young Mr. O'Keefe is in trouble, sitting in a Louisiana jail and perhaps destined for a federal prison.  Seems to me like the Stinger is going to be pretty well stung.

O'Keefe has been arrested on the grounds that he entered federal property for the purposes of committing a felony at Senator Mary Landrieu's office.

Lewis wants to use that moment to revisit the sting that O'Keefe put on Acorn last fall.  They are arguing that O'Keefe should be prosecuted for videotaping ACORN folks without their consent. Lewis writes:

"he videotaped ACORN folks without their consent...fight back against the corporate paymasters and their attack dogs seeking to disrupt this work by getting CA and MD to investigate James O'Keefe's allegedly illegal videotapes of ACORN employees."

Now, I work in policy, so it is hard for me to ignore how this kind of decision, if pursued, could create precedent to stifle investigative reporting. Let's imagine that it was "against the law to videotape ACORN folks without their consent" (Lewis quote)...Well let's imagine that the law didn't hold Acorn to a higher

standard and that it was against the law to videotape anyone without their consent....I like the media, and I can't help but believe that press freedom should be something that everyone is concerned about. Lewis says that this is about "taking a stand against the attack media and its corporate patrons who are desperately trying to silence progressive voices an stop progressive change."

That might be true.  I don't like Glenn Beck. No sir, I do not like him in a box.  I do not like him, or Fox. But at the same time, I appreciate that there is a legal space available for people like him to make factual statements.  That is the kind of courtesy that progressives have to concede, even to people with differing opinions, in order to maintain a place for muckraking.

Would it be that it is illegal to record people without their consent, or would Acorn have it that it was illegal to make those pictures public? Would location matter? If an American made video recordings of child labor in Pakistan, would that be legal? Or would it only be illegal to record child labor in the United States?  What if that foreign video was published in the US? I like these videos of North Korea that National Geographic videographer Lisa Ling made with a hidden camera. I'm glad to have visual evidence of the evils of that nation's leadership.

More questions: Would state agencies get a special protection? Would institutions funded by private donations be treated differently? Would being at work make a difference, and in today's evolving workplace environment, what constitutes the location for work? Does truth make a difference?

While we are at it, it is worth pointing out how the nature of publishing is changing. Just about anyone can be a publisher now. With social networking and self-publishing, all kinds of people are disseminating information to third parties. Where would ACORN want to draw the line?

Here's another issue: what if make a video recording of a non-public figure in a setting with a public figure? For example, what if I record a visit by Obama to Baltimore, but in that video, there are images of non-profit workers in the background.  What if I put those videos on Vimeo or YouTube? What then?

Popular publishing is making a difference in all kinds of places in our democracy. Without video recordings being made without consent, George Allen would probably be a Senator, and not just some guy with a macaca problem. That was in Virginia, and Acorn is mainly focusing on California and Maryland.  It's hard to find undercover video in Maryland in a search engine that isn't about ACORN...But its easier in California.  Here are some stories that ACORN's ideas, had they been in effect, would have thwarted in California:

  • Factory farming expose by Mercy for Animals International, showing workers breaking necks of chickens. (Chinos, CA)
  • Abuse of minors in the California Youth Authority (Stockton, from multiple television stations and a human right group)
  • Hiring of unlicensed contractors (Sacramento, Channel 3 and State of California)
  • Auto repair fraud at E-Z Lube (Channel 4). In this video, staff at the lube shops refuse to be filmed.
  • Police brutality - kicking suspect in head in El Monte.

In North Carolina, videotape has uncovered evidence of staff at Cherry Hospital (a mental health facility) harming patients.  That video is likely to be at least part of the energy that will generate progressive change. We need to distill the actions of James O'Keefe and others like him.  O'Keefe is going to be prosecuted.

But O'Keefe is a new version of the classic muckraker.  We need to protect the ability of those kind of people.  They are a service to our society.  Ida Tarbell, Jacob Riis, Bob Woodward - we are all lucky for the work that these people have contributed. Most of the muckrakers of the past have worked in the spirit of progressive causes.  It is not time to take the wind out of their sails.

I've got another idea. Don't give advice on how to scam the tax system. Don't undermine the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child tax credit, and a bunch of other well-mean progressive programs.  Train staff and have procedures established to insure accountability.

Come on, ACORN.

ACORN's lack of accountability, and the expose that revealed those shortcomings, have undermined all kinds of progressive work. I've spent some time trying to work on behalf of the Community Reinvestment Act. The hearings in the House on the CRA Modernization Act were completely ruined.  O'Keefe's video had just come out.  The Republicans turned the hearing into an opportunity to make fun of ACORN. Barney Frank had to spend most of his time talking about ACORN, and very little talking about the fine points of CRA.