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ACORN doesn't deserve its bad rap

For 40 years, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) has been a strong and effective voice for low-income Americans. It has registered more than 1 million citizens to vote. It has provided counseling and other assistance to help Americans buy and keep homes. It has fought on behalf of working people for fair treatment by employers, banks, mortgage companies and payday lenders. It played a leading role in organizing the victims of Hurricane Katrina to gain a voice in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.

But few Americans had heard of ACORN until last fall, when Sen. John McCain and then-Gov. Sarah Palin began attacking the organization for "voter fraud." Soon, more than 80 percent of Americans knew about the group, according to polls. In the past month, Fox News, and then the rest of the media, have broadcast videos of several ACORN staffers advising people posing as a pimp and prostitute to lie on their tax returns. Now people know ACORN for that, too.

It was wrong that workers registering voters for ACORN submitted false names. And it was wrong for ACORN employees to offer the advice they did to the posing couple. But the organization took swift action in both cases, notifying election officials in the first instance and terminating employees in the second.

The attack on ACORN is not really about bogus names on voter forms or about staffers encouraging people to lie on their tax forms. Rather, it is part of a broader conservative effort to attack progressive organizations and discredit President Obama and his liberal agenda.

Over the years, ACORN has made powerful enemies. Many businesses oppose the group's efforts to raise wages for the working poor. Banks, mortgage companies and payday lenders have fought ACORN's campaigns to strengthen regulation of the financial industry. Business groups have funded anti-ACORN Web sites, such as rottenacorn.com, that aim to destroy the group's credibility. Republicans have long opposed ACORN's success at registering low-income, mostly minority voters, who are more likely to vote for Democrats.

Christopher Martin, a journalism professor at the University of Northern Iowa, and I recently analyzed media coverage of ACORN over the years. In our published report, "Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong," we found that, despite ACORN's effective community-organizing work in more than 70 cities across the United States, 55 percent of the stories about the organization during 2007 and 2008 dealt with voter fraud.

The coverage was largely driven by the GOP. In the third and final presidential debate last October, McCain charged that ACORN was "now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." At rallies and media events, McCain and Palin repeated this charge and demanded that Obama disclose his ties with ACORN — echoing attacks that first appeared in conservative publications.

After the election, the attacks on ACORN continued. Early this year, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., released a report calling ACORN a "corrupt" organization. Some right-wing bloggers, talk-show hosts and officials charged, wrongly, that Democrats had set aside billions of dollars in stimulus funding for ACORN. And a few weeks ago, virtually every major TV station and newspaper reported on the prostitute-and-pimp video.

But let's look at those incidents. Did ACORN engage in election fraud? Absolutely not.

As part of its highly successful voter-registration drive, the group — like many others — paid outside contractors to gather signatures. A few of them turned in bogus forms, registering names such as "Mickey Mouse" or "Donald Duck." ACORN's staff did what was required by law and promptly reported the questionable names to authorities. In some cities, those local officials — mostly Republicans — turned around and accused ACORN of voter fraud.

Our study documented that many news outlets reported the fraud allegations without attempting to verify them. Had they done so, they would have discovered that not a single person who signed a phony name on a registration form ever actually voted. What occurred was voter-registration fraud, not voter fraud, and it was ACORN that exposed the wrongdoing in the first place. Yet more than 80 percent of the stories about this controversy failed to mention that it was ACORN that found and reported the phony names.

Thanks to a recent congressional investigation, we now know that Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, tried to get several U.S. attorneys to prosecute ACORN for voter fraud. When one of them, David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney in New Mexico, discovered no evidence of fraud, he refused to prosecute ACORN. Iglesias was quickly fired.

And what about the prostitute-and-pimp video? It also isn't quite what Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly would have you believe.

Two "gotcha" right-wing activists showed up at about 10 ACORN offices hoping to entice low-level staff to provide tax advice for an illegal prostitution ring. In most ACORN offices, the staff kicked the pair out. In a few cities, staffers called the police. In two offices, however, the staff listened and offered to help. That was wrong. But ACORN immediately fired the errant staffers.

These so-called scandals have prompted some members of Congress to demand that ACORN be cut off from receiving federal funds. (ACORN gets grants to provide free homeownership and foreclosure counseling.) In contrast, where's the Republican outrage about the many large corporations that continue to get billions of dollars in federal contracts despite repeated legal and ethical violations?

A healthy democracy requires that the voices of the poor be heard in the corridors of power. That's what ACORN has been facilitating, more successfully than any other community group, since the 1970s. If ACORN's enemies are able to defeat this feisty group, it won't just be the organization's 500,000 members who will suffer. Our democracy will suffer, too.

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