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Conservative Media Scoops Mainstream Media

memeorandum-acornA series of scandals uncovered by conservative outlets and ignored by the mainstream press are starting to raise some uncomfortable questions.

The right-wing media’s single-minded focus on a handful of targets over the past months and its success in pushing those stories into the mainstream have underscored the sharp divide between traditional news organizations and the bloggers and talk show hosts aggressively pursuing an ideological agenda on-line and on TV and radio.

From birthers to tea parties to town halls and ACORN, the scandal-plagued anti-poverty group — not to mention President Obama’s speech last week to school children and the background of former White House aide Van Jones — issues initially dismissed or missed entirely by the national media have burst, if only fleetingly, onto the national agenda after relentless coverage on Fox News, talk radio and in the blogosphere.

“If it wasn’t for Fox or talk radio, we’d be done as a republic,” Glenn Beck declared Tuesday morning on “Fox & Friends.” Beck, who’s aggressively pushed the Van Jones and ACORN stories, told the morning show hosts that he plans to devote his hour-long, top-rated 5 p.m. show to new undercover tapes of ACORN employees.

Last week, Big Government, a site run by conservative Andrew Breitbart, showed videos of undercover stings in three ACORN offices, where journalists posing as pimps and prostitutes were instructed by employees on how to skirt legal restrictions on housing. The tapes got big play on The Drudge Report—where Breitbart has worked—and right-leaning news outlets and commentary shows. But only after the Senate voted to cut off federal funding to ACORN on Monday did the story get more attention in the mainstream media.

ABC “World News” anchor Charles Gibson seemed caught off guard by the ACORN tapes on Tuesday when he told Chicago radio hosts Don Wade and Roma that he hadn’t heard of them, in a clip flagged by prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin. Gibson added that “maybe this is just one you leave to the cables.”

Gibson’s executive producer, Jon Banner, echoes that sentiment: “There’s a tremendous amount of — for lack of a better word — ‘noise’ out there. We’re not in the business of noise.”

And he’s got a point. Heck, I saw a lot of these stories percolating on the blogs and Twitter and didn’t get around to blogging about them until they were pretty developed — if at all.  And I’ve long since stopped trying to cover every major story here, going back to focusing just on topics on which I have something to say.

The problem with Banner’s argument, though, is threefold. First, even in the context of a show that gets 22 minutes to cover all the major news of the day, there’s plenty of fluff.  Usually, a good third of the show is filled with fluffy human interest stories. Second, as Jeffrey Lord notes in a tangentially related piece, there’s a pretty long history of the mainstream media gatekeepers keeping a lid on stories harmful to Democrats while running with rumors harmful to Republicans. (Although, to be fair, there are surely examples of the reverse happening.) Third — and most importantly, perhaps — is that the networks are still operating as if they’re the only game in town.  Given that there is now a reasonably mature alternative media percolating these stories to rather large, if self-selecting, audiences, the judgment as to what constitutes “news” has been democratized.  It’s simply unwise for large media outlets that claim to deliver “all the news that’s fit to print” to ignore big political stories when millions of people are talking about them.

Related to the third, because there are alternative media for the left and right, it’s now incumbent on the mainstream press to investigate the big stories that percolate in those venues to ensure that they’re shared outside of self-selected cliques and to present the story in proper context, not just the cherry picked facts touted by the partisans.  Is there more to Van Jones than youthful sympathy with Communists and having put his weight behind the Truther movement?  Is ACORN corrupt at its core or is it merely mismanaged, with a shoddy business model that invites corruption?  Are the Tea Party protesters racist yahoos marching to the tune of Glenn Beck and Freedom Works, a diverse grass roots movement, or what?  The partisan media generally lack both the resources and incentives to report these things.

Update (Alex Knapp):The Daily Show took a look at this last night, and it was both funny and took the media to task on the story:


The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
The Audacity of Hos
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Update 2 (Alex Knapp): For the record, it appears that at least one of the ACORN workers “caught” in this video was just playing along because she thought it was funny:

ACORN employee Tresa Kaelke is shown meeting with them, telling them that she once was an escort and got away with killing her husband.

But Kaelke insisted Tuesday she made up her story for shock value.

“They were clearly playing with me,” she said “I decided to shock them as much as they were shocking me.”

[...]

Since she claimed on the video to have killed her husband, two San Bernardino police homicide detectives interviewed her at the office Tuesday.

Police said they have been in contact with Kaelke’s former husbands and the homicide claims do not appear accurate.

Heh, yeah. I would say that talking with someone is generally a good indication that they weren’t murdered.

And of course, as always, there’s some question over whether the videos were themselves selectively edited to make ACORN look bad:

San Bernardino resident Jim Miller, who lives near ACORN’s office and is also featured in the video giving business advice, said he thought the “whole thing was a preposterous production.”

He said he continued talking just to learn more.

Miller, a retired businessman, said he couldn’t believe the people wanted to propose such a “ludicrous enterprise,” but continued talking to them and asking questions to see where it would lead.

