Skip to main content

INDEPENDENT LENS: Acorn And The Firestorm

Airs Monday, May 21, 2018 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

New York ACORN protest.

Credit: Courtesy of ACORN

Above: New York ACORN protest.

Community Organizing Group ACORN, the Video Sting that Sought to Bring Them Down, and the Ensuing Media Firestorm

For 40 years, the controversial community organizing group ACORN sought to empower marginalized communities. Its critics, though, believed ACORN exemplified everything wrong with liberal ideals, promoting government waste and ineffective activism.

These competing perceptions exploded on the national stage in 2009, just as Barack Obama became president. Fueled by a YouTube video made by undercover journalists, ACORN’s very existence would be challenged.

“Acorn And The Firestorm” goes beyond the 24-hour news cycle and cuts to the heart of the great political divide. The film premieres on INDEPENDENT LENS Monday, May 21, 2018 on PBS.

Quiz: How Good Are You at Spotting Fake News?

ACORN And The Firestorm - Trailer

For 40 years, community organizing group ACORN sought to empower marginalized communities. Its critics, though, believed ACORN promoted government waste and ineffective activism. These competing perceptions exploded nationally in 2009, fueled by a YouTube video made by undercover activists. "ACORN And The Firestorm" goes beyond the 24-hour news cycle, cutting to the heart of the political divide.

In 2008, with a 400,000 strong, grassroots membership in 38 states, ACORN stood at the height of its power, having won a lobbying campaign that led to an increase in the national minimum wage, saved thousands of people from foreclosure, and fought against predatory lending.

ACORN also operated on a local level, helping clean up parks, put stoplights at dangerous intersections, and working to improve neighborhood schools.

Leading up to the 2008 election, ACORN helped to register 1.3 million voters, mostly low-income minorities in swing states.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Valerie Coffin

Hillary Clinton meets with ACORN staffers in 2006.

When some of those registration cards appeared fraudulent, conservative activists and politicians singled out ACORN as a conspiratorial criminal organization and strategists and pundits joined the chorus.

Bertha Lewis, who became CEO just before Obama's election, was confident that they could weather the attacks, and with an ally in the White House, she believed that actual systemic change might be possible.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Bonnie Friedman

Bertha Lewis at ACORN’s New York office, 2009.

But nothing could have prepared her for what was to come.

When twenty-year-old journalism student Hannah Giles heard about ACORN in the news, she and James O’Keefe, a conservative political activist, orchestrated an investigation into the organization.

Using a hidden camera and a fake prostitute, they created a series of YouTube videos which suggested that ACORN staffers were encouraging criminal activity. The videos and Giles became a media sensation.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Bonnie Friedman

ACORN founder Wade Rathke.

“ACORN And The Firestorm” unfolds through the stories of Giles and Lewis, two women on opposite sides of the political spectrum, as well as through the eyes of ACORN staff, including founder Wade Rathke, members Travis Munnerlyn and Maude Hurd, and ACORN’s opposition, including Republican Congressman Steve King.

ACORN And The Firestorm - Bertha and Hanna Meet - Clip

In an excerpt from INDEPENDENT LENS film "ACORN And The Firestorm," Hannah Giles, who was at the center of a media frenzy around undercover sting operation that aimed to take down a community organization, meets Bertha Lewis, whose life and work was upended by the viral video Giles helped create.

“Our constant thirst for new news in the age of the 24-hour news cycle leaves no time for the nuanced stories behind the headlines. Reuben and Sam lay out how one video smear campaign can lead to death by media,” said Lois Vossen, INDEPENDENT LENS executive producer. “This film sheds relevant light on how we got to this age of alternative facts and fake news.”

WATCH ON YOUR SCHEDULE:

This film will be available to stream on demand for a limited time after broadcast.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION:

INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, Instagram, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter. #IndieLensPBS

"ACORN And The Firestorm" is on Facebook.

CREDITS:

Directors/Producers: Reuben Atlas and Sam Pollard. Cinematographers: Frank Larson, Natalie Kingston, Spencer Chumbley and Naiti Gamez. Editors: Francisco Bello and Paul Greenhouse. Composer is Khari Mateen. Motion Graphics by Brandon Sugiyama. Lois Vossen is executive producer for INDEPENDENT LENS. Presented by ITVS, the series is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with additional funding from PBS, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.