assignment 3 template

Assignment 3 template: follow this model for style, based on the case study example found on the class blogsite. Key elements are flagged.  See blackboard for better formatted example.
The Acorn Scandal (Title) Jason Meschin (Name and EID)
1) Introduction of the case (3 pages)

Near the end of the summer, videos emerged on YouTube and Fox News showcasing employees of Acorn, a national community organizing group, advising citizens they thought to be pimps and hookers on illicit practices. Because of Acorn’s past ties to the Democratic Party, a partisan journalistic war has erupted over coverage of the company’s unethical practices. After its recent war of words with Fox News regarding coverage of Acorn, the New York Times has taken to introspection. Was the decision to delay coverage of Acorn really due to a lack of veritable sources and facts, or was it due to political bias? Following the Times’ hushed response to the Acorn controversy, Bill O’Reilly of Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, along with many New York Times readers, argued that the Times was attempting to protect liberal interests. Clark Hoyt, Public Editor of The New York Times, responded to the accusations by pointing out that those who accuse the Times of liberal bias “forget that the paper broke damaging stories about the personal finances of Representative Charles Rangel and the hiring of prostitutes by Eliot Spitzer,” both of whom were Democrats (Hoyt, 2009).
Hoyt instead chose to focus on a less political reason for his paper’s lack of a response, pointing to the ethical dilemma involved in O’Keefe’s deceit of the ACORN employees. Hoyt was quick to point out that the Times and most other news organizations “consider such tactics unethical” and that the Times “specifically prohibits reporters from misrepresenting themselves or making secret recordings” (Hoyt, 2009). The Times has obviously drawn a line in the sand regarding the use of misrepresentation by journalists, but “misrepresentation” remains a rather ambiguous term in this case. Would a reporter conversing with a suspected bigot be unethically representing himself by laughing along with the subject’s racist jokes if he later ran a story on the subject’s insufferable bigotry? Deceit would be employed here too, but not as explicitly as with O’Keefe’s pimp and prostitute charade. Thus it can be concluded that the line between malicious deceit and solid investigative journalistic is blurred and highly subjective.
Another issue plaguing both news outlets has been representativeness. Since the outbreak of the Acorn scandal, both Fox News and The New York Times have failed to properly represent the issues. Fox News, in what has become a disturbing pattern for cable news outlets, covered the Acorn story to a level of redundancy. Meanwhile, the Times, until recently, had failed to give adequate coverage to the slew of scandalous activity resonating within Acorn. The Times, via its public editor, recently admitted to this oversight and has since printed several articles about the Acorn scandals along with political fallout resulting from the scandals. Fox News, on the other hand, has maintained its stance on Acorn, the Times, and its coverage of the Acorn scandals. The ethical dilemma surrounding deceit in investigative journalism plays a significant role here, but even more pressing is the growing influence of the counter-establishment media and cable television pundits on both journalists’ and the public’s perception of news.
This case resembles the Minnesota Basketball Cheating Case very closely in certain aspects. In both cases, the issues of competition, and verification of sources played major roles in the decision-making processes of the news organizations. For George Dohrmann and Emilio Garcia-Ruiz of Minnesota’s Pioneer Press, verification of their primary source was the deciding factor in their decision to delay running a story on academic dishonesty in the Minnesota Gophers basketball program. Given the controversial nature of the story, the two journalists had to be completely certain that they had left no stone unturned in their investigation. For Fox News, the compromising video of Acorn employees was enough to usher forth a plethora of stinging stories on the company. The Times felt differently. According to its public editor, the Times reporter covering the scandal wanted a statement from Bertha Lewis, Acorn’s chief executive. The reporter’s inability to acquire this statement is allegedly what led to the delay in reporting the incident. This method of representing both sides in an argument has significant merit and was employed effectively by Dohrmann as he interviewed players on the Gophers basketball team, allowing them a chance to have their say before the story was run. Unfortunately, oftentimes doing what is journalistically sound may clash with what is right for the economic well-being of a news institution. Dohrmann’s story, because of its delayed release and harsh repercussions on the Gopher basketball team, infuriated many Pioneer Press readers enough to cancel their subscriptions. While reader reaction may not have been as harsh for the Times, the paper has more than likely lost some of its more conservative readers due to its lack of initial Acorn coverage.
Analysis of these two cases brings about another interesting question: why was there such public outrage toward the Pioneer Press’ cheating article and virtually no public outrage toward Fox News’ coverage of the Acorn scandals? Why do local reporters often find themselves needing to write positively about local institutions and figures, while national media reporters are more encouraged to act as traditional muckrakers? The answer to these questions is found in the concept of independence in journalism. Local reporters, along with their readers, are more likely to have a personal investment or connection to the story than national reporters and national readers. Journalists are often influenced by bias to a certain extent. This bias can be personal, like in the Minnesota case, or political, like in the Times- Acorn case. However, what separates great journalists from their peers is the ability to tune out their own bias and report objectively on the matter.
2) Background Context Research (3 pages)

