10/27/2010 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Missing From the NPR/Juan Williams Debate: "The ACORN Deal"

A raging debate has ensued around whether NPR correctly fired Juan Williams because his remarks were inconsistent with its editorial standards. Some say Williams undermined his credibility as a news analyst. Others accuse NPR of bungling its response and stifling free speech. What's been missing in the debate over his firing is this.

Immediately after National Public Radio fired Williams because of his remarks about Muslims, Fox's Bill O'Reilly said, "This is like the ACORN deal -- no more money to NPR. NPR has now devolved into a totalitarian outfit functioning as an arm of the far left."

The Republican leadership and the right wing echo chamber followed O'Reilly's call for the federal defunding of National Public Radio. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., announced plans to introduce legislation to strip federal funds from NPR because it fired Williams. According to DeMint, NPR received $4 billion in federal money since 2001 and will get $430 million in 2011. Republican Minority Whip Eric Cantor and nearly every Republican running for office this year promised to seek an end to taxpayer subsidies for NPR and public television.

ACORN, the anti-poverty community group, destroyed by the Republican Party and its communications department, Fox News, has become today's symbol for the collective punishment for groups the conservatives considers America's evil wrong-doers.
Republicans demonized ACORN because of its effective grassroots organizing and voter registration and see NPR as a political threat because of its even-handed coverage of politics, which sometimes challenges conservative orthodoxy.

The principle behind "The ACORN deal" is that if an individual from a group (ACORN or NPR) makes a mistake, and the group does not adhere to a conservative philosophy of unfettered free markets and Christian fundamentalism, then the entire organization must be punished. In 2009, the U.S. Congress defunded ACORN after a barrage of false accusations led to its destruction. ACORN, whose members are mostly African-American, and for four decades was America's most effective anti-poverty group, should never have been destroyed.

Moreover, the Republican's call for defunding ACORN and NPR is hypocritical since the GOP and Fox News don't apply the same standards to the misdeeds and even crimes committed by businesses or groups that conforms to free market and Christian fundamentalism, and enjoy government support.

For nearly 40 years, ACORN had been mobilizing low-income Americans to fight for social justice challenging powerful banks, corporations, and government officials around such issues as wages for the working poor, predatory lending and foreclosures, welfare reform, public education, affordable housing, and voting rights. And then suddenly, in less than two years after its former ally Barack Obama got elected, in one of the most bizarre incidents in recent political history, it was destroyed by a ferocious attack by the right wing of the Republican Party, its allies, and Fox News.

Although it was exonerated of all charges of wrongdoing by six independent investigations, including two Congressional investigations, the Brooklyn DA, and the California Attorney General, ACORN had to dissolve because its name had been defamed.

Ironically it was NPR along with the New York Times and other mainstream media that helped destroy ACORN by repeating the voter registration fraud and other accusations against the group, failing to give adequate coverage to ACORN's 40 years of good work, and virtually ignoring the investigations that exonerated the group of any wrongdoing. While NPR's coverage, especially by Pam Fessler, of the accusations against ACORN was more balanced, accurate and thorough then the rest of the media, according to a study by Peter Dreier and Christopher Martin during October 2008, a time when very few people ever heard of ACORN, 72.2% of NPR's stories had the voter fraud frame, while most of the stories gave at best a cursory background of ACORN's work of empowering the working poor.

After Congress defunded ACORN in 2009, Senator Bernie Sanders pointed out that Congress had lavishly funded many corporations that unlike ACORN actually committed felonies.

For example, just two weeks before the Senate action, on September 2, drug company giant Pfizer had been hit with the biggest criminal fine in U.S. history as part of a $2.3 billion settlement with federal prosecutors for illegally promoting medicines and for paying kickbacks to doctors. The company was paying $1 billion in civil settlements for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. According to, in 2007 Pfizer had more than $73 million in federal contracts. Blackwater, a company that had five of its employees facing murder charges in a massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007, had received a $217 million contract to provide security in Iraq. A former Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, had received $80 million in contract bonuses to provide electrical wiring in Iraq, which electrocuted sixteen soldiers and two contractors. Northrop Grumman had to pay a $500 million fine for getting caught nine times committing contract fraud. The Congress that defunded ACORN had also bailed out Goldman Sachs, AIG, JP Morgan, and other financial services corporations that lacked transparency, committed unethical or illegal acts, and engaged in practices that led to the crash of our financial system. The political attacks on ACORN revealed an obvious double standard. How else to explain why Republicans and the right insisted on defunding ACORN for its errors but failed to seek the same treatment for chronic corporate lawbreakers that receive billions in federal dollars?

The hypocrisy was striking.

So here's the ACORN rule: no collective punishment for the rich and powerful ideologically correct conservatives. For them, the punishment is tailored to fit the crime. They pay a fine, plead guilty to a misdemeanor other minor offense and go on to reap millions in federal funds. For the groups who are part of the "ACORN deal," that is the politically incorrect, we must defund and destroy them.

John Atlas is the author of the new book SEEDS OF CHANGE, The Story of Acorn, America's Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Group, available at and Vanderbilt University Press and book stores.