Media Matters: Fox News' incomplete, misleading ACORN coverage is just nuts

Fox News is already teasing its next round of ACORN attacks. If credible journalists don't stand up for their craft, then Fox News will keep enjoying its position in the driver's seat.

If you get your news from right-wing talk radio and Fox News, you probably think America is being overrun by a hyper-corrupt organized prostitution ring headquartered in the White House.

In case you missed this story: Two conservative activists, Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe, visited a host of ACORN offices around the country posing as a pimp and prostitute. They asked for help establishing a brothel, and even stated that underage girls would be working for them. They had a surveillance camera and recorded at least four interactions with ACORN employees and claimed these employees provided them with assistance. All of the employees implicated have now been fired, and federal aid to ACORN has been cut off.

Still, the story at this point really has a lot more to do with Fox News and conservative media activism than with ACORN. The undercover videos first appeared on, founded by Andrew Breitbart, a protégé of Matt Drudge and a conservative with a long record of highly partisan and inflammatory statements. Giles, daughter of conservative blogger Doug Giles, attended the National Journalism Center in Washington, one of the many right-wing institutions conservatives have established to flood the field with young, motivated, and rabidly partisan “reporters.” For his part, O'Keefe has been a far-right activist since college.

Breitbart has developed a direct line to Glenn Beck, and so it wasn't long before the videos were being presented breathlessly on his TV and radio programs. This week, following his 9/12 rally, Beck escalated the attacks over ACORN. “But good God almighty, what is wrong with us,” he said on Tuesday, “that we don't right now get into the cars and drive back to Washington, and surround the Capitol and say, 'What the hell is wrong with you people? Are you soulless? Are you dead inside?' ”

It was just the beginning. “Obama is Van Jones, Obama is ACORN,” right-wing pundit Monica Crowley said on Wednesday. “Just as he is ACORN, just as he is Van Jones, he is racism,” Rush Limbaugh parroted the sentiment on Thursday. Radio host Jim Quinn said that we were all living in the “United States of ACORN,” and Fox News' Megyn Kelly had Karl Rove on to talk about the tapes exposing what was now a “remarkable criminal enterprise.” The stakes couldn't be higher. ACORN, after all, was on tap to receive “eight and a half trillion dollars of stimulus money,” according to Sean Hannity -- a number that was a thousand times greater than the equally fictitious billions that Beck had accorded to the organization on behalf of the government. ACORN had suddenly ballooned from an organization which had received $53 million in federal funds over 15 years to representing 67 percent of America's gross domestic product.

Fox was running so wild with the story that they were willing to lower their already dubious standards. The first problem was one of logic. Four videos were being promoted as unimpeachable proof that all of ACORN is equally corrupt -- all 1,200 chapters and hundreds of ACORN employees. It was the opposite of how a credible investigation is supposed to function, in which conclusions are withheld until after all the facts are in. By comparison, here, the conservative media had a few isolated facts but were willing to extrapolate an entire thesis from them.

More important, Fox News failed to vet the tapes. This was made painfully clear with the case of the San Bernardino ACORN office, which was featured in the fourth video to be released. In the footage, ACORN employee Tresa Kaelke claimed that she had murdered her former husband following a period of domestic abuse. On September 15, Beck and Sean Hannity both broadcast Kaelke's assertion. Beck, who had reported on the supposed confession during his radio program, added on Fox, “She never spanked her kids, but she did shoot her husband dead.” Later that night, Hannity played the same clip, and in a rare moment of intellectual curiosity, asked about the veracity of the murder claim. “We're working on it,” Giles said, which was enough for Hannity. The following morning, on September 16, Fox News' Gretchen Carlson repeated the allegation, saying, “She killed somebody? Despite this, some lawmakers want to keep funding the group.”

But Kaelke's ex-husbands are alive. The San Bernardino Police Department confirmed this simple fact on September 15, releasing a statement that read: “Investigators have been in contact with the involved party's known former husbands, who are alive and well.” (Kaelke was soon quoted in an ACORN press release saying that she had made the claim because she was seeking to mislead the undercover videographers, whom she was suspicious of.) In spite of these developments, the next day, Hannity was still treating the San Bernardino tape as fully credible. He even hosted Giles again but failed to ask her about her own investigation into the truth of the claim. (Here's a full timeline of the attention the San Bernardino video received.)

In the meantime, another pivotal hole in the story began to present itself. During interviews, Breitbart, Giles, and O'Keefe had all asserted that the undercover team had never been kicked out of an ACORN office. Bertha Lewis, ACORN's CEO and chief organizer, had already said this was a falsehood by the time a Philadelphia ACORN employee, Katherine Conway Russell, publicly claimed to have done just that, adding that she had filed a police report after a visit from the conservative pair. The police report was soon produced, raising further serious questions about the credibility of the entire ACORN exposé. It was another major side of the story that Fox News simply hadn't cared to look into.

On the offense, Breitbart has lashed out at the mainstream media for supposedly burying the story. “The behavior of Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN,” he said on Friday, “has been despicable during this.” Many mainstream reporters were indeed worthy of criticism, but for the opposite reason that Breitbart cited. Their real failure was discussing the ACORN issue on Fox News' terms and ignoring the network's role in pushing the smears.

The New York Times covered up conservatives' well-documented ACORN obsession in its reporting. In their reports, all three network evening news broadcasts -- ABC's World News, NBC's Nightly News, and the CBS Evening News -- left out substantive facts about the incidents that mitigate the accusations, exonerate ACORN employees, or undermine the credibility of the filmmakers. Moreover, none reported that Fox News, in its aggressive promotion of this story, had made false accusations.

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews was content to report that the right had simply “claimed another victim,” as if the campaign had been entirely legitimate. “They know what they are doing because they are getting an audience from this,” he added, uncritically. And MSNBC's Dylan Rattigan allowed conservative activist Carter Clews of Americans for Limited Government to ask Bertha Lewis, “How much money did Barack Obama funnel to you ... with his buddy-boy Bill Ayers?” David Shuster and Juan Williams provided some of the week's few media bright spots by focusing on Fox News itself and providing the story with some perspective.

Fox News is already teasing its next round of ACORN attacks. If credible journalists don't stand up for their craft, then Fox News will keep enjoying its position in the driver's seat.

Other major stories this week:

Dropping Lou Dobbs

After years of Lou Dobbs using his CNN platform to promote the work of hate groups, spread racially charged conspiracy theories, and engage in hate speech, Media Matters joined more than 15 national organizations (including NDN, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Council of La Raza, among others) this week in launching the Drop Dobbs campaign.

The coalition also launched, a new website that demonstrates Dobbs' history of xenophobia and nativism and will monitor his misinformation in the days and weeks to come. Those visiting the site are encouraged to take action by signing a petition telling Dobbs' advertisers to stop sponsoring his hate.

Watch this compelling video to learn more about why dropping Dobbs is so important.

Dobbs obviously isn't taking news of the campaign well. He went on the attack this week by targeting many of the groups in the coalition, calling Media Matters “fleas” and claiming that “Hispanic activist groups” “brand” him a “racist” because he “opposes illegal immigration.” Dobbs also slammed various groups for “denigrating the United States for not being sufficiently welcoming” to undocumented immigrants and told what he characterized as a “pretty good joke”: that calling him a racist “would make you likely a member of La Raza.”

On September 15 and 16, Dobbs appeared at the “Hold Their Feet to the Fire” rally and legislative advocacy event in the nation's capital held by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) -- an organization labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. More on FAIR, its racist founder, its ties to eugenicists, and the racially charged comments of some of its staff can be found here.

Media Matters' Eric Burns sent an open letter to Klein, the CNN president, noting, “Mr. Dobbs represents an ongoing threat to CNN's credibility as a serious news organization, in no small part because of his polemical coverage of immigration issues and his continued use of his CNN show to lend prominence to groups such as FAIR. The attention and legitimacy he gave to the 'birther' movement -- and CNN's condoning of his actions -- did real damage to that credibility. His participation in the upcoming FAIR rally would do further, serious damage.”

In the end, Dobbs promoted a “very special broadcast” from the FAIR event, going so far as to thank the anti-immigrant organization for hosting a “great town hall event” on “amnesty.” During his broadcast from the FAIR event, Dobbs embraced discredited birther Jerome Corsi, whom he called a “pretty good guy to talk to” about immigration. He also hosted KHOW's Peter Boyles, a man who once said of a Hispanic accused rapist: “It's, you know, jobs Americans won't do.” During his stint as Dobbs' guest, Boyles said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “looks like Lady Macbeth.”

Though Dobbs claimed that “CNN has no role” at FAIR, “it's me, it's this radio show,” he and CNN correspondent Lisa Sylvester discussed the FAIR rally on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight -- of course, they made no mention of Dobbs' involvement in the event. After Media Matters pointed out their lack of disclosure, Dobbs suggested that Media Matters was a “hate group” for calling attention to his FAIR ties.

While Dobbs remains a serious problem, Stephen Colbert, host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, had some fun at the CNN host's expense, claiming that he'd lost to Dobbs in his bid to set the “record for the most insults to Mexico in a single nightly news broadcast.”

First the “birthers,” now the “czar-ers”?

Media conservatives, particularly the folks at Fox News, have been on a crusade of late to rid the Obama administration of czars. You know, because the term sounds foreign ... perhaps Russian ... definitely commie. Of course, in order to fall in line behind their logic, one has to ignore the fact that Republican and Democratic presidents have used the term to identify top advisers for decades. As we noted last week, “In fact, 'czars' were such a non-issue at Fox News during the Bush years that Bill O'Reilly called for the appointment of several new 'czars' to handle immigration, charities, and disaster relief, and not once was he denounced by his colleagues for advocating a 'shadow government' with 'unchecked power.' "

Well, this week was no different. The czar hysteria continued.

Fox News actually set out to explain to viewers why Obama's use of czars was so much worse than President Bush's. The conservative network falsely claimed that The Washington Post reported that Bush had 16 “czars” and that Obama has “twice as many.” In fact, in the article Fox News cited, the Post reported, “By one count, Bush had 36 czar positions filled by 46 people during his eight years as president.”

Taking a page from the Fox News book, Dobbs also downplayed Bush's use of czars, stating that prior to the Obama administration, “the highest number of czars that we were able to document in our own reporting ... was during the Clinton administration, and he had only 10 czars.” I guess Dobbs and his researchers don't read The Washington Post.

Dobbs' report did net the conspiracy-minded CNN host a new nickname, however. MSNBC's Keith Olbermann dubbed Dobbs a “czar-er” in designating him the “Worst Person in the World” for downplaying Bush's use of czars.

This week's media columns

This week's media columns from the Media Matters senior fellows: Eric Boehlert looks at Michelle Malkin and the anatomy of the 2 million protester lie, and Jamison Foser explains how Time magazine enables Glenn Beck's lies.

Greg Lewis tells us how Limbaugh takes race-baiting to puzzling extremes in The Friday Rush, a review of Limbaugh's radio shows over the past week.

This weekly wrap-up was compiled by Karl Frisch, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. Frisch also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube or sign up to receive his columns by email.