Sometimes you’re filmed like a Nut (or ACORN)

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Citizen journalism has struck again and the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. The Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN) has come under withering criticism for a series of videos purportedly showing undercover conservative activists attempting to receive advice on how to cheat the system and obtain government-sponsored housing for a brothel.

James O’Keefe, a self-described “investigative journalist” according to the Los Angeles Times, joined conservative activist Hannah Giles and dressed up as a pimp with Giles as a prostitute and walked into several ACORN affiliates in Washington D.C, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego seeking assistance on how to open a brothel with government housing. The hidden cameras recorded it all and chalked up another win for citizen journalists who have used simple videos and new media outlets, such as Youtube, to alter a political landscape that until recently was dominated by media elites and seemingly invincible politicians.

Citizen journalists have scored several major hits in the past several years. Senator George Allen (R-VA) was a strong contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 until he was caught in his infamous “macaca” moment by lobbing a racially-perceived epithet at a volunteer for his rival Jim Webb, who because of the incident became Senator Jim Webb, now senior senator from Virginia. International I-Reporters in Burma documented the 2007 protests by pro-democracy advocates against the ruling, murderous junta who embarked on an extermination campaign against the Burmese monks. After this past summer’s Iranian elections, citizen journalists again documented the pro-reform uprising following the disputed count. In both cases, international attention was brought to bear on insular nations.

A larger question becomes why the sudden attention (and apparent) success of citizen journalists? Why have the major cable news networks implemented iReports and YouReports from citizen journalists reporting on everything from hurricanes to elections to healthcare protests?

It is possible that the renewed prominence of citizen journalism (I say renewed because it has been around since the beginning of the Republic) can be attributed to two main factors: the decline in trust for traditional sources of news and the rise of new media technologies that increasingly make it easy for a person to pick up a camera and make history.

According to Pew Research, “The public’s assessment of the accuracy of news stories is now at its lowest level in more than two decades of Pew Research surveys, and Americans’ views of media bias and independence now match previous lows.” The chart included shows noticeable declines in the past several years on whether the press “gets facts straight” and “deal fairly with all sides.” Citizen journalists, like O’Keefe, may be embarking on an investigative role to compensate for a lack of mainstream media investigative reporting. Fellow gnovis blogger Jason Turcotte addresses this issue in his recent post “The Anti-Trust Factor.”

Then, of course, there is the popular new media angle that allows every David out there to beat up the media and political Goliaths. In fact, Glenn Reynolds covers this exact topic in his great book “An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths.” Youtube, social networks including Facebook and Twitter, websites, and blogs have leveled the playing field to the point where the videos of O’Keefe and Giles could be picked up by the conservative website, run by media mogul Andrew Breitbart. The means are in place for ordinary people to effectuate large changes. And in the case of ACORN, this is certainly the case.

The U.S. House and Senate have both voted by overwhelming margins to cut off federal funding to the organization. President Barack Obama, himself a beneficiary of ACORN’s work during the campaign, has said he supports an investigation. Citizen journalism in the new media age has claimed another victim and it resembles many of the other nuts that have fallen from the tree before it.