Analyzing the Media's Lazy Reporting on ACORN

Last fall ACORN's alleged promotion of voter registration fraud and voter fraud got lots of media attention during the 2008 election campaign. The right wing's assault on ACORN and news media complicity are the subjects of an independent media study by P

By now you’ve heard of ACORN, the national coalition of community organizers. It has embezzlement problems, and recently a few of its counselors offered tax, immigration and housing advice for a criminal enterprise proposed by conservative activists posing as a pimp and prostitute.

The videotaped sting should have been anticipated. Technology all but screams, “Try it!”

ACORN is the new Commie-under-the-bed, an omnipresent threat to AWOL (American Way of Life). Right-wing TV and radio talk shows, blogs and web sites, think tanks and columnists and their stenographic sycophants in the news media use words like "leftist," "left-wing," "front" (for Democrats), "radical," "activist," "political," "militant" and "socialist."

Again, that should be no surprise. The language originated with business and political groups that oppose ACORN’s organizing around living wages, predatory lending and housing.

The current causus belli is ACORN’s alleged promotion of voter registration fraud and voter fraud during the 2008 election campaign. That continuing assault and news media complicity are the subjects of an independent media study by Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin: “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN was in the news and what the news got wrong.”

The study is available at Its central findings include:

• Conservatives framed — created the context or starting point — for ACORN coverage in major national and regional news media.

• Many reporters embraced the conservative language and worldview, and this produced systemically biased copy despite readily available information that would refute, rebut or challenge the critics’ assertions.

• These distortions continue to set the agenda for public debate on the issues and ACORN.

Conservatives “remain fixated on ACORN and poised to inject their frame about ACORN as an issue in the 2010 and 2012 national elections” tying ACORN to President Obama and the Democrats. “Criticism of ACORN has been a consistent story on Fox News and conservative talk shows and in conservative publications, web sites, and columns in mainstream newspapers.”

I’d add only that it’s ironic that conservatives also accuse the same news media of electing Obama and acting as an echo chamber for his policies.

Dreier is Distinguished Professor of politics and director of Occidental College’s Urban & Environmental Policy Program. Martin is professor of journalism at the University of Northern Iowa. They studied the 647 ACORN stories during 2007 and 2008 produced by 15 major news organizations: USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (the four the highest circulation national newspapers); transcripts from ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio and PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (leading broadcast news organizations); and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (local newspapers where ACORN has a longtime presence).

Given the partisan debate, I asked Dreier and Martin about financing and any links to ACORN. Martin, who read CityBeat when he taught at Miami University, responded:

“The study had no outside funding or sponsors; we did it independently, with the regular support of our academic institutions. Peter studies urban issues and politics, and I study media issues, particularly how the news media cover labor and the working class, so we teamed up to do this study. We aren’t affiliated with ACORN. We were interested in studying news media coverage of ACORN as the organization was being alleged of doing ‘voter fraud’ last fall; we wanted to study the nature of the news media coverage of ACORN over time (we looked at a two-year period) and the origins of the story and allegations.”

ACORN activities “became a high profile news story in 2008, particularly toward the end of the presidential election campaign, when the Republican candidates and other conservatives attacked ACORN. More than 60 percent of all stores about ACORN during 2007 and 2008 appeared in the single month of October 2008, creating a well-orchestrated ‘October Surprise’ (an election-changing last minute event.)

“Opinion entrepreneurs — primarily business and conservative groups and individuals — set the story in motion as early as 2006, the conservative echo chamber orchestrated its anti-ACORN campaign in 2008, the McCain-Palin campaign picked it up and the mainstream media reported its allegations without investigating their truth or falsity. As a result, the relatively little-known community organization became the subject of a major news story in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, to the point where 82 percent of the respondents in an (unrelated) October 2008 national survey reported they had heard about ACORN.”

The scholars said reporters uncritically repeated conservatives’ loaded language months of inaccurate mainstream news media reporting and sloppy writing distorted the context and undermined our ability to understand and evaluate attacks on ACORN.

Central to this was the reporters’ failure to distinguish between allegations of voter registration fraud and actual voting fraud and reporters’ failure to test conservatives’ allegations against available facts.

The study is not a defense of ACORN. It’s a study of news media performance. The dominant story frame was “voter fraud.” It appeared in 55 percent of the 647 news stories studied. Stories were overwhelmingly negative, reporting allegations by Republicans and conservatives.

Further, Dreier and Martin found that in October 2008 negative attacks dominated ACORN stories. For instance, 76 percent of the stories focused on allegations of voter fraud, 8.7 percent involved accusations that public funds were being funneled to ACORN, 7.9 percent involved charges that ACORN is a front for registering Democrats and 3.1 percent involved blaming ACORN for the mortgage scandal.

