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ACORN Controversy Heats Up

Above: Local editors discuss national and local news with host Gloria Penner.

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Aired 9/25/09

The national scandal involving ACORN, the community organizing group accused of giving advice to potential criminals, continued to heat up this week. Conservative lawmakers and pundits around the country are calling for ACORN's federal funding to be cut, and for an investigation into alleged irregularities on thousands of voter-registration cards submitted by the organization.

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Above: ACORN official David Lagstein goes on-the-record about concerns for the organization's reputation after an undercover filmmaker caught an ACORN employee giving instructions for smuggling humans across the border. The editors discuss.

Local editors discuss national and local news with host Gloria Penner.
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Above: Local editors discuss national and local news with host Gloria Penner.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today, we’ll take on the current furor over the community organizing group ACORN, the San Diego City Council’s inaction on behalf of the growing homeless population, and how San Diego’s small businesses are being buffeted by the economic storm. The editors with me today are John Warren, editor and publisher of San Diego Voice & Viewpoint. John, it’s good to see you.

JOHN WARREN (Editor and Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Thank you, Gloria.

PENNER: Ricky Young, government editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome back to you, Ricky.

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning, Gloria. It’s nice to be back.

PENNER: And for her debut, we welcome Leslie Wolf Branscomb, first time on Editors Roundtable. She’s the editor of San Diego Uptown News. Leslie, we’re happy you could come.

LESLIE WOLF BRANSCOMB (Editor, San Diego Uptown News): Thank you, Gloria. It’s nice to be here.

PENNER: Our number, if you’d like to join the conversation this morning is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, for a while this week, it looked as though the County Board of Supervisors was going to busy itself by launching an investigation into ACORN’s voter registration drive last year. But on Tuesday, Supervisor Pam Slater Price and Bill Horn backed off and the board instead is supporting whatever Attorney General Jerry Brown and D.A. Bonnie Dumanis look into. And now the California Secretary of State and San Diego Registrar of Voters, Deborah Seiler, are in an argument over ACORN’s submitted voter registration cards. So what is ACORN? John, this is about workers for ACORN, the community organizing network videotaped by undercover conservative activists pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute and looking for housing, tax and smuggling help. So I gave the background on this. It sounds too far fetched to be true but there are the tapes. What’s your take on this?

WARREN: Well, yes, there are tapes and the tapes are unfortunate because the tapes don’t lie in terms of people who were caught doing wrong. There’s a question of entrapment. There’s also a question of the character of the people involved. But a bigger issue here is the organization itself. ACORN has been around for a very long time, going back to the seventies, I believe, and it’s done a tremendous amount of good work. I worked with ACORN some thirty-five years ago in Washington, D.C. in terms of providing affordable housing for people. And so it has a track record of helping folks. The tragedy here is that ACORN has become political from the standpoint of the conservative right in not only getting involved in registering people, voter registration and accounts, but along with that it’s had a number of problems, questionable ballots, questionable registrations, and all of these things now are coming home to haunt this organization at a time at which a conservative right element, Darrell Issa being the local person who is very active in this, are calling for all kinds of investigations. And the question now is one of, can we have a balance as we look at it? The Secretary of – The Registrar of Voters here says that she sent things to the state and the state didn’t respond. The state said we did respond, and we have the documentation. We’re going to have a ballot recount in San Diego in terms of submissions. Out of 26,000, I think they had 76 questionable ballots that were sent, turned in, other issues are coming up. So it made sense for the County Board of Supervisors to back off to let the legal prosecution run its course. We’ll have investigations. We have lawsuits that have been filed by ACORN against the individuals who did the taping without consent because that’s – those were violations of state law, and so we have a lot of things happening on both sides of the issue here, and a great deal of attention being given to it.

PENNER: Well, you know, the word ACORN probably had something more to do with the offshoot of an oak tree at one point and people didn’t really know a lot about it but, believe me, they know now. So let me ask our listeners who are tuned in on this subject, what do you think of ACORN and what you’ve learned about it? Do you think that this is, as Darrell Issa said in this morning’s Union-Tribune, left-leaning syndicate of labor unions and political agitators or is this an organization that is trying to help the underserved? And what’s your take on all of this? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I’m going to turn to you on this, Ricky. Darrell Issa, and I’m picking up on this because his letter to the editor or this opinion piece is just filled with all kinds of interesting stuff, including the fact that he says, public outrage has reached fever pitch. Now, is that an overstatement or do you think public outrage really has?

