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YouTube, the Right-o-Sphere, and the Anatomy of an ACORN Take Down

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, September 18 2009

Armed with just a cheap fedora, an absurd fur cape, and a palm-sized digital video camera, a 20 year-old and 25 year-old pair of activists have managed to bring to a boil concern over ACORN. Some conservatives have held a long-simmering resentment over what it sees as the corrupting influence of the group on American life, and the conservative wing of the new media ecosystem lays at the heart of this week's sudden national focus on ACORN. James O’Keefe -- who dressed as a pimp to ask ACORN for help setting up a what amounts to a brothel -- says he first became interested in going after the organization after he saw a YouTube video of ACORN workers breaking into houses that had gone into foreclosure. But O'Keefe and his accomplice, Hannah Giles, went from having a pet project to being the drivers of a national story when they brought what they'd surreptitiously recorded to the keyed-in Andrew Breitbart, best known as editor of the Drudge Report. (Breitbart has more colorfully described himself as "Matt Drudge’s b*&#h.")

What's worth noting is how primed and ready the conservative media world was to lavish attention on the young pair's undercover tapes, and to turn them for a proxy for all that ails Obama's America since the mid-1960s (not coincidentally, the same time ACORN got its start). Breitbart even told reporters that when O'Keefe first showed him the tapes, "I couldn't help thinking, this is the Abu Ghraib of the Great Society."

The great ACORN sting was performance from the get-go. O'Keefe and Giles didn't exactly go for believability; he's dressed in the generic "pimp" get-up that you'll see at many twenty-somethings' Halloween parties. Nevertheless, in one video clip that has gotten wide play online and on TV, an ACORN worker in the organization's Brooklyn office tries to be helpful in arranging for the young pair to qualify for housing that they admit they'd like to turn into a brothel. At one point, she seems to grow concerned, asking "Is prostitution legalized in New York State?" Still, she advises them to find another term to describe what the young woman does for a living, as putting down "prostitute" on an application form might raise some red flags.

In another O'Keefe and Giles tape, shot in ACORN's San Diego office, an ACORN worker "admits" to shooting her husband to death:

After Fox News' Greta Van Susteren dutifully replayed the tape, accompanied by tsk-tsking from the likes of Karl Rove, ACORN later put out statement saying that the woman in the video was not, in fact, actually admitting to committing murder. She was, said the organization, simply matching performance with performance, playing along with what was an obvious goof, a la Stephen Colbert:

They were not believable. ... Somewhat entertaining, but they weren't even good actors. I didn't know what to make of them. They were clearly playing with me. I decided to shock them as much as they were shocking me. Like Stephen Colbert does -- saying the most outrageous things with a straightface.

That this was more post-modern performance than gumshoe journalism is something that all involved acknowledge. Here's how Breitbart tellingly describes the project and O'Keefe:

Morley Safer meets Sacha Baron Cohen, I think. Not precise. But you get the point.

This isn’t your mother’s "60 Minutes." But then again, why would a twenty five-year old even think straight journalism? His crowd doesn’t even know who Don Hewitt is. They need it quick cut, set to music and packaged to go viral on YouTube.

Breitbart echoes a sentiment you hear again and again on the right. Traditional media isn't exactly biased towards the left. It's just that media elites are, well, horribly elitist:

Maybe James thinks, like I do, that baby boomer elites like Katie Couric, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams could care less. Their generational zeitgeist -- and the knowledge that their kids are personally immune from monster deficits -- is all that matters. And they look the other way while believing all organizations on the left -- no matter how extreme -- are working towards their goals.

And, goes the thinking, the corrective to the elitism of the traditional media class is a populist, grassroots, activist-journalist hybrid. That's where conservative blogs, the Drudge Report, Glenn Beck and even Fox News come in -- in a war against untruths and elitism, where strategy is at least as important as fact gathering. Here's how Giles explained the "science behind the ACORN sting":

Most people come up with ridiculous ideas, things that graze against societal norms. However, not all are capable of action because not all are comfortable with action. Many lack the desire for truth and justice, most don’t even know to want it. But on occasion, the previous join forces. The right people with the appropriate calling unite against a common enemy, then the sky is the limit and hell is the target. There will be no compromises, only adaptation and infiltration.

ACORN, while little-known to many Americans, is one of those things, like the supposed return of the Fairness Doctrine or how the U.S. Census works, that conservatives nurse a resentment towards until an opening in the political space creates the opportunity to pounce. (Or, on the flip side, those unlikely interests enjoyed on the right, like Saul Alinsky, the new darling of the new right. Republican National Committee new media director Todd Herman based his Personal Democracy Forum '09 keynote address on Alinsky's teachings. And on Breitbart's BigGovernment.com site, O'Keefe cites the legendary leftist admiringly: "Alinsky Rule #8: Keep the pressure on. Never let up.") For some on the right, ACORN represents the same sort of undesirable way of life, rooted in the 1960s, that Sarah Palin was going after when she dinged Barack Obama for being just a "community organizer" during her speech to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, just over a year ago.

When it comes to this particular grudge, armed with a video camera, a pair of young activists have pushed ACORN-gate to the forefront of the public's attention. The House of Representatives voted 345 to 75 yesterday to withhold the group's funding. One of the pair's sting videos is now in YouTube's "Videos Being Watched Now" leaderboard.

And is there any surer sign that this anti-ACORN sentiment has rippled out from the blogs to the mainstream of American life than Jay Leno making a joke about it on his new primetime show?