Why the right wanted to destroy ACORN

April 1, 2010

Elizabeth Schulte explains how conservatives went after one of the largest community organizing groups in the country.

THE GRASSROOTS community organization Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has been forced to close down, in the wake of an all-out right-wing assault on the 40-year-old organization. But the casualties include more than ACORN itself.

They include tens of thousands of people who benefited from the group's organizing in cities across the country: the more than 150,000 low-income families who ACORN helped with their tax refunds to receive Earned Income Tax Credits; the 50,000 families who averted foreclosures with the help of ACORN, which was one of the first organizations to speak out about the dangers of predatory lending; and the well over a million poor people and people of color who could not vote until ACORN registered them.

These accomplishments--working to improve the lives of poor and largely minority people--are why ACORN became the target of a right-wing smear campaign.

The assault on ACORN recalled the days of the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, as conservative politicians and their Fox News partners went on a relentless assault against the organization. And just like Sen. Joseph McCarthy, waving a "list of the names of [your number here] known communists," the right-wing pundits repeated their lies over and over again, until the damage was done.

ACORN activists protesting police violence in New York City
ACORN activists protesting police violence in New York City

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) used his position as a ranking Republican in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to call ACORN a "criminal organization" at a December hearing. In February, Issa's committee issued a report arguing that ACORN "exploits the poor and vulnerable" for political gain.

Issa authored the "Defund ACORN Act," which passed the Senate and the House, with the help of members in both parties. The reality is that less than 10 percent of ACORN's budget came from federal grants. Over the past 15 years, ACORN has received just $53 million in federal funds, and much of it is for low-income housing.

Issa's self-righteous attempt to defund the organization didn't stand up to the law, however, and in December an independent report by Scott Harshbarger, the former Massachusetts attorney general and former president of Common Cause, cleared ACORN of any illegal conduct.

But even though ACORN was vindicated, the damage had been done to its reputation and its war chest, as former supporters and large donors cut their ties to the organization. In addition, ACORN was forced to use its already dwindling funds for this fight against attacks on its reputation--money that could have been used on an anti-foreclosure campaign, for instance.

The latest character assassination against ACORN that led to the congressional assault was a video produced by 25-year-old right-wing "journalist" James O'Keefe, who, along with his co-conspirator, 20-year-old Hannah Giles, visited more than a dozen ACORN offices with a secret camera trying to catch them doing something dubious. O'Keefe made the news again recently when he was arrested for plotting to tamper with the phone system in Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office, posing as a repair worker.

O'Keefe's ACORN video made Fox News headlines when it supposedly showed the two, posing as a prostitute and a pimp, getting advice about how to file for taxes. In the end, the video was so heavily edited and misleading that even right-winger Andrew Breitbart, who introduced the video to the world via his Web site, BigGovernment.com, later said that he had been duped by O'Keefe. At no time did anyone ask to see the unedited version of the damning video.

BUT IT wasn't just Fox News and Glenn Beck who repeated the story, no questions asked. So did the liberal New York Times. In fact, after the story broke, Times public editor Clark Hoyt complained on September 26 that Times readers weren't as up-to-speed on the story as "followers of Fox News." And so one of the world's most respected newspapers recited back the story told by O'Keefe's heavily edited video of him lying to ACORN workers.

After ACORN conducted its own investigation, including looking at the full, unedited video, the Times was forced to append its previous stories with a correction. But this was too little, too late.

Add this recent attack to many years of conservative assaults on the group--including accusations of "voter fraud" in 2008--and the organization faced a massive (and largely effective) smear campaign. As John Atlas and Peter Dreier reported in the Huffington Post:

[A] study of media coverage of ACORN found that over half (55 percent) of the all stories about ACORN during 2007 and 2008 focused on "voter fraud," while few stories reported on its grassroots organizing work. Moreover, 80 percent of the print and broadcast stories about ACORN's alleged voter fraud (and 63 percent of the Times' stories) failed to mention that ACORN itself was reporting voter-registration irregularities to authorities, as required by law. The Times' coverage of ACORN was almost entirely negative; 56 percent of its stories focused on voter fraud and embezzlement.

Unfortunately, many liberal organizations and individuals did not step forward to defend ACORN. This includes the Obama administration, which a week before the ACORN video incident let Van Jones, a former activist and environmental appointee, twist in the wind and resign after the right put the heat on him for past left-wing remarks.

The accumulation of attacks hit ACORN hard. The group has just 17 offices, down from 29 a year ago. Its annual budget has dropped to $6 million, down from $24 million last year, reported the Times. And the Census Bureau dropped ACORN from helping to promote the 2010 census, saying the group might "create a negative connotation" and discourage participation.

Closing down ACORN is a blow that will be felt by low-income people in cities across the country over time. As ACORN announced it was closing up shop, the New York Times went to Prince George's County, Md., where Gloria Swieringa said she owed her home to the group. The blind 72-year-old said her mortgage payment was $1,100 per month, more than she could afford on her fixed income of $1,500 a month, until ACORN helped her readjust it.

"That's what I know ACORN for," Swieringa said. "And that's why it's just awful for it to disappear."

As working-class and poor people are forced to bear the brunt of economic crisis, we will need more grassroots organizations dedicated to the fight against poverty. Activists will have to come together and counter the right's assault any way we can.

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