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A welcome message for the NYT’s new “opinion media monitor”

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By Michelle Malkin  •  September 26, 2009 11:00 PM

Pity the New York Times.

Even when the Fishwrap of Record is admitting how out of touch it is, its editors still can’t get the story right.

Hapless ombudsman Clark Hoyt writes in his Sunday column that his paper was guilty of unnecessarily politicizing a legitimate breaking story and suffering “slow reflexes:”

ON Sept. 12, an Associated Press article inside The Times reported that the Census Bureau had severed its ties to Acorn, the community organizing group. Robert Groves, the census director, was quoted as saying that Acorn, one of thousands of unpaid organizations promoting the 2010 census, had become “a distraction.”

What the article didn’t say — but what followers of Fox News and conservative commentators already knew — was that a video sting had caught Acorn workers counseling a bogus prostitute and pimp on how to set up a brothel staffed by under-age girls, avoid detection and cheat on taxes. The young woman in streetwalker’s clothes and her companion were actually undercover conservative activists with a hidden camera.

It was an intriguing story: employees of a controversial outfit, long criticized by Republicans as corrupt, appearing to engage in outrageous, if not illegal, behavior. An Acorn worker in Baltimore was shown telling the “prostitute” that she could describe herself to tax authorities as an “independent artist” and claim 15-year-old prostitutes, supposedly illegal immigrants, as dependents.

But for days, as more videos were posted and government authorities rushed to distance themselves from Acorn, The Times stood still. Its slow reflexes — closely following its slow response to a controversy that forced the resignation of Van Jones, a White House adviser — suggested that it has trouble dealing with stories arising from the polemical world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs. Some stories, lacking facts, never catch fire. But others do, and a newspaper like The Times needs to be alert to them or wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.

Or both.

Some editors told me they were not immediately aware of the Acorn videos on Fox, YouTube and a new conservative Web site called BigGovernment.com. When the Senate voted to cut off all federal funds to Acorn, there was not a word in the newspaper or on its Web site. When the New York City Council froze all its funding for Acorn and the Brooklyn district attorney opened a criminal investigation, there was still nothing.

…Finally, on Sept. 16, nearly a week after the first video was posted, The Times took note of the controversy, under the headline, “Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn, Favored Foe.” The article said that conservatives hoped to weaken the Obama administration by attacking its allies and appointees they viewed as leftist. The conservatives thought they had a “winning formula,” the article said, mobilizing people “to dig up dirt,” then trumpeting it on talk radio and television.

By stressing the politics, the article irritated more readers. “A suspicious person might see an attempt to deflect criticism of Acorn by highlighting how those pesky conservatives are at it again,” said Albert Smith of Chatham, N.J.

I thought politics was emphasized too much, at the expense of questions about an organization whose employees in city after city participated in outlandish conversations about illegal and immoral activities. (Acorn suggested some videos were doctored but fired or suspended many of the employees.)

So, get this: The Times has now assigned an anonymous editor to “monitor opinion media” so the effete journalists don’t get caught flat-footed again. But they won’t identify the editor because they don’t him or her getting e-mails from the public (heaven forfend) and they don’t want him or her getting feedback, criticism, or tips from the blogosphere (the MSM must be shielded from the angry mob). Snort:

Jill Abramson, the managing editor for news, agreed with me that the paper was “slow off the mark,” and blamed “insufficient tuned-in-ness to the issues that are dominating Fox News and talk radio.” She and Bill Keller, the executive editor, said last week that they would now assign an editor to monitor opinion media and brief them frequently on bubbling controversies. Keller declined to identify the editor, saying he wanted to spare that person “a bombardment of e-mails and excoriation in the blogosphere.”

Despite what the critics think, Abramson said the problem was not liberal bias.

“Not liberal bias,” eh? Then how to explain the institutional refusal of the Times — Hoyt included — to address directly and openly the paper’s own complicity in covering up the ACORN story before Election Day?

