ACORN: Addressing the 'Selectively Edited' Meme

By: Mary Stone, Phoenix Fellow
Hannah James Costume Image

When Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe released their ACORN investigation in August 2009, most media coverage reported that the ACORN investigation painted a deceptive picture for the public. Many writers and activists accused O’Keefe and Giles along with Andrew Breitbart, who distributed the footage on BigGovernment.com, of “selectively editing” the evidence they filmed. Several writers stated that Giles and O’Keefe distributed footage from only a few ACORN offices when they actually visited “dozens.” Reporters went on to write that Giles and O’Keefe encountered many ACORN employees who turned the apparent prostitute and pimp away. One claim made against the duo in an attempt to exonerate ACORN employees argued that O’Keefe did not really pose like a pimp as he implied. In the end, these same writers and activists declared that the entire investigation was baseless since no criminal conduct was carried out and no ACORN member prosecuted. After reviewing the footage and the statements made by O’Keefe and Giles about their investigation, it would seem that those defenders of ACORN were selective in their reporting.

ACORN was formed in 1970 with the stated mission of advocacy for social issues such as affordable housing, better wages and benefits for workers, healthcare, and voter registration. ACORN did not fall under heavy scrutiny and, ultimately, collapse until the undercover investigation and footage release in 2009. Yet before O’Keefe and Giles came along, ACORN had a history of criminality and corruption. In 2008, it was discovered that Dale Rathke, the brother of the organization’s founder, had embezzled $1 million from ACORN between 1999-2000.1 Some sources reported that more was stolen and others reported that the founder and chief organizer, Wade Rathke, was involved as well. From 2004-2009, ACORN employees in over ten states faced charges for either committing voter registration fraud or tampering with records.2 However, ACORN suffered its biggest blow and subsequently filed for bankruptcy when O’Keefe and Giles confirmed the corruption previously demonstrated within ACORN.

Reports which dismissed the footage and criticized O’Keefe and Giles for wrongfully implicating ACORN employees with “highly-edited” videos include articles from Media Matters for America 3, Gawker 4, Salon 5, CNN 6, The Huffington Post 7 and more. Staff writers, such as Ravi Somaya, Joe Conason, and John Atlas labeled the footage “severely edited,” 8 “selectively and deceptively edited to serve as propaganda, not news,” 9 and “misleading, doctored, and edited yet reported as fact by the right wing press.” 10 Brad Friedman called the videos “highly-edited” and “heavily-overdubbed”, writing, “O’Keefe withheld important details from the edited versions of the video tapes he released.” 11 In an opinion piece for True/Slant, Allison Kilkenny wrote that the videos were “edited very creatively…to show only the ACORN employees who engaged in shady behavior.” 12 Another article published by the New York Post reported, “Many of the seemingly crime-encouraging answers were taken out of context so as to appear more sinister.” 13

Regarding this last argument about context, in what context is it acceptable to overlook or condone child prostitution? The videos highlight the “shady behavior” and criminal advice solicited by ACORN employees. O’Keefe and Giles necessarily cut the videos in order to more clearly show viewers the type of criminal behavior they encountered at ACORN. Editing a video or newspaper article is essential in order to communicate information most efficiently without splicing and dicing the evidence in order to twist the story. O’Keefe and Giles did not hide anything they found. While the entire footage was not included in the initial product, the questions asked by the “pimp” and “prostitute” as well as the answers given by ACORN workers are unmistakable.

New York City ACORN

DC ACORN

Baltimore ACORN

San Bernardino ACORN

San Diego ACORN

Los Angeles ACORN

Philadelphia ACORN

News anchors further reported that O’Keefe and Giles were selective regarding the ACORN locations covered in their footage. Kilkenny’s article maintained that the videos left out “dozens of other ACORN offices from which O’Keefe and Company were ejected.” 14 Likewise, Atlas declared that the staff in “most of ACORN’s offices” turned Giles and O’Keefe away. 15 ACORN, for its part, responded to the videos by insisting, “This behavior by a few of its workers…was an aberration, not the norm.” 16

The first two reports mentioned above are simply flagrant misrepresentations of the truth. The investigative team did not visit “dozens” of ACORN locations from which they were turned away as Kilkenny said, nor were they ejected from any as Atlas claimed. In fact, out of all the workers with whom the two spoke, O’Keefe and Giles were only refused assistance by one Mr. Felix Harris, an employee at the office in Los Angeles. Harris initially told the pair that he did not care about prostitution but when O’Keefe and Giles mentioned underage girls from El Salvador, Harris drew the line. Moreover, O’Keefe ultimately released footage of every employee with whom he and Giles spoke, including the one who turned them down. While ACORN executives claimed that the instances filmed constituted an “aberration,” the behavior captured on footage by O’Keefe and Giles’ was certainly the “norm” among the offices they investigated.

