Why the ACORN story is overblown
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
Time is tight today - which is fine, because not much time is needed to dispense with the conservatives' pet notion that the latest ACORN story is some kind of monumental news development.
It has been fascinating in recent days to watch our right-leaning fellow citizens behave as if they had exposed an imminent al Qaeda plot to render unto dust all of midtown Manhattan. The current party line is that "the media" (defined in their circles as everyone except for Fox News and the conservative talk jocks) has been refusing to cover the earth-shaking scandal (prompted by conservative filmmakers in a sting operation) in which a handful of ACORN employes made the egregiously stupid and potentially criminal mistake of giving tax-evasion advice (to those selfsame filmmakers, who had shown up at ACORN disguised as a pimp and a prostitute in search of advice).
First of all, the appalling behavior at ACORN - the anti-poverty group officially known as the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now - has in fact received mainstream media coverage, notwithstanding the insistence of conservatives convincing themselves otherwise. There were reports last week in at least nine newspapers ranging from The Washington Post to the Baltimore Sun, plus at least 11 separate reports on CNN in the four-day period starting last Friday and ending this past Monday.
But the ACORN story has not been given the same attention as, say, the health care debate or Afghanistan, for a very basic reason: It doesn't deserve that level of attention.
The Republican right, of course, wants major treatment because it has been targeting ACORN for decades; after all, ACORN signs up poor people to vote, and the Republicans are well aware - given their own predilictions to help the rich get richer - that the GOP's electoral prospects are potentially diminished when the poor turn out to vote. The Republican right also has a special interest in seeing the ACORN scandal trumpeted from every hilltop because they see it as another way to bang on Barack Obama - because, after all, ACORN does community organizing, Obama once did community organizing, and as a lawyer 14 years ago he represented ACORN in an Illinois court case (along with his other plaintiffs in that case, such as the League of Women Voters).
Did the ACORN employes who fell for the entrapment operation behave wrongly - and, perhaps, illegally? Absolutely. Does ACORN have a larger quality-control problem, as evidenced by the voter registration fraud probes launched by a number of states? Absolutely. Is ACORN's top official making too many excuses, wrongfully attempting to blame this whole scandal on what she calls "the right wing and its echo chambers?" Absolutely. But is this story truly worthy of front-page treatment, breathless wall-to-wall broadcast coverage, and daily blog attention? Absolutely not.
Why not? Because in the scheme of things, ACORN is small potatoes.
Amidst congressional moves to cut off ACORN's federal outlay, one Republican lawmaker announced the other day that ACORN has received roughly $53 million in taxpayer bucks over the past 15 years. John Boehner, the House GOP leader is outraged; he declares, "ACORN should not receive another penny of American taxpayers’ money." Well, bestir my heart. On an average basis, that $53 mil works out to a bit less than $3.6 million a year since 1994. That's pocket money for Uncle Sam. To put the ACORN tab into necessary perspective, consider this: the American mercenary/security firm once known as Blackwater received more than $1 billion in taxpayer money between 2004 and 2008 - the period in which some Blackwater employes shot and killed 14 Iraqi civilians and found themselves on the receiving end of a voluntary manslaughter probe. I don't recall any Republicans raising any concerns about the efficacy of that taxpayer billion.
If ACORN can't reform itself, then it deserves to be toast. More importantly, if Congress yanks all its money from ACORN (the House voted today to defund), other organizations will fill the breach and perform the necessary work in impoverished communites - doing all the things, such as helping people avoid foreclosures, that Republicans couldn't care less about. Which is another reason why the plight of ACORN is basically small potatoes.
If conservatives want to judge the news through their ideological filter, fine; after all, there are plenty of outlets ready and willing to erroneously depict ACORN as a clear and present danger to the public. Of course, those are the same outlets who repeatedly reported that last weekend's anti-Obama Washington march was attended by two million people, whereas the actual total was around 70,000. On the ACORN story, and so much else, I find myself less than willing to accept the news judgment of fact-free partisans who would inflate the size of a crowd by 1,930,000.
Meanwhile, with respect to my speculative remark yesterday about potential comeback kid Michael Dukakis: