Easy nut to crack

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 a 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 the AWOL (American Way of Life). Right-wing TV and radio talk shows, blogs and websites, 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 casus 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 www.uni.edu/acornstudy. Its central findings include:

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

l 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.

l 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, websites and columns in mainstream newspapers," the study states.

I'd add only that it's ironic 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 and Environmental Policy Program in Los Angeles. 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, The New York Times, The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (the four 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 in cities where ACORN has a longtime presence).

Given the partisan debate, I asked Dreier and Martin about financing and any links to ACORN. Martin 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 stories 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 in 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 media outlets they studied failed to fact-check persistent allegations of "voter fraud" despite the existence of easily available evidence. The reporters 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:

l 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).

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

l 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.

l 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.

l 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."

l 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," according to the study. Although not asked about ACORN, McCain said, "We need to know the full extent of Sen. 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 some 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."

A version of this story appeared originally in Cincinnati's CityBeat.

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