Network news largely silent on Fox News' role in hyping, distorting ACORN story

In their coverage of recently released videotapes showing ACORN employees allegedly giving advice to conservative activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute on how they could skirt laws, 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, repeatedly falsely reported that a San Bernardino ACORN worker murdered her former husband; only ABC News even mentioned that Fox News has been the major force promoting the story.

Networks ignore mitigating facts in their ACORN reporting

Some of the videotapes may have been taken illegally. World News and Nightly News did not report that in secretly videotaping their conversations with ACORN employees, conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe and columnist Hannah Giles may have violated state criminal statutes in Maryland and California.

ACORN provided only counseling and performed no illegal services; no fraud or harm came to the government as a result of the sessions. None of the networks indicated that there is no evidence the ACORN employees provided anything beyond the counseling sessions to the activists, nor did they report that the government was not defrauded in anyway as a result of the employees' actions.

Filmmakers reportedly turned away from ACORN's Philadelphia office, contradicting their claims. The CBS Evening News and World News did not report that ACORN has stated that the activists were turned away from other offices, or that ACORN filed a complaint with police about the filmmakers' conduct in Philadelphia. On the September 11 edition of CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, CNN correspondent Bill Tucker reported that ACORN “claims that the two activist filmmakers responsible for posting the videos tried the same thing” at several of their other offices “and failed.” Tucker further reported: “ACORN gave CNN a copy of the police complaint filed against the filmmakers In Philadelphia. The filmmakers, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles are not commenting and Giles was a no-show for an agreed-to interview with CNN.”

Indeed, in a newly released YouTube video, ACORN Housing Corp.'s Philadelphia office director Katherine Conway Russell stated that O'Keefe visited the office “last July” with “another woman.” Russell stated that "[a]fter asking several general questions, [O'Keefe] began to veer off into suspicious territory." Russell said that O'Keefe eventually “asked about bringing girls from El Salvador and getting them papers, et cetera,” but that “I told them that there was nothing we could do to help them, that I didn't know anything about what they were asking about.” Russell also said that after she contacted another ACORN official and it became clear that O'Keefe “lied to get his appointment,” they contacted the police. Russell's comments follow denials from O'Keefe and Giles that they had visited any ACORN office other than those for which they had posted video.

Interactions occurred at a small percentage of total number of ACORN offices nationwide. O'Keefe and Giles have posted video of interactions with ACORN employees at five offices. None of the networks reported that those offices represent a fraction of ACORN locations nationwide. According to its website, ACORN has more than 100 offices, with locations in 41 states and the District of Columbia.

Networks ignore that Fox News repeatedly falsely reported ACORN employee killed her former husband

Networks ignore Fox's irresponsible reporting on ACORN video. All three networks ignored the fact that Fox News repeatedly promoted the fake claim that an ACORN employee killed her former husband without fact-checking the allegation or indicating that it had contacted ACORN for a response. On September 15 and 16, Fox News devoted significant programming to O'Keefe and Giles' video of their interactions with San Bernardino ACORN organizer Tresa Kaelke, who claimed she murdered her husband and gave advice on how to run a brothel. After the video was released, Kaelke stated that she had merely been attempting to “shock them as much as they were shocking me.”

ACORN calls video “an obvious set of lies and manipulations.” During the evening on September 15, ACORN issued a statement calling the video of O'Keefe's and Giles' interactions with Kaelke an “obvious set of lies and manipulations.” Kaelke stated of the conservative activists who filmed her: “They were not believable. ... Somewhat entertaining, but they weren't even good actors. I didn't know what to make of them. They were clearly playing with me. I decided to shock them as much as they were shocking me. Like Stephen Colbert does -- saying the most outrageous things with a straightface.” The release added:

For example, in response to the set-up by the filmmakers in which they say they are trying get the young woman away from her abusive pimp, she responds that she was abused by her former husband as well (true) and that she shot and killed him (false). He is very much alive and living near Barstow, CA.

