Among the many glorious things about American journalism is that no credentialing organization or regulatory body stands between an individual who wants to break a story and his public reporting of it.
In the old days, one significant barrier did deter aspiring reporters: If they couldn't find a publisher for their piece or afford to self-publish, they were SOL. But now, thanks to the free-for-all environment created by the Web, those publication and distribution worries have evaporated. Anybody can be a journalist in the new regime, we're told, and on some days, it seems as if everybody is.
Last week, thanks to the sponsorship of Andrew Breitbart's new site BigGovernment.com, self-described activist filmmaker James O'Keefe, 25, and his colleague Hannah Giles, 20, brought national scrutiny to the progressive Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, with a series of guerilla videos that are one part 60 Minutes, two parts Punk'd, three parts Ali G, and four parts Michael Moore, all bubbling under a whipped topping of yellow journalism.
If you're late to the story, Andrew Breitbart is a conservative author, columnist, Web entrepreneur, and Matt Drudge protégé. Lately, he has distributed a series of videos made by O'Keefe and Giles in which the duo visits various ACORN offices with a hidden camera, pretending to be a pimp and prostitute seeking advice on setting up a brothel. ACORN workers in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; San Bernardino, Calif; and Brooklyn, N.Y., took the bait, and now ACORN is on the run, firing underlings, making excuses, and responding to charges of mismanagement and fraud. On Capitol Hill, Congress is getting ready to defund the organization, which has taken in at least $53 million in federal money since 1994.
As a work of undercover journalism, the stunt is a mess, but an interesting one—like something William Randolph Hearst might have conjured up for his sensationalistic New York Journal in the 1890s. O'Keefe and Giles didn't assume undercover identities so that they could gain a vantage point from which to observe wrongdoing. Instead, their goal was simply to costume themselves, assume outlandish personas, and ask ridiculous questions designed to elicit embarrassing responses, just as comedian Sacha Baron Cohen does in his various guises. (Here's Ali G pranking Noam Chomsky.) This isn't entrapment as much as it is improvisation. If it were being done for laughs, nobody would care.
But although the clips are funny, O'Keefe and Giles were dead serious. About what? What are they trying to prove? That ACORN is in the business of assisting pimps and prostitutes in setting up brothels? Of all the things ACORN has been accused of—voter registration fraud, embezzlement, and criminal conspiracy—I don't think I've heard one critic claim that the group advises hookers and pimps. As far as I know, not even O'Keefe and Giles made this charge before shooting their videos.
The primary take-away from the videos, as best as I can discern, is that a shocking number of low-level ACORN employees think that helping to relocate houses of prostitution is part of the group's agenda. Such an oblique, rambling point is interesting enough by my measure to qualify as news.
The critics of Breitbart and the filmmakers don't really dispute the basic information unearthed by the videos. Instead, they take issue with the duo's spectrum of deception or their political motives in pursuing ACORN. The liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America complains that the ACORN videos, which aren't a "major story," are driving an "incomplete, misleading" media stampede.
But Media Matters is wrong. Independent news organizations, including the Washington Post, the New York Post, and the Baltimore Sun, are chasing the ACORN story not because they've been bamboozled by the Breitbart exposé but because the dress-up stunt has pointed them toward what could be fertile grounds for wrongdoing.
If you think Breitbart has corrupted the press, then you probably think he's done the same to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service, too. Today's(Sept. 23) Washington Post reports that the bureau, citing a lack of confidence in ACORN, has dumped the organization as a partner in the 2010 count, and just coming over the wires is news that the IRS has dismissed ACORN from its volunteer tax-assistance program. Next to shed ACORN will be oak trees everywhere. You read it here first.
Would Washington or the press be giving ACORN a second look if Breitbart, O'Keefe, and Giles' prank hadn't revealed the, um, unknown dimension of the organization? I doubt it. And that brings me back to my original observation: One of the great strengths of American journalism is that it will accept contributions from everybody from amateurs to entertainers (I'm looking at you, Jon Stewart) to gadflies to billionaires to activists to students to genocidal tyrants. The system is so delightfully open that even pornographers can spill worthwhile journalistic ink. That Breitbart comes swinging a political ax should bother nobody, unless the journalism published in Mother Jones, The Nation, the Huffington Post, Salon, the New Republic, the American Prospect, Reason, the Weekly Standard, or the National Review gives them similar fits. Viewing the world through an ideological lens can sometimes help a journalist to discover a story.
Breitbart proved this week that his site can make news without having anybody play dress-up when he posted the full transcript and audio of an August National Endowment for the Arts conference call. In it, NEA honchos urge artists to push President Obama's political agenda. That's news by anybody's measure, including the New York Times'. Give the man two cheers. If he keeps up the good work, toss him a third.
What is the origin of "three cheers," anyway. What do you have to do to earn a fourth? Or a fifth? Google the answer (or Bing it!) and send your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org. I wear hot pants and heels when I Twitter. Stop and visit, but don't cry foul if I videotape you. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)