In late 2009 and early 2010, right-wing activist James O'Keefe concocted a story that got widespread media coverage. The tall tale went like this: O'Keefe and his associate went to offices affiliated with the community organizing group ACORN in order to solicit advice on running a brothel and evading taxes. The problem was that nothing much like that actually happened. As FAIR summarized (Action Alert, 3/11/10):
O'Keefe never dressed as a pimp during his visits to ACORN offices, seems to never actually represent himself as a "pimp," and the advice he solicits is usually about how to file income taxes (which is not "tax evasion"). In at least one encounter (at a Baltimore ACORN office), the pair seemed to first insist that Giles was a dancer, not a prostitute.
The upshot: O'Keefe misrepresented his exploits, released selectively edited videos, and the press fell for it. In fact, the ombud at the Washington Post and the public editor at the New York Times chided their respective papers for not giving the bogus "scandal" more attention. (Eventually, the Times would admit some of its ACORN errors, thanks to FAIR activists and blogger Brad Friedman.)
So it felt a little odd to see this headline in the New York Times today (2/2/11):
Group Releases Hidden Tapes of Planned Parenthood
An anti-abortion group seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood released an undercover video on Tuesday that appears to show a clinic manager advising a sex trafficker how to get medical care for prostitutes as young as 14.
So this raises the question: Will these outlets learn to treat right-wing hidden camera exploits more skeptically -- or maybe decide that they're not news at all? This Times account suggests that they have already forgotten what they learned last time:
The video resembles those made in 2009 by a conservative activist, James O'Keefe, in which employees of the community group Acorn appeared to advise a prostitution ring how to avoid taxes.
At the Washington Post, under the headline "Anti-Abortion Group Releases Planned Parenthood Sting Video," readers are told:
A group seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood released a video Tuesday that depicts two hired actors posing as a pimp and a prostitute seeking services at a New Jersey clinic, in an operation resembling one that helped take down a liberal anti-poverty group two years ago.
If by "resembles," the Post means that this current video is getting more attention than it deserves, then, yes, there is a distinct similarity. A more reasonable write-up of the current "sting" came courtesy of Alex Pareene at Salon.com (2/1/11), who wrote that the plan
...didn't really work, because Planned Parenthood quickly caught on and alerted the FBI. (BigJournalism.com exclusive: Planned Parenthood alerts the authorities when confronted by self-proclaimed human traffickers!) Planned Parenthood suspected that the hoaxer had ties to Live Action, an antiabortion activist group run by Lila Rose, a sometime O'Keefe partner-in-undercover-stinging. And Live Action confirmed its involvement by posting the sad results of its exhaustive video investigation today. It caught one staffer possibly advising a make-believe pimp to send a make-believe underage prostitute somewhere where her abortion would not be reported. (It is obviously impossible to tell what actually happened without the unedited video.) (And also this Planned Parenthood alerted the authorities about the weird visit.)
Pareene points out:
These conservative undercover "hoaxes" are best understood as an attempt to make their fantasies real. In order to make animate the world that they feverishly imagine, they must themselves become the unsavory characters with bad motivations that they enjoy thinking populate these hotbeds of degenerate liberal activity.
The corporate media problem here is quite serious, since there is a deep-seated feeling that what right-wing activists do should get more coverage, to make up for the nonexistent liberal bias in the mainstream media. This sensibility creates the media "appetite" for the ACORN hoax, the Shirley Sherrod hoax, and on and on.
At this point, it's not a question of media "falling" for this stuff, but being eager to act as a megaphone for these right-wing fantasies.
Follow Peter Hart on Twitter: www.twitter.com/peterfhart