For the benefit of the Times’ anonymous Opinion Media Monitor, whoever you are, here is what your paper’s belated coverage of ACORN is still missing — reprinted from my Sept. 16 blog post, “What’s missing from the New York Times coverage of ACORN.” I’m going to make your job easier by reprinting the entire post so you don’t have to spend any precious energy clicking on the link:

The Fishwrap of Record has finally seen fit to tell its readers about the latest ACORN scandals (the San Bernardino tapes, which don’t get a mention, are beyond belief). True to form, the New York Times commits grievous sins of omission that whitewash the paper’s own role in deliberately covering up ACORN’s illicit activities before Election Day last November.

The Times article by Scott Shane casts the ACORN stings as a purely partisan game: “Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn, Favored Foe.”

The lead sentence paints any investigative journalism of ACORN’s long history of taxpayer abuses and shady business and campaign finance practices as opportunistic attacks on Barack Obama: “For months during last year’s presidential race, conservatives sought to tar the Obama campaign with accusations of voter fraud and other transgressions by the national community organizing group Acorn, which had done some work for the campaign.”

But it was a then-liberal whistleblower Anita MonCrief, formerly of ACORN affiliate Project Vote, who worked extensively with New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom last year on several investigative pieces exposing the financial shenanigans in the ACORN web of money-shuffling, non-profit, tax-exempt affiliates. Strom called MonCrief a “gold mine” in July 2008. One of the last stories Strom wrote — blowing the whistle on an internal report raising red flags about ACORN’s massive potential violations of federal law– appeared in the Times on October 21, 2008:

An internal report by a lawyer for the community organizing group Acorn raises questions about whether the web of relationships among its 174 affiliates may have led to violations of federal laws.

The group, formally known as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has been in the news over accusations that it is involved in voter registration fraud, charges it says are overblown and politically motivated.

Republicans have tried to make an issue of Senator Barack Obama’s ties to the group, which he represented in a lawsuit in 1995. The Obama campaign has denied any connection with Acorn’s voter registration drives.

The June 18 report, written by Elizabeth Kingsley, a Washington lawyer, spells out her concerns about potentially improper use of charitable dollars for political purposes; money transfers among the affiliates; and potential conflicts created by employees working for multiple affiliates, among other things.

It also offers a different account of the embezzlement of almost $1 million by the brother of Acorn’s founder, Wade Rathke, than the one the organization gave in July, when word of the theft became public.

“A full analysis of potential liability will require consultation with a knowledgeable white-collar criminal attorney,” Ms. Kingsley wrote of the embezzlement, which occurred in 2000 but was not disclosed until this summer.

In a telephone interview on Monday, Ms. Kingsley and Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s top executive, said the group had begun addressing the concerns raised in the report.

“Has everything been done yet? No,” Ms. Lewis said. “We’ve been at this for three months, and we have taken everything she said in the report very seriously. It’s a huge undertaking.”

Over the weekend, Ms. Kingsley said, the national board adopted several good-governance policies, like appointing an audit committee for the first time.

Disclosure of her report, which was distributed to Acorn and 10 affiliates, increases pressure on the organization at a particularly troublesome time. Besides the inquiries into its voter registration efforts, Acorn faces demands for back taxes by the Internal Revenue Service and various state tax authorities. At the same time, foundations that have backed Acorn are withholding support.

Ms. Kingsley’s concerns about the way Acorn affiliates work together could fuel the controversy over Acorn’s voter registration efforts, which are largely underwritten by an affiliated charity, Project Vote. Project Vote hires Acorn to do voter registration work on its behalf, and the two groups say they have registered 1.3 million voters this year.

As a federally tax-exempt charity, Project Vote is subject to prohibitions on partisan political activity. But Acorn, which is a nonprofit membership corporation under Louisiana law, though subject to federal taxation, is not bound by the same restrictions.

“Project Vote and Acorn have a written agreement that specifies that all work is nonpartisan,” Michael Slater, Project Vote’s new executive director, wrote in answer to e-mailed questions about the relationship.

But Ms. Kingsley found that the tight relationship between Project Vote and Acorn made it impossible to document that Project Vote’s money had been used in a strictly nonpartisan manner. Until the embezzlement scandal broke last summer, Project Vote’s board was made up entirely of Acorn staff members and Acorn members.