However, this is taken as the gospel truth, not just in the film itself, but also by several “news” personalities, indicating that no journalistic standards were applied to making the video or vetting it for broadcast.

San Bernardino PD: Investigators found former husbands “alive and well.” In a September 15 news release, the San Bernardino Police Department stated that Kaelke's claim that she shot and killed her ex-husband does “do[es] not appear to be factual.”

Only ABC acknowledges that Fox News played a role in promoting the videotapes

Tapper reports ACORN videos are “shown frequently on Fox News Channel.” In a September 16 World News report, ABC News senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper said, “Republicans have long opposed ACORN's politics and methods. Last year, they attacked the president and his campaign for ties to the group. Those allegations didn't stick, but these videos, shown frequently on Fox News Channel, seem to constitute a tipping point.”

Following Beck's instructions, Fox News attempts to change story from health care to ACORN. On September 9, Glenn Beck said that while the media “says they're going to be talking about health care” the next day, he didn't “think so,” and aired brief clips of the first video released by O'Keefe and Giles, suggesting that would instead be the top story. Apparently taking their cues from Beck, through 7 p.m. the following day, Fox News devoted at least 17 segments on six programs to airing and discussing portions of the video.


From the September 15 edition of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric:

KATIE COURIC (host): The grassroots community organization called ACORN helps low-income Americans find affordable housing and gets tens of millions of dollars in government funding. But as Cynthia Bowers reports, that may be coming to an end after a scandal caught on tape.

[begin video clip]

BOWERS: The videos, reportedly recorded in late July and early August, appear to show ACORN employees in several big cities -- including Baltimore, Washington, and New York -- advising a couple posing as a pimp and prostitute.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And don't say that you're prostituting or whatever.

BOWERS: The employees are heard telling the couple how to avoid paying taxes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't worry. You're fine.

BOWERS: And how to qualify for a mortgage on a home the couple plans to use as a brothel.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Stop saying prostitution.

O'KEEFE (posing as a pimp): Got it.


BOWERS: ACORN says the workers caught on tape were fired but contends the videos were illegally obtained, doctored, and deceptive, and is threatening legal action against the undercover filmmakers posing as the couple.

BERTHA LEWIS (ACORN CEO): We are experiencing the modern-day version of McCarthyism. [...] Have you now or have you ever been associated with ACORN?

BOWERS: No matter who's to blame, long-term damage to the reputation of the poverty rights organization may already be done.

SEN. MIKE JOHANNS (R-NE): I don't believe it was accidental that this video caught ACORN employees delivering the same message in different cities.

BOWERS: Last night, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted 83-7 to deny ACORN access to millions of dollars in federal housing funds.

JOHANNS: They magnify a troubling, systemic, and a criminal pattern.

BOWERS: Just last week, the Census Bureau severed its ties with the organization, meaning ACORN workers won't be part of the 2010 census count.

For its part, ACORN says it registered 1.3 million new voters just last year and has helped hundreds of thousands of families buy and keep their homes. But critics point out ACORN also faces voter fraud charges in nearly two dozen states.

STEVE STANEK (Heartland Institute research fellow): It has no business trying to organize voter registration, because it has shown time and time again that it cannot be trusted to do that.

BOWERS: According to a website that tracks government grants, ACORN has received 53 million tax dollars since 1994, and many now want to know exactly where those millions wound up. Cynthia Bowers, CBS News, Chicago.

[end video clip]

From the September 16 edition of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric:

COURIC: Now a follow-up to our report last night about ACORN, the grassroots community organization. Today it ordered an independent investigation of its operations. This is in response to undercover videos that show ACORN employees giving advice to a couple posing as a pimp and prostitute on how to cheat on taxes and a mortgage application. The employees have been fired. ACORN's CEO called their actions indefensible.

