Acorn Sting: the making of a media “Controversy”

Posted on 10. Dec, 2009 by in politics, Rebecca Leung, Uncategorized

On Sunday, September 27, a neoconservative blogger and associate political science professor named Donald Douglas wrote:

“It just occurred to me that the utter hugeness of the ACORN scandal… may well mean that the rightroots blogosphere will ultimately bring down the New York Times.”

Douglas, who describes himself on his website as “an umatched competitor whose tactical elan would make Machiavelli proud,” was wishfully prophesying the demise the nation’s foremost newspaper. He posited this possibility, because the Times was being accused of bias in it’s reporting about a video-taped undercover set-up of the community organizing group ACORN… by it’s own readership.

Controversy had percolated to the extent that the Time’s public editor Clark Hoyt had decided to write an explanation of the Times’ handling of the story, presumably for the benefit of suspicious readers. One such reader had written (in a letter reprinted by the Times, on October 3rd) that, “They (the Time’s management) were caught in their own web of bias and partiality.”

While the reader’s opinions may have been entirely original, they were also echoing talking points from Fox news and right-wing bloggers, who had begun leveling accusations of a “cover-up” by the Times and “mainstream media” almost simultaneously with Fox’s first coverage of the ACORN video’s appearance on YouTube.

Fox first aired a segment on the ACORN sting on September 10th. On September 11th Glenn Beck was already “reporting” that the Times had mentioned the sting only once as compared to Fox News, which had already brought the story to viewer’s attention 19 times by Beck’s reckoning.

If it is remarkable that Beck had concluded, after only 8 hours, that the “mainstream media” was down-playing a story for ideological reasons, there is a clue as to his reflexes and his reasoning in a column written four days prior by Andrew Breitbart in the Washington Times.

On Sept. 7th Breitbart made this cryptic prediction in his column:

“When the next big scandal hits – and it will, and it most certainly won’t come from traditional journalism – all eyes will be on “Pinch” Sulzberger to see if he does his job… All eyes are on the media. We are judging them by the standard they taught us during Watergate: “The cover-up is worse than the crime.””

Breitbart made this prediction three days before the release of the first Acorn video. After that release, a steady drumbeat of accusations of bias against the Times and other “mainstream media” arose on Fox News and in the “rightroots” blogosphere.  While it is impossible to measure the volume of negative commentary, a google search of [“new york times” “bias” “acorn”] made on Dec. 27 (Google results for fixed specific periods tend to change over time) for the 15 days between September 11, and September 25, produced 34,700 results.  Of the first forty listings, 29 were unfavorable towards the New York Times and/or ACORN, four were neutral or not applicable and just six offered support for the Time’s position.

On September 26 the Time’s public editor wrote his explanation of the Time’s handling of the story, in which he stated that “the Times needs to be alert to [stories arising from the polemical world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs] or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.”

On the day Hoyt’s article appeared, the conservative blogosphere was quick to both claim victory and use the explanation as the basis for further attacks on the Time’s credibility.  Michelle Malkin, a Fox news contributor, right-wing columnist and blogger opined:

“hapless ombudsman Clark Hoyt writes in his Sunday column that his paper was guilty of unnecessarily politicizing a legitimate breaking story and suffering “slow reflexes:””

Unnoticed, perhaps, by the targeted newspaper, on September 21, Breitbart had posted a blog in which he admitted to advising the right-wing activist who made the videos, and to planning the entire “unorthodox roll out” of the ACORN sting, complete with a weekly release of new videos to keep the story alive and giving Fox News exclusive pre-release access. “Thus was born a multimedia, multiplatform strategy designed to force the reluctant hands of ABC, CBS, NBC, the New York Times and The Washington Post.” He wrote.

Seven weeks later public editor Hoyt was asked if such highly orchestrated attacks on the Time’s objectivity were a real threat to the paper’s reputation. He replied:

“The danger for the Time’s is not so much that this sort of thing happens, as that the times has to be careful not to play into it.”

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