Martin and Dreier say reporters at the news media studied failed to fact-check persistent allegations of “voter fraud” despite the existence of easily available evidence. The scholars also failed to distinguish allegations of voter registration problems from allegations of actual voting irregularities and failed to distinguish between allegations of wrongdoing and actual wrongdoing.

The study’s damning conclusion reflects these findings:

• 82.8 percent of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to mention that actual voter fraud is very rare (only 17.2 percent did mention it).

• 80.3 percent of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud ignored ACORN reports of registration irregularities, as required by law.

• 85.1 percent of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to note that ACORN was acting to stop incidents of registration problems by its mostly temporary employees when ACORN became aware of these problems.

• 95.8 percent of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to provide deeper context. This should have included GOP officials’ allegations of “voter fraud” to dampen voting by low-income and minority Americans and the firing of U.S. attorneys who refused to cooperate with the politicization of voter fraud accusations — firings that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

• 61.4 percent of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to acknowledge that Republicans were trying to discredit Obama with an ACORN “scandal.”

• 47.8 percent of the news stories about ACORN in October 2008 linked the organization to Obama, most of them seeking to discredit him and his campaign through guilt by association.

• “Perhaps the peak moment in the attack on ACORN occurred at the presidential debate between Obama and McCain on Oct. 15.” Although not asked about ACORN, McCain said, “We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

That said, Martin and Dreier found good news: “Local newspapers, which were more likely to verify the actual voting conditions of county election boards, were much less susceptible to the politicized ‘voter fraud’ frame than the national news media.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• Teacher Jason Haap, running for Cincinnati school board, asked The Enquirer why he and another teacher-candidate had to choose between skipping class or missing a scheduled endorsement interview. He prevailed, and The Enquirer rescheduled teacher-candidate interviews to accommodate classroom hours. When The Enquirer published its story on whether teachers should serve on school boards, however, it didn’t include comments by either active public school teacher candidate.

Whether Haap expects an endorsement — or that his liberal reputation could survive an Enquirer endorsement — is unclear, but he wants that opportunity to speak to Enquirer policy makers. The school board, where most of the current members hold full-time day jobs, meets mainly in the evening.

• Paul Knitter caused no little heartburn during his years as a Xavier University theology professor. He never was quite as traditional and orthodox as some Roman Catholics wanted, but his understanding of non-Christian Eastern religions was invaluable to students and others who heard him speak or read his books.

Last Saturday, Knitter’s theology and latest book, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, were the sole topic of Peter Steinfel’s religion column in The New York Times. Knitter was lucky in his reviewer; Steinfels is as thoughtful a religion writer as is active in American journalism, and the critique dignifies reviewer and author. The headline is “A Look at Christianity, Through a Buddhist Lens.” Knitter is now Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

• I flipped on The Late Show, waiting for BBC World Service to start at midnight on WVXU (91.7 FM). David Letterman was easing into the most candid public admission I can remember hearing in recent decades, and he did it in his classic style: story telling that led up to the punch line. He was a victim of attempted $2 million blackmail, and he affirmed what the blackmailer knew: Letterman had sex with women who worked on his show. A couple nights later, he added contrition.

No denial or obfuscation. No coverup to be admitted later. Apparently, no lies to the public or authorities or grand jury perjury. That’s it. Let’s move on. So far this story lacks staying power that a coverup would assure. Oh, one more thing: Every political campaign should require its candidate to watch Letterman’s admission as an exercise in damage control.

• Where is the outrage? When The Washington Post offered to sell access to its journalists at salons in the new, young publisher’s home, all hell broke loose. Now, Online Journalism Review (OJR) says The New York Times is charging $185 to sit in a seminar room with Nicholas Kristof, Gail Collins or other Times stars. They’re underpriced by Post standards, which wanted to charge $25,000 a pop for the salons.

• Every unemployed journalist trying to figure out how to make a living online can only envy a new effort in San Francisco. There, businessman F. Warren Hellman promises an initial $5 million gift to a local online reporting project involving the nonprofit KQED-FM news staff of 28 and the 120 students in the graduate journalism school at the University of California-Berkeley. They’ll also seek paying clients for their work. If the project, which is to start next year, speeds the demise of struggling Bay area dailies, that’s tough, donor Hellman told The New York Times: “I think that demise might be inevitable, anyway. This might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.”

• How tough is life at NPR? The Washington Post reports that listener-supported NPR pays Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon $300,648 a year. Challenged by readers, Simon told NPR’s ombudsman, “I am grateful for the salary that I earn and feel that it is merited by the popularity of our program, the audience our show generates, the number of interviews, essays, and reported pieces that I do and whatever value I have to NPR that may contribute to our relationship with the public. There are a few other people in public radio who earn more, both at weekly and daily programs. Most everybody in commercial broadcasting earns a lot more.

