Tuesday, September 29, 2009

More on the dishonesty behind the attacks on ACORN

That's Rachel Maddow again examining how a politically motivated desire to frame ACORN for voter fraud is behind efforts to demonize the organization. This is important to remember as ACORN is now being cited in an attempt to delegitimize the election of Al Franken to the Senate.

Meanwhile, Anonymous Liberal has written another good post about the inherent dishonesty involved in the production of the ACORN "sting" videos. He makes one of the same points that I have made about them. Quoting myself:

Look: As noted before, the purpose of the ACORN "sting" operations engaged in by Giles and O'Keefe was not journalism, but propaganda. There is no context. If they were doing journalism they might have attempted to provide evidence that there is systemic tax fraud going on at ACORN offices, or that any such incidents as the fictional scenario they came up with ever actually happens. (Or even have revealed that the Philadephia office they tried the scam on turned them into the police.)

But they can't do it, because I'm guessing the number of times a pimp walks into an ACORN office with his prostitute girlfriend and asks for tax advice about his underage illegal immigrant brothel is about zero. Which is why the libertarian in me gets so annoyed with these sorts of "stings": people shouldn't be manipulated into committing a crime that they would not normally commit. And if you've ever watched any of the gotcha/surprise reality shows, it's easy enough to put someone in some absurd situation and manufacture a desired outcome (e.g. Zach Braff furiously cussed out a twelve year old boy on an episode of Punk'd and seemed to be pretty close to wanting to hit the kid).
Now here's A.L., who makes the point I was trying to above, but in a more articulate fashion, while also raising another important point about how people are likely to react when confronted directly with potentially criminal behavior.

What O'Keefe and Giles are doing isn't quite entrapment, but it isn't remotely the equivalent of a sting either, unless you assume that ACORN employees are routinely confronted with fake-looking pimp and prostitute duos who come into the office asking for advice on how to set up a prostitution business. I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that real pimps and prostitutes don't usually wander into the offices of community services organizations and explicitly ask for help in setting up their illegal businesses. It's a safe bet that none of the employees filmed surreptitiously in these videos have ever encountered a situation like this before. So all these videos really show are people's instant reactions to a situation far removed from their everyday experience and training.

That's why the comparison to Sasha Baron Cohen is so apt. When confronted by very unusual behavior or unusual situations, people have a tendency to be agreeable and to play along. Most people don't like confrontation and will instinctively go to great lengths to avoid it. If you doubt this, go watch Borat or Bruno or any episode of the Ali G Show. It is this same human tendency that serves as the basis for all of Cohen's comedy. He specializes in getting people (often famous people) to say things that they would not normally say.

What you say on the spot, when confronted with an unusual request, is a very poor indicator of your overall judgment. It's just your instant reaction, and it is usually driven, more than anything else, by a desire to avoid an awkward situation or a confrontation. This is especially true when you are confronted with possible criminal activity; many people are understandably reluctant to confront criminals about their criminal activity to their face, especially when you are alone with them. Better to placate them and then figure out what to do after they are they are gone.
He then notes that one of the employees who the two filmers are using to say ACORN organizationally encourages criminal activity actually did contact the police after they left his office.

Another point he makes is worth looking at

ACORN employees are trained to help poor people (the vast majority of whom are not criminals) deal with common problems. So, at worst, what you have here are examples of employees who, eager to help whomever comes through the door, offered to help people whom they should not have (and without a promise of anything in return). There's no quid pro quo even alleged. And again, what's captured on film are not final decisions, but instant reactions.
I find this point particularly relevant to the Brooklyn video, in which the employee was clearly being emotionally manipulated in an effort to manufacture propaganda.

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