In the video, the filmmakers claim they would bring underage prostitutes from overseas

Amy Schur, ACORN’s head organizer in California, said the video is selectively edited. Kaelke repeatedly said ACORN couldn’t help the fake pimp and prostitute, but that does not appear on the video, Schur said.

I have to admit, if I saw two people dressed up in ludicrous costumes asking outrageous questions, I might play along for the fun of it, too, at least just to see where it was going.

Update 3 (Alex Knapp): Whew! After reading a few other stories, it looks like Tresa Kaelke is something of a nutjob. Additionally, and just for clarification, I’m not saying that the ACORN workers in these videos are all playing along or anything like that. Just that they have a side of the story, too. I’m generally inclined towards the more conventional interpretation of the videos (as noted in the Stewart clip above.)

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. James, I know you mention “alternative media for the left and right” but you also cite the Jeffrey Lord piece…. so just in the interests of balance.

    How long was it until the U.S. Attorney’s issue go coverage anywhere other than TPM or liberal blogs? How long did it take for torture allegations — prominent on liberal blogs for years — to get mainstream press?

    As a general rule, the mainstream press doesn’t like to cover anything generated by alternative media — regardless of whether it is left or right — and unfortunately, since they have fewer and fewer resources, it means that more and more issues get missed.

    So, a better headline for your piece would have been “Alternative media scoops mainstream media AGAIN!!”

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  2. James Joyner says:

    Bernard,

    Fair points. I do think the MSM will gladly steal story ideas from blogs but there are plenty of instances of sleuthing on both sides that were ignored until they emerged full-blown.

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  3. Herb says:

    It’s now incumbent on the mainstream press to investigate the big stories that percolate in those venues to ensure that they’re shared outside of self-selected cliques and to present the story in proper context, not just the cherry picked facts touted by the partisans.

    While I agree with this, I’m not sure the mainstream press would have found this “prostitution ring” story while looking into the “voter registration fraud” allegations.

    That kind of dirt-digging requires a witch-hunting partisan true believer.

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  4. JKB says:

    Funny part is not the legacy media is being scooped by the Daily Show. That’s gotta hurt.

    As for the playing along, well, that was pretty poor judgement. If you thought it was a put up, you had to realize it was being filmed. And anyone who has ever been within a mile of a reporter knows you have to be careful since your words will be taken out of context. Surely, the frontline employees of a controversial activist group would get training on how to stay on organization business and not try to outsmart reporters.

    A little rule of thumb when I worked for the government was never say or do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the Washington Post. I guess now you have to include the internet.

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  5. brainy435 says:

    So the two just “played along,” huh? And just happened to give the same advice on how to cover up illicit activities as the other ACORN employees. Were they “playing along” too? If so why were they fired?

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  6. John Burgess says:

    JKB: That’s advice my mother gave to me many, many years ago and long before I worked for the gov’t! It’s still good advice.

    I supplement it with a corollary that keeps me from doing stupid stuff: “How would that look as the headline of my obituary?”

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  7. sam says:

    A little rule of thumb when I worked for the government was never say or do anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the Washington Post.

    And we can certainly refine that sage advice: never assume the microphone in front of you is off.

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  8. Gustopher says:

    I would say that part of the problem in stories like this getting ignored by the mainstream press is that they are often being pushed by the same people pushing fake Kenyan birth certificates, and whatever the made up outrage du jour is.

    If someone is saying that Barack Hussein Obama is a Kenyan Nazi Stalin in one breath, and that Acorn is a den of prostitution in the next breath, it’s hard for people to take either seriously.

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  9. Who or what is propping up the mainstream media? If the Washington Post and their like are losing $1.10 for every paper they sell, then what is keeping them going? Is it the hope of a government bailout? Is it the Hotel chains or whoever buys these rags in bulk? The mainstream media is the enemy of America and whoever buys these rags is an accomplice. The quicker they fail the better.

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  10. Mark says:

    Van Jones, ACORN, Glenn Beck. What does one of these stories not have in common with the others?

    Van Jones – was a special adviser on energy efficiency in minority communities. Will never be in the public eye again.
    ACORN – received all of (according to Michelle Bachmann) $53 million in federal funding over 15 years

    Glenn Beck – is one of the most prominent republican “thinkers” in the country.

    You’ve drawn a false equivalence.

    The Jones story is about as significant as the Joe Wilson story. The ACORN story is on a par with the Wells Fargo VP partying in a foreclosed house – and in the last year alone, Wells received 500 times as much federal money as ACORN did in 15.

    And Glenn Beck is on a par with…Well, there’s no parallel story. So don’t pretend that you’re balanced just because you picked example stories that you think might appeal to democrats and republicans. And certainly don’t tell other people that they need to find more balance in their commentary and reporting.

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  11. Nathan says:

    The Daily Show attacks “liberal” groups as well. They don’t hate republicans/conservatives/etc. They hate the media. I am surprised more conservatives don’t love the show.

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