For over a year, Acorn has found itself neck-deep in a sea of controversy. The company that served as a donor to the Obama campaign in 2008’s presidential election has been accused of a wide variety of offenses ranging from embezzlement to voter fraud. However, Acorn’s unethical practices never truly hit the mainstream media until a recent scandal uncovered by undercover conservative activist James O’Keefe was aired on Fox News. In the video, O’Keefe and a friend posed as a pimp and a prostitute while asking Acorn workers for advice on a range of illicit acts including advice on “how to buy a house to use as a brothel employing underage girls from El Salvador” (Shane, 2009). Shockingly, the video showed Acorn officials willingly aid the undercover duo. Throughout the 40-year history of the company, Acorn’s “voter registration drives and policy proposals” have often been “to the benefit of Democratic politicians and policy makers” (Rutenburg, 2009). In addition, “many of the group’s offices are in heavily Democratic inner-city neighborhoods” (Associated Press, 2009). This fact made Acorn a prime target for attack by conservatives.
Although The New York Times’ public editor was unwilling to admit to liberal bias on the part of the Times, he did concede that his paper conveyed a lack of “tuned-in-ness” to issues dominating the “polemical” world of cable television (Hoyt, 2009). This admission brings up another biting question for the Times: how much time, if any, should Times staffers invest in keeping up with the often sensational and polarizing news stories of cable news stations such as Fox and MSNBC? Such an act could unwittingly alienate readers who see the Times as a refuge from the punditry that dominates cable news. Several other issues loom as well. It is the role of the media to serve as a public monitor. However, at what point do journalistic institutions stop acting as monitors and begin pushing a partisan agenda? Another issue that exists in this case is one of representativeness. How much coverage of Acorn is too much coverage? It seems as though neither Fox News nor the New York Times have an answer. If one were to search “Acorn” on the Fox News online database, dozens of articles slamming the organization would appear instantly. On the other hand, if one were to search for “Acorn” under the Times’ database, only a handful of articles would appear. The issues of watchdog versus partisan activist and representativeness go hand in hand. If the Times’ and Fox’s misrepresented coverage of Acorn are in fact the results of political bias, then both media outlets are failing to maintain independence and objectivity in their reporting. The Time’s public editor, perhaps understanding the possibility of alienating more moderate readers, recently determined that “politics was emphasized too much” in recent Times articles on Acorn.
Understanding the rise and implications of punditry and political bias in news as of late is paramount in this case study. This polarizing form of news coverage has gained momentum within the last decade and has sharply mirrored the growing political divide between American voters. In audience surveys taken from August 2000 to March 2001, “Fox News viewers tilted Republican by 44.6 percent to 36.1 percent,” while the audiences for the rest of its competitors such as MSNBC leaned narrowly Democratic (Harwood, 2009). That divide would grow during the 2004 presidential elections. Amidst controversy surrounding the Iraq war and a neck-and-neck presidential campaign, “Fox News viewers had become 51 percent Republican and just 30.8 percent Democratic, while MSNBC viewers leaned Democratic by 41.7 percent to 40.4 percent” (Harwood, 2009). Heavily partisan commentary by the likes of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, along with the slew of punditry dominating prime-time cable news, has helped to create and strengthen this political divide.
Such a partisan divide within the cable news community is now posing a threat to the most moderate of the cable news channels, CNN. CNN, which pioneered the idea of an all news cable network, has ironically dropped to last place in viewership among the four major cable news outlets (Carter, 2009). While political bias in journalism is often frowned upon by traditional journalistic institutions such as the New York Times, the aforementioned television ratings seem to indicate that audiences prefer to watch programs that agree with their political ideologies rather than watch politically independent programs. In the increasingly competitive world of journalism, these viewership trends could substantially influence not only cable news broadcasts, but all other news outlets as well. The Times public editor hinted at this influence when describing his newsroom’s lack of tuned-in-ness to the often polarizing journalistic tactics of cable news and talk-radio, but the Times is not the only news institution feeling the pressure. Washington Post executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, has recently expressed similar concerns about his newsroom as well (Rutenberg, 2009).
The difference between print news, blogs, and cable news is also a central theme in this case. In this new technologically-dependent era of 24-hour news coverage, print news faces significant pressure to constantly produce in-depth and independent news coverage of major events. This coverage must refrain from using the sensationalistic language and topics that often dominate blogs and cable news programs. Thus it seems that print news is more bound by the nine elements of journalism than its counterparts in the blogosphere and cable news. By making this distinction between the various sources for news that exist in our world, one can understand the cautious approach taken by print news outlets when faced with the task of covering a hot topic in cable news.