Ms. Kingsley’s report raised concerns not only about a lack of documentation to demonstrate that no charitable money was used for political activities but also about which organization controlled strategic decisions.

As I reported in May (see here and here), multiple e-mail messages between Strom and MonCrief show that the Times reporter grasped the depth and breadth of the ACORN racket:

In an e-mail message to whistleblower MonCrief last summer, New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom told the truth: “The real story to all this is how these myriad entities allow them to shuffle money around so much that no one really knows what’s getting spent on what.”

By October 6, 2008, Strom had thrown in the towel in the wake of blistering phone conversations with the Obama campaign. She wrote:

“I’m calling a halt to my efforts. I just had two unpleasant calls with the Obama campaign, wherein the spokesman was screaming and yelling and cursing me, calling me a rightwing nut and a conspiracy theorist and everything else…I’d still like to get that file from you when you have a chance to send it. One of these days, the truth is going to come out.”

I uploaded the entire e-mail exchange here in PDF form. Be sure to go back and read or re-read them all.

Earth to NYTimes reporter Scott Shane: It wasn’t a right-wing partisan who wrote these words:

It was your fellow reporter Stephanie Strom.

Let me repeat what Strom said to make sure you didn’t miss that key paragraph:

“The real story to all this is how these myriad entities allow them to shuffle money around so much that no one really knows what’s getting spent on what — and for the charities like the housing orgs, that’s a problem. Charitable money cannot be spent on political activites. It’s a big no-no that can cost charitable organizations their exemptions.”

The files that Strom was planning to get from MonCrief (files that I have since obtained and reviewed) were spreadsheets of donors from Democrat campaigns — Obama, Clinton, Kerry — as well as from the Democratic National Committee that had been passed on to non-profit, tax-exempt, and supposedly non-partisan Project Vote. There were no Republican donor lists. MonCrief told Strom that the Clinton and Obama campaigns were in “constant contact” with Project Vote. A few weeks after I reported in August 2008 on how Obama hid an $800,000 payment to ACORN through “Citizen Services, Inc,” Strom told MonCrief: “Am also onto the Obama connection, sadly. Would love the donor lists. As for helping the Repubs, they’re already onto this like white on rice. SIGH.”

But the damning story of coordinated corruption between Democrats and Project Vote never appeared. The Times suddenly “cut bait” — and the story never saw the light of day in the purported Paper of Record.

All of this information is readily available on the Internet, and MonCrief continues to expose ACORN’s tentacles and thuggery at her own blog here despite Project Vote’s litigious efforts to shut her down. News outlets including the Examiner and Fox News have relied on her whistle-blowing testimony and reporting for months — including her knowledge of ACORN’s Muscle for Money program & the H&R Block shakedown, and ACORN’s gala for Democrats in New York in June to celebrate its 39th anniversary.

Times readers, alas, will learn none of this from reading its story today about ACORN, which ends this way:

It was Acorn’s election activities that drew opponents’ attention last year, including registration cards filled out by Acorn workers in the name of Mickey Mouse and other imaginary voters. Republicans highlighted the fact that the Obama campaign had paid more than $800,000 to an Acorn affiliate for get-out-the-vote efforts.

I will end with a quote from Strom, who wrote in an e-mail on October 6, 2008:

“One of these days, the truth is going to come out.”

Indeed, nearly a year after Strom wrote those words, the full truth about the ACORN racket is finally coming to light. But it’s no thanks to the partisan news suppressors at the New York Times.

And you can quote me on that…or not.

I would have e-mailed all of this to the Times’ Opinion Media Monitor (OMM) myself, but there’s no way to get in touch with the paper’s In-Touched-Ness Czar because the editors want to protect the OMM from “excoriation in the blogosphere.”

No matter. You can hide, but you can’t run.

Welcome to the jungle.

***

Bonus reading from the Times OMM:

10 Questions for ACORN’s ‘Independent’ Investigator

Census should cut SEIU ties because of ACORN, Kirk says

New York Times source (until just before Election Day 2008) Anita MonCrief

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