“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” James M. Cain’s novel that is better known as a 1946 film noir classic starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, has a famous ironic twist. The story’s hapless drifter narrator escapes punishment for a murder he helped commit, but gets executed anyway for a death that was really an accident. Cosmic justice is done, if not legal justice. It turns out that the postman rang twice for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, too.
ACORN, as you may have read, is close to defunct, the victim of too much exposure for an organization that wasn’t ready for prime time. It was a progressive urban activist organization, light on professionalism but heavy on dedication and energy, that used its local chapters to pressure city governments on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. It brought out the troops heavily on behalf of Barack Obama in 2008, and immediately got its first bad publicity when it was revealed that ACORN workers registering urban voters had added many false and fictional names on the rolls. Republicans screamed voter fraud, but the truth was that the low-paid registration gatherers were paid by the name, and wanted to earn a little extra. But this was ACORN’s weakness, and the weakness of many activist organizations, a culture of loose oversight dominated by an attitude of “don’t sweat the little stuff, or let details get in the way of the big picture.”
ACORN was fueled by contributions and, once Democrats got a hold of the purse strings, government contracts and grants. Its sprawling and complex network of affiliates and related organizations allowed it to fudge the legal distinctions between non-profit organizations, which cannot engage in political activities, and lobbying organizations, which can. It was seen by Republicans as a committed Democratic Party ally, and once Obama was elected, their point of view was hard to contest.
In 2008, an ACORN whistleblower revealed that Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN’s founder, Wade Rathke, and an officer of the organization, had embezzled nearly a million dollars (later alleged to be as much as $5 million) in 1999 and 2000. Wade had covered it up, not only failing to inform the board, law enforcement officials and donors, but also, incredibly enough, keeping his brother in his job and on the ACORN payroll….for eight years! Needless to say, this cover-up, outlandish breach of fiduciary duty and irresponsible non-profit management would and should signal the end for any organization, but ACORN’s political allies managed to minimize the damage.
Then came conservative activist James O’Keefe’s bizarre “sting” operation, in which he and a confederate tricked (and videotaped) ACORN employees in various local offices into giving advice to a “pimp” and his “prostitute” on how to get government assistance for their illegal activities. The videos, showing O’Keefe in an absurd “pimp” costume right out of an old sketch on “In Living Color,” went viral on YouTube, and reinforced an image of ACORN as a gang of ethically-bankrupt hustlers, just like the Republicans had been arguing all along. The Obama Administration distanced itself from the group, and Congress passed a (possibly unconstitutional) law banning ACORN from ever receiving Federal funds again.
The pimp stunt destroyed ACORN’s credibility, and political support and donations dried up. The organization’s national web site has been taken down, and chapters in other states are adopting new names, with many ending their long affiliations with ACORN. California ACORN, for example, is now Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and New York ACORN has become New York Communities for Change. Now, too late to make a difference, a dogged blogger has shown that O’Keefe’s videos were heavily edited, and that he did not, in fact dress like a pimp. (O’Keefe has already been exposed as a less than trustworthy activist, having been arrested for an attempt to operate another sting in the office of a U.S. Senator.)
Brad Friedman has convincingly proven that the videos were misreported by the press, and that they were so heavily over-dubbed and cut that they should not be accorded any credibility at all. There seems to be little question that some of the ACORN staffers gave embarrassingly wrong advice, and were disturbingly casual about suggesting fraud and strategies for supporting a criminal enterprise. Nonetheless, it is unethical and unfair to use manipulated and fraudulent evidence, even when what it purports to prove is true. Friedman is appropriately outraged that the press uncritically accepted the dishonest representations of O’Keefe, who, Friedman’s investigation shows, was not dressed as a pimp in the ACORN offices, although in media accounts his costume was a core element in showing the organization’s staff to be incompetent and corrupt.
On Friedman’s blog, he recounts his efforts to get the New York Times to correct its accounts of O’Keefe’s sting, and the response by the Times’ “public editor,” Clark Hoyt, is both revealing and alarming. When asked about one Times article, following O’Keefe’s recent arrest for trying to “maliciously interfere” in the office of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), that described O’Keefe as having “made his biggest national splash last year when he dressed up as a pimp and trained his secret camera on counselors with the liberal community group Acorn,” Hoyt made an argument that could have been ghostwritten by Bill Clinton:
“The story says O’Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on Acorn counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time.”
In later correspondence, Hoyt admits that O’Keefe’s videos were unethical, but writes,
“…at the end of the day, whatever O’Keefe wore, he clearly presented himself to the ACORN employees in a pimp relationship with Hannah Giles. Unless you are prepared to contend that all of his comments captured on the tapes were dubbed in later, I think you have to acknowledge that he and the employees were talking about hiding money from prostitution, smuggling in under-age girls from abroad and even financing a political campaign with her earnings. The notion that the ACORN workers were somehow hoodwinked into believing that he was a college student trying to save his girlfriend from a life of prostitution — and that they were reacting out of sympathy — strikes me as a literally incredible effort to rewrite the obvious record.”
Maybe so. Still, ACORN was done in by falsified evidence from a misrepresentation by an individual of demonstrable unreliability, evidence that would be thrown out of any court and that never should have supported a professional news story. Friedman is also correct that the Times owes its readers a correction, as do hundreds of other news organizations. To this day, it is still written that O’Keefe was disguised as a pimp, and the public is largely unaware that O’Keefe’s videos were edited to make the ACORN staffers look even more foolish and incompetent than they were.
In the end, however, justice was done. ACORN deserved to be put out of business for its cover-up of the Rathke embezzlement, but got its just desserts through an over-hyped conservative hit job. That’s not right, and it wasn’t ethical, but nobody should feel sorry for the organization. Its conduct showed that it couldn’t be trusted, and it was not worthy of taxpayer support.
The right result came about for the wrong reason, because the postman rang twice.