It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp
Why the latest conservative hidden-video trick to embarrass liberals has fizzled.
To understand the latest media-manufactured noncontroversy of February 2011, it is necessary to go back to September 2009. The month started lousy for liberals, and it got lousier. On the 6th, White House "green jobs czar" Van Jones resigned, mortally wounded when a conservative blog found a 9/11 conspiracy petition with his name on it. Four days later, Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com released a hidden camera video, filmed by young conservatives who pretended to be a prostitute and a pimp concerned for her welfare and who asked for tax advice from the community group ACORN. More ACORN tapes followed; on the 17th, the day that the last one went online, the House of Representatives—then controlled by Democrats— voted to ban any government funds for ACORN.
As the meltdown continued, there was some coming-to-Jesus at Media Matters for America, David Brock's moneyed watchdog group. The word went out: Progressives had just gotten their asses kicked. They needed to anticipate things like the Jones campaign or the ACORN tapes, and they needed to stop them from taking good people down with them.
And that's how liberals responded to this month's ACORN tape sequel: the Live Action investigation of Planned Parenthood. (Critics of undercover conservative activists splutter when words like journalism and investigation are applied to what happens here, but let's use these terms for simplicity's sake.) At a few different locations, actors hired by Live Action pretended to be pimps, then waltzed into Planned Parenthood offices and asked for advice on birth control for girls younger than the age of consent.
They got it. "From the age of 12 up," said one Planned Parenthood volunteer in Roanoke, Va., "for birth control, you can just come in and do that. You don't have to have a parent, OK?" Another, in Falls Church, Va., appeared to assuage concerns about legality and photo IDs by promising that "we don't necessarily look at the legal status."
The videos launched on Feb. 1, right after legislation to ban funding for birth control was introduced in the House and Senate. But the Live Action videos have not captivated the media or politicians like the ACORN tapes did. Within days of the ACORN tapes arriving online, several members of Congress had requested a federal investigation of the group, and 20 states were probing its affiliates. The tape's funky music and images of James O'Keefe with a funny hat and cane (not worn during the actual sting) became the stuff of liberal nightmares.
The Live Action videos aren't so powerful. Planned Parenthood has fired one of the accidental stars of the videos, but only two state attorneys general have made noise about investigating Planned Parenthood, in New Jersey and Virginia. But coverage of the videos has focused more on the career of Live Action's Lila Rose—profiles never fail to mention that she's an aspiring actress—and less on what's in the videos.
There are plenty of reasons for this. Media Matters and other liberal groups pounced as soon as the video went up. Media Matters welcomed the videos with a "refresher course on Andrew Breitbart's dishonest tactics" and the screaming headline "HOAX VIDEO EXPOSED." The hoax? Planned Parenthood had already warned the FBI about the sting. Subsequent Media Matters reports alleged that audio in the tapes had been spliced and mashed to make stuff up. Within 72 hours, the group put together a conference call for Planned Parenthood leaders to speak out about Rose and a joint letter to members of Congress from 26 progressive groups.
Most of those groups didn't even work on abortion issues—the SEIU, the Sierra Club, the liberal think tank Demos. The goal was to stop another weak-kneed moment like the vote to defund ACORN. The message to Democrats: If you don't stop letting conservatives run these operations against us, they're never going to stop. Their cave-in on ACORN had led to people like Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., taking power and launching new investigations.
"Ever since ACORN, we've been very involved in sounding the alarm on this," said Nan Aron, the president of the Alliance for Justice, a progressive umbrella group that signed the letter to Congress. "Attacks on Planned Parenthood don't arise in a vacuum. Darrell Issa and his ilk successfully took ACORN out of the game."
This is a game played at many levels at once. Conservatives want to think that the ACORN meltdown is repeatable—that's why you hear Newt Gingrich muse about the possibilities of "defunding the left." Liberals think they can prevent it from reoccurring. ACORN was too sloppy for too long and didn't develop a PR offensive or internal quality control after years of legal challenges to its voter-registration problems. That was ACORN's fault. It was the rest of the movement's fault that it didn't immediately challenge the credibility of the videos and that congressional Democrats were listless in how they responded to tapes running on repeat on cable news.
"They're unethical," said Ari Rabn-Havt, one of the key responders at Media Matters. "I mean, we have nothing against doing hidden camera stuff, but if you have no compunction for the truth and you can release whatever you want, you can make stories better. And we, progressives, don't have a news network that will take this stuff right to air, frankly. That's part of the success here. Breitbart launched Big Government on Fox News. Glenn Beck previewed the ACORN tapes on his show."
And this is the most common way that progressives view their challenge. It's them against Breitbart and Fox. If they can inspire enough doubt about the conservative scoop to make news organizations pass on it, or hold it, they can stop an ACORN repeat.
According to Breitbart, this was actually the progressive response to ACORN. Maybe progressives are working faster, but throwing up dust about a story that hurts them—well, that's how the left works, and how the media decides what to run.
"Lila Rose and Live Action are contending with the same forces in the media that don't want beyond-reproach left-leaning institutions to be exposed as corrupt and morally bankrupt," Breitbart said in an e-mail. "Team Podesta, including Media Matters and Planned Parenthood itself, are coordinating and applying the same tactics they used in the ACORN scandal to grant the mainstream media excuses not to report on a video expose that would be front page news if it were against a politically incorrect group associated with the right. Can you imagine how media would react if pimp and prostitute undercover video implicated a mega-church, GOP congressmen or the NRA? Need it be argued that it would be everywhere?"
It depends what "everywhere" means. If they're doing it right, the conservative videographers and the progressive counterpunchers don't need the media to pay attention. The ACORN tapes got Congress rolling on a defunding bill before the non-News Corp. media really noticed the scandal. Media Matters helped write the book on Lila Rose before Republican politicians had even weighed in on her tapes. This is the battle now: Who can weaponize the tools of journalism, and who can take out the warheads?
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.