Next, both news channels and government officials claimed that, contrary to the evidence in the footage, O’Keefe never actually posed as a pimp and the intentions of prostitution and child sex trafficking were not made clear. Both Friedman and Atlas denied that O’Keefe “clearly represented himself as a pimp to the ACORN employees.” 17 Media Matters reported that in at least six of the instances, “either the activists did not tell the ACORN employees that they were planning to engage in child prostitution; or the ACORN employees refused to help them.” 18 Similarly, both the District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn and the Attorney General’s office in California ruled that O’Keefe “never claimed he was a pimp.” 19

The intentions and roles of O’Keefe and Giles’ characters are explicitly defined throughout the footage. In every video, O’Keefe informed the ACORN workers that Giles was a prostitute while he represented himself as either a friend trying to help Giles establish a brothel, a student planning to use the profits for political office, or both. Similarly, the plan to house underage prostitutes from El Salvador was mentioned to the workers in every ACORN visit.

DC ACORN

Baltimore ACORN

San Diego ACORN

San Bernardino ACORN

Los Angeles ACORN

Philadelphia ACORN

Although O’Keefe did not wear an apparent “pimp” outfit into any of the ACORN buildings, the role he vocalized for himself in the operation undeniably falls under the standard definition of a pimp, as one who controls prostitutes, arranges clients for them, and/or takes part of the earnings. O’Keefe may not have been “dressed as a 1970s Superfly pimp” 20 as writers described, yet O’Keefe made it explicitly clear to ACORN employees that he was a law student planning to use the revenue from prostitution to run for political office.

Nevertheless, many reports focused on the assumption that O’Keefe wore a pimp costume inside the ACORN offices when, in reality, he wore a shirt and tie. O’Keefe never claimed to have dressed as a pimp during the investigation. O’Keefe did include shots of himself “dressed in stereotypical 1970s pimp garb,” 21 in the videos for effect. The outfit, which included a chinchilla coat, first made an appearance on Fox News where a news anchor mistakenly reported that the outfit was worn during the investigation. The misstatement went uncorrected and soon became the biggest objection to the investigation. Critics quickly blamed the myth that this ridiculous chinchilla coat was worn into ACORN on O’Keefe. Criticizing him for misrepresentation, the media used the fabrication to discredit O’Keefe, dismiss the investigation, and keep the spotlight off ACORN.

Lawyers and news writers proceeded to excuse the conduct of ACORN workers who did appear to offer assistance to O’Keefe and Giles. Reports claimed that each of these employees either did not understand what the couple was asking, did not actually plan to help the two with their request, or was bluffing. Media Matters absolved workers by stating that in the Philadelphia and San Diego offices, employees had no real intention of helping the pimp and prostitute, while in New York and DC, O’Keefe and Giles “did not make clear that they were planning to engage in child prostitution.” 22 As previously stated, O’Keefe and Giles made their intention to use underage El Salvadorian girls for prostitution plainly clear at every ACORN location they visited. Regarding the representative in San Bernardino, the Attorney General’s office in California referred to a statement released by ACORN that “The San Bernardino ACORN receptionist knew it to be a prank and made outrageous and false statements.” 23 In all cases, the government officials and news channels excused ACORN employees, saying they may have demonstrated inauthenticity, incompetency, misunderstanding, or absurdity, but never, criminality.

If, like these reports implied, the ACORN employees were unaware of the intentions of O’Keefe and Giles’ characters, then why did the one employee, Harris, refuse to help? Similarly, why did ACORN representatives in the other videos specifically offer advice on getting a house for the underage girls and running the “business?”

The footage did not ultimately capture conspiracy to commit a crime because O’Keefe and Giles were putting on an act. Proof of a criminal conspiracy would have been valid only if O’Keefe and Giles had truly intended to sex traffic underage prostitutes into the United States. Although the plan was never going to be set in motion, the deception proved that ACORN employees were more than willing to solicit criminal advice and participate in illegality.

Regardless of what ACORN employees may have said in the videos, the media ultimately excused the whole affair on the grounds that no crime was committed. Some reports such as one by the Associated Press recognized that ACORN representatives “offered advice on how to hide assets and falsify lending documents” but dismissed the case because, in the end, “there was no criminal conduct by employees.” 24 Other reports, such as Kilkenny’s, condemned the investigation since “In no instance was the paperwork for the fictional pimp and prostitute successfully filed.” 25 In his articles for The Huffington Post, Atlas denounced the whole affair as a “smear campaign” by conservatives trying to create a scandal which failed since no ACORN employees “prepared tax returns, signed or submitted loan documents, or arranged bank loans.” 26 Friedman went so far as to declare there was “a complete lack of criminality in any of the O’Keefe/Giles/Breitbart tapes.” 27 Thus ACORN was excused for its willingness to assist human traffickers since O’Keefe and Giles were not serious about carrying out the crime.

