It’s hard to take seriously the loopy, conspiratorial conclusions drawn by conservative activists digging up dirt on ACORN.
But the methods they use to dig up that dirt are important – and admirable.
The best thing about the anti-ACORN reporting is that it may revive two journalistic methods that have long been dismissed as sleazy: surreptitious taping and dumpster diving on journalistic subjects.
In a skeptical age, there is no substitute for getting the goods: the video that shows the subject damning herself with her own words, the documents that demonstrate malfeasance. As institutions become more sophisticated about dodging journalistic inquiry, journalists need every investigative tool to hold institutions accountable.
But mainstream news organizations have shied away from these tactics, in large part because of terrible state laws and precedent that, in the name of privacy, protect powerful people and institutions against investigation.
Unfortunately, these laws could produce legal problems for the anti-ACORN activists who secretly videotaped ACORN employees, and, in a more recent case, fished thousands of documents out of the trash of an ACORN office in San Diego. The office of the California attorney general is looking into both matters, though it’s not yet clear whether the investigations are focused on ACORN or those who have taped them and dug through their trash.
The attention on these matters offers a tremendous opportunity for journalists, if they’re bold enough to seize it. Laws that could put the anti-ACORN activists in jeopardy also limit journalistic inquiry and infringe on the public’s right to know. Journalists should rally behind the anti-ACORN folks – at least legally.
First to go should be the terrible California law that makes it illegal to record a conversation unless all parties consent. (This law is only on the books in 12 states, including California; under federal law and statutes in 38 states, only one party to the conversation must consent before taping).
Second, the state needs legislation protecting reporters and investigators who dig through trash of news subjects. While the anti-ACORN investigators cite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permitted cops to go into people’s trash without a warrant, California judges, when considering dumpster diving involving non-police investigators, have generally sided against the people digging into the trash. And media lawyers I know typically advise journalists not to take other people’s trash.
Politically, of course, it’s very hard to make the case for protecting secret cameras and dumpster diving. But it’s also a hard fact that getting at the truth can be a messy business.