“I try to be worthy of my salary each and every week, as well as the trust of the audience. I am grateful to each and every person who contributes to public radio and has helped make possible the really blessed professional life that I have been able to enjoy and, I hope, share with millions of listeners.”

• Nancy Zimpher’s stay at the University of Cincinnati was marred by her decision that basketball coach Bob Huggins had to go. Some alumni and fans never forgave her. Now chancellor of the State University of New York network, she has another basketball scandal involving the Binghamton Bearcats(!). Seems long-term adjunct instructor Sally Dear was fired after telling The New York Times that the athletic department pressures teachers to change grades so that basketball scholarship thugs remain eligible. Meanwhile, six players have been dismissed for off-court fouls. None, however, was charged with punching a police horse.

Zimpher initially said she’s satisfied with the school’s finding that the grade-changing accusation wasn’t true. However, whistle-blower Dear says no one spoke with her during the investigation: “How can they conduct an investigation if one of the principal people involved has not been talked to?” More recently, Binghamton rehired Dear in a different department, and the investigation is expanding.

The athletic director has resigned, and The Times reported that coach Kevin Broadus had previously recruited from a Philadelphia high school that gained the reputation for being a diploma mill. Since Broadus came to Binghamton, there have been three arrests of Bearcat players, including a star point guard accused of drug dealing, and the recruiting of several transfer players who had academic or legal problems. Bearcat Miladin Kovacevic, whom Broadus did not recruit, was accused of beating a student into a coma and fled to his native Serbia. Teammate Malik Alvin, whom Broadus brought in, was charged with stealing condoms.

• Here’s a case to watch. Elliot Madison is charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, criminal use of a communication facility and possession of instruments of crime after he used tweets to tell demonstrators at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh about police movements. Madison says he did nothing illegal. Find out more about the G20 protests from Pittsburgh City Paper, that area’s alt weekly, here.

• David Brooks, house conservative at The New York Times, writes that right-wing “talk jocks have demonstrated their real-world weakness time and again.” They can scare the beJesus out of timid politicians, but when it comes to delivering voters to the polls the ranters repeatedly have failed. It’s all Wizard of Oz stuff, of little men behind curtains, Brooks says. “For no matter how often their hollowness is exposed, the jocks still reweave the myth of their own power. They still ride the airwaves claiming to speak for millions. They still confuse listeners with voters. And they are aided in this endeavor by their enablers. They are enabled by cynical Democrats, who love to claim that Rush Limbaugh controls the G.O.P. They are enabled by lazy pundits who find it easier to argue with showmen than with people whose opinions are based on knowledge. They are enabled by the slightly educated snobs who believe that Glenn Beck really is the voice of Middle America.”

• You want News of the Weird? Try this. Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and her younger daughter, Princess Eugenia, disguised themselves and visited Turkish state-run orphanages to help TV producer Chris Rogers document the mistreatment of children.

The ITN network program, broadcast last November, showed children tied to cots and benches or left in soiled rags. Now palace lawyers are trying to block Rogers’ book about that successful venture.

The broadcast created a full-blown diplomatic row, and The London Times says Ferguson — who claims she retains copyright over their notes — has turned on Rogers and sided with the palace. Turkey says the royals violated privacy laws, not that the program falsely accused the orphanages of anything.

Turkey might try to extradite the duchess and princess. That’s something the palace can’t tolerate. Turkey is embarrassed because challenges to its violations of human rights complicate its application for admission to the European Union. Britain supports Turkey’s membership.

It gets weirder. The Times says the investigative project had the blessing of the palace and Prince Andrew, Ferguson’s ex-husband. He agreed that Eugenie — sixth in line to the throne — could accompany her mother on the undercover mission. Despite Turkey’s displeasure, the palace did not intervene when Ferguson started cooperating with Rogers on the book or when she agreed to put her name to a foreword.

Quoting a source close to the discussions, The Times says Ferguson later consulted the palace and withdrew her cooperation. Good luck to Rogers as the Establishment turns on him. Don’t expect the Ministry of Defense to send commandos to rescue him if he lands in Turkish custody. That’s only for Brits reporting for The New York Times.

• London’s Telegraph reports that Iranian president Ahmadinejad was born a Jew to a family that changed its name from Sabourjian after it converted to Islam. “The Sabourjians traditionally hail from Aradan, Mr Ahmadinejad’s birthplace, and the name derives from ‘weaver of the Sabour,’ the name for the Jewish Tallit (prayer) shawl in Persia. The name is even on the list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran’s Ministry of the Interior.” The Telegraph suggests Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel outbursts and Holocaust denial are attempts to put his heritage behind him.

• Hammered by competition in London’s fierce newspaper market, The Evening Standard is planning to double its press run and join the free papers littering the capital. The decision follows the paper’s recent sale to a Russian billionaire. The Standard has published since 1827.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]

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