The dismissive attitude of news reporters was reflected by the attitude of government officials on the investigation. Scott Harshbarger, the Attorney General of Massachusetts at the time, ruled that “While some of the advice and counsel given by ACORN employees and volunteers was clearly inappropriate and unprofessional…there is no evidence that action, illegal or otherwise was taken by any ACORN employee on behalf of the videographers.” 28 New York District Attorney, Joe Hynes, agreed that “no criminality has been found.” 29 California Attorney General, Edmund Brown, ruled that the footage did not even reveal a willingness to overlook criminal conduct. Brown concluded that the videos only showed “some members of the community organizing group ACORN engaged in ‘highly inappropriate behavior,’ but committing no violation of criminal laws” and then proceeded to add, “There is no evidence that any of the ACORN employees had the intent to aid and abet such criminal conduct or agreed to join in [O’Keefe and Giles purported] illegal conduct.” 30

In the end, nothing criminal was going to transpire since O’Keefe and Giles were not actually a pimp and prostitute planning to sex traffic underage girls. O’Keefe and Giles were not trying to get entry-level ACORN employees prosecuted. Their goal, rather, was to reveal how ACORN employees would respond when faced with such clients seeking help with illegal behavior, to reveal a moral deficiency systemic within the organization.

As O’Keefe and Giles revealed, only one employee among those with whom they spoke drew the line at child prostitution and turned the pair away. From the other videos, it is clear that had O’Keefe and Giles truly been a pimp and prostitute attempting to sex traffic underage girls, they would have found no objections from ACORN. On the contrary, several ACORN employees were more than willing to solicit advice and participate in hiding illegal activity.

Ultimately, the investigation was meant to shed light on the nature of ACORN employees and expose the staff’s attitude toward the law. On this account, the video footage speaks for itself.

In retrospect, had authorities taken the opportunity to dig further into ACORN affairs in order to discover how deep corruption ran, what would they have found? Instead, authorities dismissed the investigation by calling the videos “selectively-edited,” by criticizing the actions of Giles and O’Keefe as deceptive, by labeling the behavior of ACORN employees as, at worst, “embarrassing and inappropriate,” and by focusing on the irrelevant pimp suit. The failure to investigate ACORN and to defend its moral bankruptcy is perhaps the greatest legacy and most important consequence of the investigation.

Click below for links to the footage

September 9, 2009 | “ACORN Baltimore Prostitution Investigation” | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link p.1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtTnizEnC1U

p.2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNYU9PamIZk

September 11, 2009 | “ACORN DC Prostitution Investigation | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link p.1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWRTYD26Kxc

p.2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9MCk6GvQO4

September 13, 2009 | “ACORN NYC Child Prostitution Investigation” | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link p.1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrpRGZq7Z-U

p.2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ue_2_dhh1zo

September 15, 2009 | “ACORN San Bernadino Child Prostitution Investigation” | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link p.1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s8w9GEpSzw

p.2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHY3MHBl2ug

p.3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hr-1rs5lBjA

September 17, 2009 | “ACORN San Diego Child Prostitution Smuggling” | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link p.1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2CMXMC7vba4

p.2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwbEPjYqKwI

October 21, 2009 | “ACORN Philadelphia Prostitution Investigation” | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=af9DDayHwbg

November 16, 2009 | “ACORN Los Angeles Prostituion Investigation – Employee of the Year” | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5ysz5uaWfw

November 19, 2009 | “LA Story Program for Torture Victims” | James O’Keefe | Project Veritas

Insert link p.1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UciAenIhO2M

p.2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bg0HwXIZmCg


Footnotes

1 Carl Horowitz, ”ACORN Admits to Embezzlement Scandal; Founder Steps Down,” The National Legal and Policy Center, July 28, 2008, http://nlpc.org/stories/2008/07/28/acorn-admits-embezzlement-scandal-founder-steps-down.

2 “ACORN and Voter Registration Fraud,” Ballotpedia, http://ballotpedia.org/ACORN_and_voter_registration_fraud.

3 Media Matters Staff, “Big Falsehoods: An Updated Guide to Andrew Breitbart’s Lies, Smears, and Distortions,” Media Matters for America, July 21, 2010, http://mediamatters.org/research/2010/07/21/big-falsehoods-an-updated-guide-to-andrew-breit/168051.