From the September 16 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (host): Now we turn to the controversy surrounding ACORN, the community organizers conservatives criticized during the campaign. Now a young conservative activist has landed ACORN in a lot of trouble, with Congress now scrambling to cut government ties with the group. Our senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers has our report.

[begin video clip]

MYERS: ACORN has long been a target of conservatives and most recently came up as an issue in last year's election.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN (R-AZ): We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN.

MYERS: The liberal community organizing group registered more than a million low-income voters. Republicans questioned its methods and accused ACORN of trying to steal the election for Barack Obama. Over more than two decades, ACORN has received tens of millions of federal dollars to help poor families with housing. It also provides other community services. Now, hidden camera video show ACORN workers in several cities advising how to evade the IRS, even how to conceal underage prostitution.

O'KEEFE (posing as a pimp): What if they're making money because they're performing tricks, too?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If they're making money and they're underage, you shouldn't let nobody know, anyway.

MYERS: The videos were shot by a 25-year-old conservative activist and a friend, who posed as a pimp and prostitute. Republican leaders reacted quickly.

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R-VA): We need to make sure that we sever all ties that ACORN has with the federal government, to cut off all funding that they receive from the taxpayers.

MYERS: The Census Bureau has severed its ties, saying it no longer wants ACORN's help counting low-income families. And this week the Senate voted overwhelmingly to cut off all federal housing money for ACORN. ACORN says it has been targeted unfairly and claims the filmmaker was thrown out of offices in other cities. But today ACORN's CEO announced an internal investigation and review of practices.

LEWIS: We would terminate anyone who did not abide by our professional standards.

MYERS: Still, these images will not fade quickly, even among ACORN's friends. Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

[end video clip]

From the September 16 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:

GIBSON: Next, we're going to turn to a political firestorm that is in Washington. For years, Republicans in that city have been taking aim at an umbrella group of community organizers called ACORN. Opposition to the group intensified when ACORN helped President Obama in his election campaign. And now a videotape has surfaced, which has prompted calls for investigations of ACORN's activities. Here's Jake Tapper.

[begin video clip]

TAPPER: It's the nation's largest grassroots organization lobbying for, and reaching out to, poor and minority communities. ACORN has received about $20 million in federal funds in the last decade and has helped those communities with voter registration, housing, and employment issues. But despite close relationships with Democrats, the Senate and today, the White House, are reviewing all their ties to the group.

ROBERT GIBBS (White House press secretary): The conduct that you see on those tapes is completely unacceptable.

TAPPER: “Those tapes” were made by two young conservatives dressed as a prostitute and a pimp receiving advice from ACORN employees in different cities on how to skirt the law and hide a fictitious prostitution ring.

[begin video clip]

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Find another name --

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Find another name for?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And don't say that you're prostituting or whatever.

[end video clip]

TAPPER: This is not the first time ACORN has drawn bad headlines. Last week, 11 ACORN employees in Miami were arrested and charged with voter registration fraud.

Republicans have long opposed ACORN's politics and methods. Last year, they attacked the president and his campaign for ties to the group. Those allegations didn't stick, but these videos, shown frequently on Fox News Channel, seem to constitute a tipping point. The Census Bureau has canceled its relationship with ACORN. The Senate voted to kill ACORN housing grants. And Republicans are calling for investigations.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R-AL): These are not isolated incidents. ACORN's been charged with voter fraud.

TAPPER: ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis announced that ACORN has fired some of the employees on the tapes and today she ordered an independent audit of the organization.

LEWIS: This was indefensible.

TAPPER: But Lewis argues the attacks by Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits against ACORN employees have an undertone of racism.

LEWIS: I think they're, you know, basically saying, “these people shouldn't be trusted. How could they be trusted? You know, they're all poor black and brown people.”

TAPPER: Whatever the reason, ACORN now finds itself with few defenders on Capitol Hill or in the West Wing. Jake Tapper, ABC News, the White House.

[end video clip]