YOUNG: I think that it’s a little soon to measure public outrage at a fever pitch. I mean, we’ll see when flu season starts. But for the moment, I think people are still sitting back on this. It sort of looks, to the general public, I think, like watching an episode of “Candid Camera.” The guy who did it, James O’Keefe, you know, has been a prankster over the years. He started at college with hidden videos where he would complain about the Lucky Charms for sale at his college cafeteria. He made phone calls to Planned Parenthood where he offered to abort black babies because there were too many of them. I mean, this is a character who’s done some things that don’t immediately make it seem to the public like he’s a credible person. They released four videos but wouldn’t say how many they had taken, so we don’t know how many ACORN offices they went into and found people who found them unseemly and just sent them on their way. So, you know, it may well have found some bad apples. I think the jury is still out on the bunch.

PENNER: Oh, well, it’s interesting to me that the president, Leslie, the president has not stepped up for ACORN. He was involved with them. I believe he represented them in a lawsuit some 15 years ago in Chicago. And he agrees that ACORN needs to be investigated. I’m wondering if that’s as political as well, in that he hasn’t stepped up and taken a vigorous stand one way or the other?

BRANSCOMB: Well, I would think it would be important for President Obama to tread a very fine line in this respect, he can’t risk really alienating the right anymore because he’s already trying now to bring the parties together as he promised to do during his campaign. And I would imagine he’s not going to step up too vigorously in defense of ACORN because of what’s currently going on. That could be damaging to him. So I think he’s taking a very cautious course at this point in trying to let everyone else sort it out without his involvement.

PENNER: And there’s a lot of other things on his plate as well at this point. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Let’s hear now from Rick in Escondido. Good morning, Rick. Thanks for calling.

RICK (Caller, Escondido): Hey, everyone. Thanks for taking my call.

PENNER: Sure.

RICK: You know, what’s odd to me is that why would ACORN bring a lawsuit against the individuals that – that made the tapes. I would think that they would be happy that we’re rooting out employees that are breaking the law. I think ACORN generally does bend the rules to help the poor. It’s kind of like Obama, how he talks about the healthcare and illegal immigration when he says that illegal immigrants won’t get healthcare but he’s going to push for amnesty after he gets the healthcare, so there won’t be any illegal immigrants. You know, this is a common tactic of the left to deceive the general public and they bend the rules to do that.

PENNER: Okay, thank you, Rick. My understanding is that in the state of Maryland, I believe it is Maryland…

WARREN: Yes, right.

PENNER: Yeah, it is…

WARREN: Illegal…

PENNER: …illegal to, without the permission of the people involved, to take video and put it on the air. Is that correct, John?

WARREN: Yes, it’s illegal to tape people without their consent.

PENNER: Now is that what this lawsuit is all about?

WARREN: That’s what the lawsuit is about in Maryland, and it’s also being filed in several other states. I think California has such a law. Most states have laws against taping people without their permission. And that’s the grounds on which they’re going after these particular individuals that did the tapes.

PENNER: Well, Rick was identifying them as a leftist organization.

WARREN: Well, ACORN has been called a leftist organization and that’s a matter of opinion because anything that is pro-labor or working masses or however is considered left if you’re to the right and it’s very interesting that when you look at the paper, we have the San Diego Republican, the California State Republican Party, we have Darrell Issa, we have the two Republican members of the board, Pam Slater Price and Bill Horn, all of these Republicans lined up all of a sudden with this furious sense of righteousness against ACORN before an investigation is completed. So it kind of gives you an idea of what’s going on here.

PENNER: So, Ricky, is this strictly a partisan thing? Is it an opportunity for Republicans to start, you know, banging on the Democrats?

YOUNG: Yeah, I think John is right. It has a lot of partisan feel to it. It’s been driven by, you know, Andrew Breitbart and his new website, biggovernment.com. And, you know, it has all the feelings of a partisan debate except it’s sort of missing the other side, and I have not heard Democrats stepping up that much to defend ACORN. So, you know, I think it’s yet to be seen how partisan it will get.

PENNER: So on what basis – I mean, picking up on what Ricky had to say, on what basis, Leslie, could Democrats defend ACORN?