4 Ravi Somaiya, “O’Keefe and Breitbart ACORN Videos ‘Severely Edited’,” Gawker, April 2, 2010, http://gawker.com/5508190/okeefe-and-breitbart-acorn-videos-severely-edited.

5 Joe Conason, “Now Reopen Breitbart’s ACORN Fraud – and Get Story Right,” Salon, July 21, 2010, http://www.salon.com/2010/07/21/acorn_10/.

6 Bill Tucker, Chris Murphey and Steve Turnham, “ACORN Workers Caught on Tape Allegedly Advising on Prostitution,” CNN, September 11, 2009, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/10/acorn.prostitution/.

7 John Atlas, “Fake ACORN Pimp Pleads Guilty; the New Yorker Adds its Voice to the Anti-ACORN Story,” The Huffington Post, May 25, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-atlas/fake-acorn-pimp-pleads-gu_b_591708.html.

8 Somaiya, “O’Keefe and Breitbart ACORN Videos ‘Severely Edited’,” April 2, 2010.

9 Conason, “Now Reopen Breitbart’s ACORN Fraud – and Get Story Right,” July 21, 2010.

10 Atlas, “Fake ACORN Pimp Pleads Guilty; the New Yorker Adds its Voice to the Anti-ACORN Story,” May 25, 2011.

11 Brad Friedman, “CA A.G. Finds ‘No Violation of Criminal Law’ in ‘Severely Edited’ ACORN ‘Pimp’ Videos; Releases Raw Tapes for First Time,” The Brad Blog, April 1, 2010, http://www.bradblog.com/?p=7780&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter.

12 Allison Kilkenny, “ACORN Chief Executive: ‘We’re Not Afraid’,” True/Slant, September 28, 2009, http://trueslant.com/allisonkilkenny/2009/09/28/acorn-chief-executive-were-not-afraid/.

13 Media Matters Staff, “Big Falsehoods: An Updated Guide to Andrew Breitbart’s Lies, Smears, and Distortions,” July 21, 2010.

14 Kilkenny, “ACORN Chief Executive: ‘We’re Not Afraid’,” September 28, 2009.

15 Atlas, “Fake ACORN Pimp Pleads Guilty; the New Yorker Adds its Voice to the Anti-ACORN Story,” May 25, 2011.

16 Kevin Whitelaw, “ACORN’s Current Woes Years In The Making,” NPR, October 21, 2009, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=113973216.

17 Friedman, “CA A.G. Finds ‘No Violation of Criminal law in ‘Severely Edited’ ACORN ‘Pimp’ Videos; Releases Raw Tapes for First Time,” April 1, 2010.

18 Media Matters Staff, “Big Falsehoods: An Updated Guide to Andrew Breitbart’s Lies, Smears, and Distortions,” July 21, 2010.

19 Somaiya, “O’Keefe and Breitbart ACORN Videos ‘Severely Edited’,” April 2, 2010.

20 Friedman, “CA A.G. Finds ‘No Violation of Criminal law in ‘Severely Edited’ ACORN ‘Pimp’ Videos; Releases Raw Tapes for First Time,” April 1, 2010.

21 Ibid.

22 Media Matters Staff, “Big Falsehoods: An Updated Guide to Andrew Breitbart’s Lies, Smears, and Distortions,” July 21, 2010.

23 Friedman, “CA A.G. Finds ‘No Violation of Criminal law in ‘Severely Edited’ ACORN ‘Pimp’ Videos; Releases Raw Tapes for First Time,” April 1, 2010.

24 Associated Press, “Internal Investigation Finds No Illegal Conduct by ACORN Workers,” The Washington Post, December 8, 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/07/AR2009120703985.html.

25 Kilkenny, “ACORN Chief Executive: ‘We’re Not Afraid’,” September 28, 2009.

26 John Atlas, “ACORN Vindicated of Wrongdoing by the Congressional Watchdog Office,” The Huffington Post, June 15, 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-atlas/acorn-vindicated-of-wrong_b_612265.html

27 Friedman, “CA A.G. Finds ‘No Violation of Criminal law in ‘Severely Edited’ ACORN ‘Pimp’ Videos; Releases Raw Tapes for First Time,” April 1, 2010.

28 Media Matters Staff, “Big Falsehoods: An Updated Guide to Andrew Breitbart’s Lies, Smears, and Distortions,” July 21, 2010.

29 Ibid.

30 Friedman, “CA A.G. Finds ‘No Violation of Criminal law in ‘Severely Edited’ ACORN ‘Pimp’ Videos; Releases Raw Tapes for First Time,” April 1, 2010.