[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA WEEKLY There’s an old joke that goes like this: A pimp and a prostitute walk into an ACORN office and ask for advice setting up a brothel and smuggling in underage Salvadoran girls to whore out for fun and profit. The punchline is the pimp and the prostitute were in fact a pair of twentysomething right-wing media provocateurs armed with a hidden camera.
Over the summer James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles visited an undisclosed number of ACORN offices on the East and West coasts—including Philadelphia. While the Philly office didn’t take the bait, ACORN office workers in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn; San Bernardino and San Diego did appear to offer a sympathetic ear and helpful advice, including how to disguise illegal income from the IRS and where the best places are to smuggle illegals across the border.
Fox News thought this joke was very funny—not so much haha funny, but conservative agenda-advancing, score-settling, Democrat-hurting, Obama-bashing funny—and so they repeated the joke across the full spectrum of their broadcast platform, rolling out a new gotcha video every day for almost a week. It was, among other things, a potent antidote to the momentum the president was gaining for his health care reform initiative in the wake of a persuasive and well-received call for action before a joint session of Congress.
Hours before Obama addressed Congress and the nation on Sept. 9, Glenn Beck took to Fox’s airwaves and teased the ACORN stink bomb he was planning to drop on the following day’s program: “Tomorrow—tomorrow, things change,” Beck promised. “I think things change a lot for those in power. The tides are about to turn, and that will be on tomorrow’s broadcast,” Beck hinted ominously, adding: “Trust me. Everybody now says they’re going to be talking about health care. I don’t think so.”
The next day Fox devoted 17 segments on six programs— Fox & Friends; America’s Newsroom; Happening Now; Live Desk; Glenn Beck; and Special Report —to the ACORN gotcha footage, which soon went viral on the Internet. Eventually the scandalous story migrated to the more centrist precincts of mainstream media and soon even the reality-based community of the great American middle was in on the joke.
The fallout was almost immediate: The U.S. Census Bureau announced it was severing ties with ACORN, as did the IRS, which had previously partnered with the organization to provide free tax preparation services for the poor. The House of Representatives voted 345-75 to defund ACORN. Smelling blood in the water, Republicans went on the warpath and Democrats ran for cover—including Rep. Allyson Schwartz and Rep. Joe Sestak, two democrats whose districts include Philadelphia, who voted to defund. Bank of America, whose partnership with ACORN Housing began in 1990 and helped make 55,000 low-income people first-time homeowners, announced that it too was severing ties with ACORN. Even President Obama, who once provided legal representation to a coalition that included ACORN in a case regarding enforcement of Illinois’ National Voter Registration Act, called for an investigation into the grassroots group.
With little more than a reported $1300, grandma’s fur coat, a micro mini-skirt, a few leading questions, a lot of nerve and a hidden camera, O’Keefe and Giles did what the Bush White House, Karl Rove, the Gonzalez-era Justice Department, a dozen federal prosecutors, Fox News, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and the entire right wing blogosphere had been trying unsuccessfully to do for years: drop a poison pill in the Olympic-?sized pool of good deeds ACORN has done for the poor and the disenfranchised in the course of its nearly 40-year history. According to the political Geiger counters of every partisan stripe, ACORN was officially radioactive.? MORE