BRANSCOMB: Well, ACORN has been around for a while doing good work for a great number of underserved people. The problem here is, of course, is that it is so easy to pick on them, especially when they have a set up situation as they did with these films. It’s – And then it becomes harder to defend once you’ve crossed over the line from simply quietly doing good work for underserved populations into becoming a big media spectacle. And right now that’s what they have to deal with is tamping down the level of outrage that does exist among a certain segment of the population and I don’t think it’s everyone. I think it’s a certain segment of the population is jumping on this because it just is one more thing they can use against the Democratic Party, against Obama, and it all plays into that kind of hysteria that’s building right now.

PENNER: Okay, well I wanted to thank Rick in Escondido for his comment. And now let’s turn to Jim in Carlsbad. Jim, you’re on with the editors.

JIM (Caller, Carlsbad): Hi there, everybody.

PENNER: Hi.

JIM: Yeah, Darrell Isner’s (sic) absolutely right. ACORN has represented the left and the people who are underserved and the unions and all the good things that have helped this country build a middle class that is now going by the wayside. All those people, all those immigrants that were treated as an underclass for a hundred years, all the people who came here with hopes, they helped with that. Now having said that, when they got into voter registration, it was a slippery slope because when Democrats go – took over the Senate and the House and they took over the presidency, there is going to be some voter irregularities across any election and it is going to be the sour grapes on the right to go and try to find a scapegoat for why they lost. The bottom line is, the people in this country are being disenfranchised still and the next disenfranchisement—get ready folks—is our dollar. Our dollar is going to become what I like to call the peso-ization of the U.S. dollar.

PENNER: Well, you’ve said – you’ve certainly…

JIM: …not because we’re printing money but mostly because we have no savings. And I’d like to hear what everyone has to say.

PENNER: Well, okay. Well, I think we’re going to save the last part of that for another program on the economy. Or actually, we could save it for the third segment in the show today because we’re going to talk a little bit about the – what the economy is doing to small businesses. So stick with us, you might get some interesting comments on that. But on the first part of it, Ricky, what do you think?

YOUNG: Yeah, the caller mentioned that everybody has trouble with voter registration accuracy. It should be noted, ACORN had a significantly higher error rate in the registrations they handed in last fall than other groups. And our registrar did look at that at the time and found a lot of fake names and this sort of thing. At the time, ACORN attributed that to, you know, down and out people collecting the registrations and getting over-zealous in trying to get the money that, I think, they were paid per signature…

WARREN: Right.

YOUNG: …or something like this so…

PENNER: John, you want to add to that?

WARREN: Yeah, people…

PENNER: We have a couple of seconds before the break.

WARREN: People were paid per signature and that’s part of the issue because as long as they got a signature, it counted. But ACORN also filtered through and they’ve made statements to this effect, that they weeded out many of those before they turned them in. They didn’t get them all but they weeded them out. And so I think they have to be given credit for their efforts. It’s not like they just gathered stuff and threw everything in and said, here, you know, everything counts.

PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much. We will continue this discussion right after the break. We have lots of people who have called in and want to talk to us so remember, we are the Editors Roundtable and we’ll be back in just a moment.

# # #

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. And today we are starting off the show by talking about ACORN, and if you don’t know what ACORN is or what the flap is about it, just stick with us and I’m sure you’ll catch up really soon. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. I’m here with Ricky Young from the San Diego Union-Tribune, John Warren from San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, and Leslie Wolf Branscomb from, wait, let me get it right. She’s editor of San Diego Uptown News. It’s her first time with us, but this will soon roll off my tongue very actively next time you’re on. So let’s start right out with a phone call from Jamal in San Diego. By the way, our lines are pretty full so if you get a busy signal just wait a moment and try again. Jamal, you’re on…

JAMAL (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Good morning.

PENNER: Hi.

JAMAL: I have one quick comment before my request. I’ve noticed one thing in my short life and that is just because Darrell Issa says it, probably means it’s false. But my request, I would like it if you guys made it perfectly clear the difference between voter fraud and voter registration fraud.

PENNER: Okay.

JAMAL: Because I find that often gets lost in the fervor.

PENNER: Well, it looks like our editors are up to the challenge and we’ll start with Ricky Young.

YOUNG: That is an important distinction. You know, several people put like Mickey Mouse or something on their vote registration but for Mickey Mouse to turn around and vote is a very different thing, and so far there’s been no evidence that that happened. So it’s largely a paperwork thing, at least as far as we know so far, although there are investigations ongoing.

