Mike Flynn thought it was a crazy idea. When James O’Keefe, a 25-year-old, self-styled investigative journalist, first approached him last August about promoting a series of candid-camera style videos on the community organizing group ACORN, Flynn, an old Washington hand and editor of the new libertarian-themed website Big Government, initially dismissed the project as far-fetched.
It didn’t temper his skepticism that the videos in question featured O’Keefe visiting ACORN offices in a pimp costume, along with a friend, Hannah Giles, dressed as a prostitute, and asking for advice on how to buy a house to run as a brothel for underage Latin American prostitutes. “If James and Hannah had told me ahead of time that they were going to do this, I would have told them, ‘There is no way in hell this is going to work,’” Flynn recalls.
Then he saw the videos. Even with the outrageous get-up—O’Keefe in his grandmother’s faded chinchilla fur coat, red-banded fedora, and dollar-store walking cane, Giles in a tight-fitting leather top and hoop earrings—the pair somehow produced a trove of phenomenally rich material. As they secretly videotaped, ACORN staffers in Washington, Brooklyn, San Diego, and Baltimore offered them instructions on how to evade taxes, skirt legal restrictions, and misrepresent their business to get their fictional whorehouse up and running. In their decidedly unorthodox way, O’Keefe and Giles had landed a major scoop. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe this worked,’” Flynn says.
If the videos were proof positive of O’Keefe and Giles’s journalistic instincts, their eventual success, fueled by mass media exposure, was a testament to the growing sophistication of the conservative media. Suspecting, rightly as it turned out, that mainstream media outlets would initially ignore the ACORN videos, Flynn devised a strategy to market them for maximum impact with his friend, the web entrepreneur and Drudge Report veteran Andrew Breitbart. They decided to release the videos, one by one, to politically friendly Fox News. At the same time, they moved up the launch of Big Government and posted transcripts, lest critics claim that the videos had been doctored.
Their strategy worked to perfection. With Fox bringing the videos to national attention, and with Big Government and other conservative sites stoking the embers of the controversy, the ACORN story became a sensation even as the mainstream press looked the other way. By the time the ensuing storm died down, ACORN Chief Organizer Bertha Lewis had announced an independent review of the group’s operations; some of the employees captured on video had been fired; Congress voted to cut off federal funding to ACORN; and the Census Bureau severed ties with the organization. The conservative commentariat had scored a major political victory. And they had done so using the tactics—investigative reporting and savvy editorial marketing—of the mainstream media they had long reviled.
The ACORN story is just one recent example of the rise of the muckraking right. If the Bush years marked a heyday for liberal sites like Talking Points Memo and the Daily Kos, which combined independent reporting, punditry, and grassroots activism, the Obama era has seen the right embrace muckraking with similar success.