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The anti-muckrakers

Ever since the muckrakers of the Progressive Era – since McClure’s Magazine published Ida Turbell’s “History of Standard Oil” and Lincoln Steffen’s “The Shame of Minneapolis” in its January 1903 issue – investigative journalism has exposed the machinations of the powerful.

A few years ago a coterie of young conservatives decided to take up their own version of investigation journalism.  But they employ it to attack groups working to empower regular folks, and their methods feature deception and subterfuge — especially trying to trick staffers at community organizing groups into saying something embarrassing or worse.  It’s slash-and-burn journalism.

It worked with ACORN, where – as we noted in a 2009 post, Framing ACORN – Editor and Publisher found that “a bountiful crop of misinformation” was taken up by the FOX News echo chamber and repeated endlessly “without fact-checking” in the mainstream media (with metropolitan newspapers being a notable exception).  It led to the defunding and collapse of that organization.

Now the New York Times reports on a “sting” at two New York affiliates of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Chicago-based organizing network founded by Saul Alinsky in 1940.

Since the presidential campaign of former organizer Barack Obama, Alinsky has been the target of right-wingers, who suggest that Obama’s Alinsky connection should disqualify him from political leadership.  Sarah Palin and more recently Newt Gingrich have attacked Alinsky in vague terms, and earlier this year Michael Miner reported on a really bogus “expose” of Obama’s participation in a panel discussion on Alinsky years ago.  It earned Miner a spot in Andrew Breitbart’s final column.

(Recently we noted that our own mayor granted an extended interview on the glories of charter schools to an anti-teacher outfit with troubling Breitbart connections.)

The sting

In New York, organizers at Manhattan Together and East Brooklyn Congregations thought something smelled funny when a young man who claimed to be from an environmental company and interested in organizing a union asked them for advice – including how to shake down politicians for money.

Turns out the company and organizing drive were fake.  The young man was John Howting, who’d been a conservative leader at Miami University (where he reportedly once used tanning lotion to try to pass as a Latino activist) and an intern at Human Events (where he penned a scathing attack on Senator Robert Byrd — who along with his populism and constitutionalism, exemplified a capacity to grow and change — shortly after his death).

You can bet young Howting was taping his encounters, although for the moment he’s gone into hiding.

“This kind of sleazy attempt to trick  people into saying something that can be misquoted or taken out of context in some campaign ad can have a chilling effect on that free and  open exchange of ideas — but maybe that is exactly what those who are trying to  scare people by attacking community organizing want,” comments Greg Pierce, a business owner and leader in United Power for Action and Justice, the local IAF affiliate.

“Why don’t these  cowards come out from behind their false identities and hidden microphones  and debate the merits of citizens getting organized to protect their homes,  their jobs, their communities, and their religious institutions — which is  what community organizing is really all about?

“I’ll tell you why,” Pierce says. “They know they  would lose that debate.”

William Buckley, the intellectual founder of the modern conservative movement, reveled in open debate and the free exchange of ideas.  These guys seem to take their cue from another tradition – that of Richard Nixon’s dirty tricksters.

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Category: journalism, organizing

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3 Responses

  1. so. . . did Manhattan Together and East Brooklyn Congregations tell him how to shake down politicians?

  2. still waiting here

  3. Curtis says:

    Please re-read the post. The organizers “thought something smelled funny,” investigated the folks making the inquiry, found out they were fake, and contacted the New York Tiimes.

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