PENNER: And, John, you wanted to add to that.

WARREN: Yeah, the easy distinction is that voter registration fraud occurs when people register, say, perhaps in two or three precincts using different addresses with the intent of going around voting at each as opposed to when they actually show up and cast a ballot, then we have voter fraud as opposed to voter registration fraud.

PENNER: Well, there you have it, Jamal, everything you wanted to know about the difference, and we hope that was good for you. Let’s hear now from Norma is Chula Vista. Norma, you’re on with the editors.

NORMA (Caller, Chula Vista): Good morning. My comment is really – I’ve actually, I’m a community organizer. I’ve been working with ACORN in San Diego for about five years and have been witness to the work that they are doing every single day in some of the neighborhoods in this region that are the most needy and impoverished. And I really think that this attack on ACORN is nothing more than a national political fight that’s going on in terms of the right being completely outraged by the election of a black president, by not just a black president but a president that has the values of America, you know, us lifting everybody in America and all those messages of hope and opportunity. And I really think that the work that ACORN is doing, which is to engage low income people of color in the democratic process is something that is essential for us to have a thriving democracy.

PENNER: I want to ask you one question, Norma, and that is do you see no culpability in the behaviors of the ACORN workers that were captured in the video?

NORMA: I – I just want to say what ACORN said. Look, we’ve recognized that our – that their staff did not maybe deal with the situation in the best manner and so that’s already been acknowledged. I mean, the fact that Fox News and all of these medias just kind of hyping up the same thing, I mean, nobody’s perfect. Corporations are not perfect. Enron is not perfect. And so the fact that some, you know, challenges were lifted up, that’s fine, and acknowledge it and move on. But people kind of want to continue to just drill it and I just think that this is about the right wing not wanting, you know, people of color, low income people, to participate in the national democratic process because it’s threatening.

PENNER: Okay.

NORMA: Because if you look at the demographics, people – young people of color are going to be the majority and if we vote, we’re going to change the politics of this country.

PENNER: Okay, and I think you raised another very interesting issue, Norma, and I want to thank you for your call. I want to direct this to Leslie Branscomb. Filmmakers using deception then played on mainstream television sometimes out of context. Is that bad journalism?

BRANSCOMB: It’s absolutely bad journalism, and it is also illegal. As John noted before, in California it is not legal to tape somebody without their consent, whether video or audio. And it’s part of the trend toward YouTube and other kind of gotcha videos, which are sometimes just for amusement but can also be used for political purposes, as we’ve seen. And it seems like a lot of the old standards of journalism are falling by the wayside with so-called citizen journalists and, in this case, even sometimes just pranksters stepping up and creating news because anybody, really, can put anything on the internet. And it’s – there doesn’t seem to be any control of that, and I’m not advocating control of the internet. I believe fully in free speech but when it crosses over the line from a prank into journalism, it’s a very fine line and it’s a poor example for all of us to set.

PENNER: Well, what about mainstream journalism taking this on and making it, just as we are today, a major issue or showing it on television or having headlines about it in the newspapers. Ricky Young, you’ve been around in journalism for a while.

YOUNG: There’s a sort of trend that goes on with this where at first it starts making noise in – on conservative TV channels, on conservative blogs and talk radio, and eventually the mainstream media is sort of forced to deal with it and maybe not always in the most thoughtful way. There was sort of the incident where Charlie Gibson said, oh, I’ve never heard of this thing, you know? And eventually, you know, it’s dealt with and sometimes it’s in discussions exactly like this where you’re talking about the morality of it or whatnot but, you know, I think it’s good that it gets out there and the public can decide for themselves, honestly.

PENNER: Okay, so we have time for one more call, and I just want to direct all our callers, we’d love to get your comments. You can go to KPBS.org/EditorsRoundtable and leave your comments there, and we would really appreciate that. But let’s take one more call, and this is from Virginia in Del Cerro. Hi, Virginia, you’re on with the editors.

VIRGINIA (Caller, Del Cerro): Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. I just wanted to make one comment. I chimed in about almost all the way and in the middle I lost you but I did hear one of the journalists, I believe, or somebody else, talking about the Democrats not standing up, and I agree. I’m a registered Democrat but I’m very upset that at this time nonprofits and those organizations that help others are targeted in such a way – I saw the video on TV just passing scanned little thing that showed me something different than what people are talking about and that is, here is a person who wasn’t paid highly—none of these nonprofits pay high on some wages—and so people are not fully trained and she was not being judgmental about these people’s business and she was dismissing them in a way. I saw it as that.