3) Key Questions (1 page: you don’t need to answer your questions but need to briefly explain why you think these questions are important.) When discussing this case, here are a few key questions to consider:

1. Should partisan investigative journalism be taken seriously by an independent news outlet? Why or why not?
2. How would public reaction have differed if the Times had immediately run stories about the ACORN scandal following O’Keefe’s video?

3. The New York Times public editor took exception to O’Keefe’s sneaky tactics in posing as a pimp, calling the tactic unethical. Given the oftentimes deceptive nature of journalism, how transparent should journalists be with their subjects with regards to their intentions? Where should the line be drawn between deceit and solid investigative journalism? What potential problems could arise from misrepresenting one’s self for journalistic purposes? Could these problems have surfaced in O’Keefe’s interaction with ACORN employees?

4. The Times public editor criticized the political tone of Shane Scott’s story entitled “Conservatives Draw Blood from Acorn.” What framing would you have used as a New York Times journalist writing the paper’s first story on the ACORN scandal?
5. Why are partisan media outlets such as Fox News and MSNBC receiving higher ratings than moderate outlets such as CNN? What implications do these ratings have for the future of journalism in cable news? 6. Whose reputation suffered more in covering the ACORN scandal, Fox News or the New York Times? When you consider the elements of journalism mentioned in class, which news institution do you feel did a better job in reporting about the ACORN scandal?
4) Teacher’s Guide (1 page. What are some important lessons from the case that you have learned and would want to state?)
This case has two main issues at hand. The first being the effect of political polarization across cable television outlets and the second being the dichotomous nature of deception in journalism. With regards to the issue of political polarization in cable television, I’d like for the class to steer clear of a political debate in the discussion. Rather, using questions 1, 5, and 6 as a guide, you want to get the class to think about how the increasing popularity of polarizing cable news could affect the content and decision making of other news outlets such as the Times. I want them to understand that all of these different news outlets (cable TV, the blogosphere, and print news) are actually fairly interconnected despite their differences in ideology and ethics. Really try and get the students to think about how they would monitor stories coming from polarizing news outlets. Would they create a group specifically for such monitoring? Or would they just keep an open eye and ear in the future? What would be the implications of such “tuned-in-ness” on the readership of print media? I also want them to address and understand the importance of proper framing in this case. Try and point them to the difficulties in framing this story. After they have discussed these difficulties I want them eventually to come up with their own frame that they believe fits the story best.
Use questions 3 and 4 to get a discussion started on the ethical use of deceit. Students should explore the pros and cons of misrepresentation in investigative journalism using their journalistic intuition. How could it have negatively affected the evidence O’Keefe caught on camera? What are the advantages? Try and point students towards the element of truth during this discussion (ex. could Acorn employees simply have been playing along with O’Keefe’s obviously fake pimp persona?). For question 7 there is no right or wrong answer. I merely want students to use the elements of journalism that we discussed in class when coming to their conclusions. The students should focus more on the elements of independence, monitor, and representativeness.

5) References: (1 page—List at least 8 references)
“GOP staff: ACORN misusing contributions – More politics-” MSNBC. Associated Press, 24 Sept. 2009. Web. 25 Oct. 2009. <;.
Carter, Bill. “CNN Last in TV News on Cable.” New York Times 27 Oct. 2009: B1. Print.
Harwood, John. “If Fox Is Partisan, It Is Not Alone.” New York Times 2 Nov. 2009: A12. Print.
Hoyt, Clark. “Tuning In Too Late.” New York Times 27 Sept. 2009: WK12. Print.
Rutenberg, Jim. “Acorn’s Woes Strain Its Ties to Democrats.” New York Times 15 Oct. 2009: A1. Print.
Rutenberg, Jim. “Behind the War Between White House and Fox.” New York Times 23 Oct. 2009: A16. Print.
Shane, Scott. “Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn.” New York Times 15 Sept. 2009: A14. Print.
Blumenthal, Sidney. The Rise of the Counter-Establishment From Conservative Ideology to Political Power. New York: Union Square, 2008. Print.
Burgh, Hugo De. Investigative Journalism Context and Practice. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Malcolm, Janet. Journalist and the Murderer. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Print. 6) Other Resources (Include at least 1 online resource and briefly describe the source
if not obvious)
“Acorn.” Times Topics. New York Times, 18 Sept. 2009. Web. 18 Nov. 2009. < l>.
“White House Escalates War of Words With Fox News –” 12 Oct. 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2009. < news/>.


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