Last week, investigators released their report on the ACORN scandal. They found that the community organizing group broke no laws in dealing with the undercover filmmakers.
We already knew that the filmmakers did a fair bit of editing before they made their videos public. But now it appears that they did much more than merely cut and paste the most salacious bits together.
According to the investigator’s report, some of the audio in the videos turns out to have been dubbed, meaning that we don’t know what the ACORN employees were agreeing to since we don’t know what the undercover filmmakers were actually asking them.
Plus, exculpatory content that may have ameliorated the appearance of scandal was apparently left on the cutting-room floor.
Yet while the Harshbarger report focuses chiefly on the structural and managerial shortcomings of ACORN itself, its findings strongly suggest that the coverage of the “scandal” was overblown and mishandled by the media outlets that played those videotapes over and over again.
Amateurish as those recordings were, with their grainy images and muddy sound, they presented the bizarre tableau of prostitution and fraud as right-wing cinema vérité. The tapes’ raw appearance was, however, highly misleading, according to Harshbarger, because the broadcast versions were edited and voiced over in ways that distorted the actual encounters between Giles and O’Keefe and the duped ACORN personnel.
To assess the meaning and accuracy of the videotapes, Harshbarger and his colleagues did the job that journalists ought to have done from the beginning. They interviewed ACORN employees. Later, they reviewed both the tapes and the transcripts made available on BigGovernment, a Web site owned by Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing impresario behind Giles and O’Keefe.
What Harshbarger discovered, as his report’s Appendix D reveals, is that much of what appeared on Fox News Channel and in other media outlets, let alone on right-wing Web sites, was not what had actually occurred in the ACORN offices — and that exculpatory material was edited out of the tapes.
In San Diego, for example, the ACORN employee shown on the tapes is someone whose primary language is Spanish, not English. The report notes that “in the released video, his participation amounts mostly to nodding or saying ‘OK.’ It is difficult to determine what this employee is responding to because the videographers’ statements are obscured by a voiceover inserted later.”
In Philadelphia, O’Keefe’s suspicious behavior likewise alerted the ACORN staff that something was amiss, and the police were informed there as well. No video of the visit to the Philly office was ever released by O’Keefe and Breitbart, although Harshbarger notes that “some of the released videos contain scenes of the sign of the Philadelphia ACORN office and shots of Philadelphia’s head organizer with no audio.”
Videotape is very convincing. But, with modern technology, it’s also easy to manipulate.
O’Keefe and Giles need to release the full, unedited, untouched video of their ACORN encounters to the public. They shouldn’t have any problem doing that if they did nothing wrong, right?
But couple the fact that they haven‘t released the source footage with the revelations from the Harshbarger report and you end up with serious questions about whether or not the right-wing media used manipulated video to unfairly frame a progressive organization.
I supported Congress’ defunding of ACORN at the time, but now I have serious doubts as to whether or not they even did anything wrong. And until we see the full, unedited video, we shouldn’t accept anything released by O’Keefe or Giles as legitimate any longer.