PENNER: Okay.

VIRGINIA: I can’t understand why this has grown so large, and it reminds me of how big and gross the Blackwater got without being targeted in a full way before it did all its damage, and now the nonprofits are targets? This is ludicrous. I can’t believe this is happening.

PENNER: Thank you, Virginia. John, you get the last comment on this.

WARREN: Yeah, I have about three comments to make. Number one, in the case of National City where the ACORN worker was filmed, they ended up terminating him after they viewed the video. Fifty-two seconds were advertised – aired on Fox but they saw seven minutes of it and made the decision. I think we’ve got to remember that the federal government, congress, all of our entities have problems in terms of the people, moral values, and how things are done. We have not thrown the government out because we found some crooks, neither have we thrown out the whole city and local structures that we have. We must remember that when President Obama was elected, and he did it with such a outpouring of funds and grassroot groundswell of people, that it represented a threat to the system as we’ve had it exist. And there will be an ongoing effort to discredit all grassroots efforts and fundraisers or whatever. But let’s not forget the people like the Charles Mott Foundation, which gives $1.5 million to ACORN, that they are reputable people who have been behind this organization for years, and it will exist in spite of this whole attack. The IRS has pulled them as a voluntary tax preparer for low income people. That is a loss to the people, according to ACORN.

PENNER: And the census bureau is…

WARREN: The census bureau has dropped them in terms of…

PENNER: Umm-hmm.

WARREN: …the count because certain people in the Chicago area, in particular, don’t want to work with them. But the organization will survive this, and these drops are the result of the kind of investigations that Issa and others are germinating in an effort to expand the discrediting of the organization.

PENNER: Okay, well, thank you very much. Thanks to all of you, and let us move on to our next subject.

Comments

Avatar for user 'iepley'

iepley | September 25, 2009 at 12:28 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

In a winner-take-all society we live in, Acorn is the main straw man that the Right uses to give themselves a vehicle to keep the poor and disadvantaged at bay. If you’re poor it’s because you didn’t apply yourself or you didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to resist drug addition, etc., etc. This country was founded by Caucasians and Anglo Saxons which has given us a sense of entitlement and ownership. The problem with that sense is that our Forefathers meant this society to be based on a concept not of ethnics. So when you hear “I want my country back”, it is code for, I wish the poor and minorities would go away so we could return to a society with “our values”. This economic system has long forgotten and does not need the poor or especially inner city folks. So when Acorn has a couple of missteps in a few of its 1200 chapters, all hell breaks loose. There is not one institution in this country that does not have a couple of bad apples, but you don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Former Senator Kennedy asked his colleagues in a senate speech, why do you hate the disadvantaged so much? A good question. We have to come to grips with a bigger question, Are we a me society, or a we a we society? If it turns out we are a me society, WE are doomed.

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Avatar for user 'ostinato'

ostinato | September 25, 2009 at 12:46 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

The hidden-camera videos certainly taint the image of those ACORN offices, and naturally cast suspicion on the organization as a whole. The public's trust has been generally undermined at this point.

Yes, this organization may have ongoing goals and projects that people would find agreeable. Unfortunately, they have inserted themselves into the political process via the use of public funds and via involving themselves in the voting process. In doing so, they expose themselves to public scrutiny no matter their ideology or merits.

If ACORN isn't able to handle the intense responsibility that comes along with being publicly funded, then they need to get out of the proverbial kitchen. Publicly funded organizations need to be actively monitored for misuse of funds and for corruption, so the investigations ought to be welcomed by all.

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Avatar for user 'mawickline'

mawickline | September 30, 2009 at 7:55 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

I agree with John Warren here. I also feel what's primarily being reported is Republican PR. Gloria should interview Peter Dreier & Christopher Martin of Occidental College about their report: “Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN was in the news, and what the news got wrong” available from: http://departments.oxy.edu/uepi/acornstudy/

or at least watch a more complete investigation of the story:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/#33013202
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/#33027963
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/26315908/#33064799

Very little investigative journalism happens any more. Too many “news” reporters just report the press releases. The more complete story is about how well the Republican party has learned to USE the media and how cowed the Democrats are by that tactic.

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