Saturday, September 19, 2009


For some time I have been avidly reading the postings of the independent commentator Glenn Greenwald. I am not alone, for many have been cheered by Greenwald's slaying of sacred cows. He is not a member of the Beltway establishment, perhaps in part because he is forced to live outside the US to be with his Brazilian partner, who is denied the opportunity of residence on these shores.

In his latest post on ACORN, however, Mr. Greenwald has laid an egg (to mix metaphors a bit). As you will recall, two enterprising whistle blowers exposed staffers in two different ACORN bureaus for offering advice on how to set up a brothel importing teenage Salvadorian prostitutes.

I thought that liberals, especially, were opposed to human trafficking.

At all events, the employees were fired. They were just two bad apples. But were they? At the very least it is evident that ACORN is not just an altruistic organization to help the poor and downtrodden.

Ignoring the moral issue of the exploitation of women, Greenwald essays a relativistic argument. The amount of money, $53 million he claims, received from the federal government is miniscule in comparison with what we have shelled out to save the financial markets. True enough. But the argument is akin to that of a man who is stopped for drunken driving who indignantly asks the police why they aren't out solving murders instead. As the French say: comparison n'est pas raison.

Then Greenwald advances an ad hominem argument. Since Glenn Beck is spearheading the attack on ACORN it can't possibly be justified. Yet as Frank Rich's column of September 20 points out, "Even Glenn Beck is right twice a day." Rich does not shrink from comparing Beck with Michael Moore. Both are symptoms of a new populist rage that is welling up among the disaffected and disadvantaged--people who who have no reason to agree with Ben Bernanke's claim that the recesssion is over.

In fact conservatives have a valid reason for distrusting ACORN. The organization was slated to play a major role in the census. Since the group has a well-attested penchant for making up names, there is reason to fear that it would be involved in inflating the numbers of people in liberal districts and thus tilting the process of redistricting, which is based on the census findings.

For a long time liberals have complained that the conservatives who are prominent in the popular media are raucous and one-sided. With Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck this is flagrantly so. Yet if they are to gain credibility outside of their usual preaching to the choir, liberals need to be even-handed. (Just being raucous like Keith Olberman doesn't accomplish the job.) For a long time liberals have not been even-handed, by and large. This lack of good faith was one of the reasons for the liberal collapse in the 1980s.

Some clear-sighted liberals like Sean Wilentz of Princeton can see this. But the temptation to score debater's points and to retreat into self-righteousness is ever present.

UPDATE. In Mother Jones for September 23, Kevin Drum made the following useful points:

"ACORN has filed a lawsuit against James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, the two undercover filmmakers who taped ACORN workers providing advice about how to smuggle underage sex workers into the country from El Salvador:

"The lawsuit asserts that neither O'Keefe nor Giles obtained consent from ACORN workers for videotaping them, as state law requires.

"ACORN executive director Bertha Lewis told reporters in a conference call that ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, does not support criminal activity and believes the filmmakers should have obeyed Maryland laws.

"Points for chutzpah, I guess, but this is a bad idea on so many levels it hurts just to think about it. All they're doing is extending the news cycle on this whole debacle, making fools of themselves with transparently petty arguments, and just generally showing less common sense than your average mafia don caught on a 60 Minutes sting. At this point, ACORN needs to take their lumps, finish their internal investigation, and clean up their act. In the meantime, the least they can do is avoid handing the Glenn Beck crowd free additional ammunition. Fair or not, shooting the messenger isn't helping their cause."

UPDATE No. 2 (September 27) Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times, has a tough job. Today he tries to put favorable spin on the way the Times sought to bury the ACORN scandal. For many days the "newspaper of record" refused to print a word about what most readers had been learning from the Internet, as well as from conservative commentators. As Hoyt now acknowledges, "a video sting had caught Acorn workers counseling a bogus prostitute and pimp on how to set up a brothel staffed by under-age girls, avoid detection and cheat on taxes. The young woman in streetwalker’s clothes and her companion were actually undercover conservative activists with a hidden camera."

He goes on: "But for days, as more videos were posted and government authorities rushed to distance themselves from Acorn, The Times stood still. Its slow reflexes — closely following its slow response to a controversy that forced the resignation of Van Jones, a White House adviser — suggested that it has trouble dealing with stories arising from the polemical world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs. Some stories, lacking facts, never catch fire. But others do, and a newspaper like The Times needs to be alert to them or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself."

Apparently, if the story had never "caught fire" we would never have learned about it from the lordly Times. No wonder the paper's revenues are way down.

Incredibly, NYT editors told Hoyt that they were not immediately aware of the Acorn videos on Fox, YouTube and a new conservative Web site called Moreover, "when the Senate voted to cut off all federal funds to Acorn, there was not a word in the newspaper or on its Web site. When the New York City Council froze all its funding for Acorn and the Brooklyn district attorney opened a criminal investigation, there was still nothing."

A number of readers wrote in to say that they knew why the paper was silent: “protecting the progressive movement.” Surely they are correct.

"Finally, on Sept. 16, nearly a week after the first video was posted, The Times took note of the controversy, under the headline, “Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn, Favored Foe.” The article said that conservatives hoped to weaken the Obama administration by attacking its allies and appointees they viewed as leftist. The conservatives thought they had a “winning formula,” the article said, mobilizing people “to dig up dirt,” then trumpeting it on talk radio and television."

In other words the only thing newsworthy about the event was that conservatives were exploiting it. But of course they wouldn't have been able to do so if ACORN were clean. And if the Times had been honest the repercussions might have been less. As one reader wrote “A suspicious person might see an attempt to deflect criticism of Acorn by highlighting how those pesky conservatives are at it again." A "suspicious person"? Surely anyone with any sense can see this bias, however much Hoyt tries to spin it.

Hoyt is still trying to deny what most observers think is the case, namely that the Times spiked a story of ACORN corruption last year in order to help the Obama case. And of course there is no question at all about the false story the Times posted last year claiming that John McCain had an extramarital affair.

Bloggers are gaining ground, and the mainstream media, headed by the New York Times, is losing it. That in my view is a good thing.



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