Investigative Journalism without Investigative Journalists

Reader Rhayader points to the recent ACORN prostitution scandal as an example of investigative journalism being done by people who are not journalists in the traditional sense. The guy who made the video is James O’Keefe, an “activist filmmaker” who has made videos promoting various conservative causes. It’s not clear exactly how Mr. O’Keefe makes his living, but it seems clear that he’s not a journalist in the traditional sense.

Picture 1Now, I don’t actually think what the ACORN employees did here is all that scandalous. Obviously, people should follow the law, but I don’t think it’s necessarily ACORN’s job to rat out, or even refuse service to, people who it knows are breaking the law. We certainly don’t apply that standard to most other professions. If a doctor has a patient who admits to illicit drug use, it’s actually considered unethical for him to report that to the authorities. This is because if we started requiring doctors to report drug users to the police, the only result would be that drug addicts would stop seeking medical attention. I think the same principle applies to ACORN. ACORN is in the business of helping poor people. Sometimes poor people turn to drug dealing or prostitution out of desperation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with ACORN turning a blind eye to those kinds of activities.

But in any event, I think this illustrates the extent to which people outside the traditional journalism profession can perform the functions of a traditional journalist. O’Keefe made a video and posted it on his blog. The coverage by mainstream media outlets like the Associated Press has largely consisted of summaries of the contents of the video. The role of professional journalists here is not to go out and track down information; rather it’s to take information that has already been tracked down and delivered by a third party, and summarize and synthesize that information in a way that lets readers quickly make sense of it. This is an important function, to be sure, but it’s not a function that requires large amounts of time or resources.

I don’t think we’ll ever reach the point where all stories are like this, but more and more stories are. Certainly court decisions, company product announcements, athletic events, scientific and medical discoveries, political speeches and debates, are among the categories of news that can largely be covered based on materials readily available online. Summarizing and analyzing a document or video is an important activity (much of my writing for Ars has consisted of summaries and analysis of bills and legal decisions), but it’s relatively simpler than the sort of thing Woodward and Bernstein famously did, where they’d spend hours tromping around Washington digging up documents and interviewing sources on background. The Internet is shifting the balance from this kind of “pavement-pounding” journalism to what Jonathan Chait has dubbed “ass-welt” reporting.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Investigative Journalism without Investigative Journalists

  1. Rhayader says:

    I’m far from a hardline conservative — and not that this is the central point of Tim’s post — but from what I saw the ACORN folks went beyond “turning a blind eye”; they were actively looking to help an illegal operation evade taxes. That’s sort of like the hypothetical doctor finding out about a patient’s heroin problem and offering to help divert a little morphine his way. Not exactly a “none of my business” move.

    But yeah, thanks for posting on this. The manner in which the story broke — the reporters, the medium, the response — was much more interesting than the story itself.

  2. I didn’t interpret it as a tax evasion point. My interpretation was that they were helping them figure out how to generate the paper trail they needed for a morgage without disclosing that she was a prostitute. The thing in the NYC video that they focused on up front–about the tin in the back yard, actually struck me as one of the most defensible things the ACORN lady did. I believe the question was not about hiding the money from the police, but about hiding the money from her abusive former pimp. Protecting prostitutes from violent pimps seems like a worthy goal whether or not prostitution itself is illegal.

    The one aspect that seems genuinely indefensible is the part involving the (presumably fictional) 14-year-old Salvadoran prostitutes. But this was mentioned only obliquely toward the end of the video I heard, and there’s no evidence the ACORN lady necessarily caught that part of it.

    It’s certainly not ACORN’s finest hour. But the fact that they help some prostitutes find housing seems to me a less serious charge than some of the voter fraud stuff that’s come up previously.

  3. Oh, and on the doctor point, I don’t see this as all that different from needle-exchange programs. If people are going to shoot up, they might as well do it with clean needles. Likewise, if women are going to engage in prostitution, they might as well not be doing it on the streets.

  4. Rhayader says:

    Yeah those are good points Tim. If young prostitutes — or drug addicts, or people who get in trouble with gambling debt, etc — thought that everybody they opened up to would be dropping the dime, those people would be relegated even further into the shadows than they currently reside.

    Of course at the root of that whole thing is the idea of criminalizing consensual behavior, but that’s a discussion of its own.

  5. metapundit says:

    >The one aspect that seems genuinely indefensible is the part involving the (presumably fictional) 14-year-old Salvadoran prostitutes. But this was mentioned only obliquely toward the end of the video I heard, and there’s no evidence the ACORN lady necessarily caught that part of it.

    There are four videos now. I’m giving Acorn a pass for the San Bernadino one because the lady seemed to have the typical crazy blustering thing going on I’ve heard from street people before (I know politicians, I’ve killed people, I used to make 15k/week as a madam, etc etc). The other three though have been pretty clear with the duo explaining that they intend to import a dozen 15 year old central american girls. One Acorn employee suggests claiming some of them as dependents! I agree this is the most indefensible thing (although I don’t think the Feds should be doing business with an organization actively abbetting tax evasion and fraud); but I don’t think it’s by any means obliquely referred to. Watch all the videos and read the transcripts…

  6. metapundit, I only watched the NYC one, and it’s an oblique reference in that case. If it’s more explicit in the others, that’s hard to defend.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.