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Posted in Citizen Journalism (James O'Keefe and Project Veritas) | 0 comments

The Road Not Taken

Since my last post, O’Keefe and the Hole in the Veritas Gang have crawled back into the headlines. NPR is the latest victim of the smash-and-grab journalist. The MO for the entire arc of the news story remains the same: secret recordings released revealing that employees at X taxpayer-supported entity are exactly what conservatives have always said they were (criminals, liberals, baby killers); rash of firings, recriminations, public statements of outrage follow; the argument for defunding entity X (ACORN, Planned Parenthood, NPR) gains steam; secret recordings are revealed to be highly doctored and suits are filed against O’Keefe, but by this point our outlaw and his boys are just a cloud of dust disappearing over the horizon.

The sequence is predictable; it’s Chaos for Glory, where everyone in the news business, print journalists and their online counterparts, bloggers and broadcasters, tweeters and trolls, chase the story, debate the accuracy, revel in or bemoan the ignominious fall of the latest target.

News in the news! News about the news! Everybody gets fed.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem with story-driven reality. Piecemeal details come together to confirm expectations: “Breaking News: They’re All Idiots!”

text2cloud’s central project is to explore the virtues of slowing down, of following ideas rather than leads, of cultivating thoughtfulness with the assistance of technology rather than in spite of it. (Indeed, text2cloud launched with the self-publication of “Reading in Slow Motion,” where I discuss teaching concentration in the age of distraction.)

So, eventually we’ll get to the NPR fiasco, but there’s no rush. Ideas take time.

*

We left O’Keefe and Giles just as they completed their visit to ACORN’s office in Philadelphia, which didn’t go quite as planned for the intrepid duo.

Their next stop down the (taxpayer financed) interstate  was Baltimore, where things went much better, as we’ve already seen (Baltimore, My Baltimore, Parts One and Two).

Indeed, early on in their interview with the utterly solicitous ACORN employees in Baltimore, Giles whispers to O’Keefe her astonishment at what they’ve uncovered:

Kenya: [whisper] Oh my God . . . tax fraud?

James: [whisper] tax fraud (6).

Actually, with only the transcripts to go on, it’s hard to see what so excites Giles (aka Kenya) at this point in the interview. She has introduced herself; she has told Shera that she gets paid in cash by men and that she hasn’t paid taxes on her earnings. And when she says she doesn’t know what a 1099 is, Shera says she’s going to get someone who handles taxes. When Shera leaves the room, the hurried, whispered exchange occurs.

So, at this point in the interview, the only thing that’s clear is that Shera doesn’t judge Kenya for her line of work (“You know what? It’s a job. It’s a job” (5)) and that she calls for help when she learns that Kenya hasn’t been paying her taxes.

It’s a telling moment for two reasons: O’Keefe and Giles jump the gun here, reaching a conclusion about what’s happening before all the facts–indeed, before any facts–are in. And the conclusion they reach is not about the city they’ve driven through, the office they’re sitting in, what it’s like to work in a place where people aren’t surprised to come face to face with desperate women; the conclusion they reach is that the women who work in this stiflingly hot office are in the business of defrauding the government.

*

*

To make sense of Giles’ “moment of blink,” where everything made sense in an instant, it helps to recall what first incensed her about ACORN. Earlier in the summer, she jogged by their headquarters in DC during a break in her internship with the National Journalism Center, where she was learning how to “change the biased nature of today’s media.”

It’s a study in contrasts, really, if you let the image form in your mind: this healthy, young woman from Miami, in her jogging gear takes a wrong turn and finds herself powering past the “headquarters” of an organization with offices around the country generally staffed by larger, less healthy, considerably less well-off older men and women.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Former ACORN office in Washington, DC, to the right of the now closed Attitude Exact Gallery

And the thought that goes through the mind of our jogger committed to changing the biased nature of today’s media?

“I saw them as a thug organization that was getting my tax dollars.”

Again with the taxes!

*

It’s a fair question to ask: when Giles says “my tax dollars,” what does she mean?

There aren’t many twenty year-olds who can lay claim to making a significant monetary contribution to the federal tax base: those with trust funds; pop stars; professional athletes. It’d still be grating to hear anyone from any of those groups carping about “my tax dollars,” but they’d be able to point to tax returns with X gajillion dollars paid and be able to lay claim to the right to grate as much as they so pleased.

Ke$ha has standing, in other words, but a 20-year old intern from Miami? Exactly how many tax dollars had Ms. Giles contributed towards the public good when her outrage of ACORN’s access to the public trough cast a pall over her early evening jog through the streets (paved by tax dollars; lit by tax dollars, made vaguely safe by tax dollars) of D.C.?

I’m guessing not so many dollars.

Indeed, I’d be willing to bet it was fairly close to, if not equal to, none dollars.

*

Here’s a scenario.

Say our DC jogger killed it during her summer job in ’08 and made 10K, how much of her hard-earned daily bread would the feds slice off?

Before you answer, consider just how hard Ms. Giles would have had to work at minimum wage to wrack up 10K.

Keeping in mind that the minimum wage was $5.85/hr up to July 23, 2008 and then moved up to $6.55/hr, Ms. Giles would’ve had to put in some long hours to reach this plateau: 40 hours per week at the lower rate generates $234/week and balloons up to $262/week at the higher rate. If she put in 120 hours per week for three months though, she’d only clear 9K. So, even then, she’d need to find work during her breaks or while she was completing her studies at FIU.

Um, 120hrs/wk? Admittedly, a hard slog, what with only three free hours a day to eat, sleep, socialize, and whatnot. But this is a thought experiment, so bear with me. You gotta admit, if you were working that hard and jogged by people leaning against walls, soaking up your hard-earned tax dollars, you’d be mighty enraged too.

Just for the heck of it, let’s throw another log on the fire.

Sure, you’re already enraged, but think how much more enraged you’d be if, say, you had a trust fund that your parents had created for you, from the sweat of their collective brow, and this fund delivered another $10,000 to you annually. So, it’s not only your hard earned money (120 hours a week, yo!), but also the legacy of your parents’ hard work and foresight that’s being trampled on. (Papa Giles is a Minister, by the way, so the federal government’s voracious appetite is triply or quadruply–even I’m losing count now!–ragifying).

Drum roll please.

So, if Ms. Giles had cleared 20K in 2008, how much of her money would the government have taken with the sole purpose of dropping it off for ACORN to squander on its thugs?

Anyone?

That’s right, folks. Fifty cents out of every $100 earned.

It’s amazing Ms. Giles didn’t charge straight into the ACORN office and start flipping the desks over and throwing stuff out in the street. Amazing restraint, really.

But Giles never did work 120 hours a week at minimum wage and I just made up the trust fund because I couldn’t think up any other way to get a first-year college student to have $20K/year in income. I made it all up.

Sorry.

None dollars in taxes paid?

None dollars is my guess and I’m standing by it.

Or maybe going home with the guess I brung to the dance.

But what I’m not doing is taking Ms. Giles’ interest in her tax dollars and tax fraud at face value.

*

If Ms. Giles had been interested in exploring the complexities of the U.S. tax code, she might have focused her attention closer to the beginning of her jog–on the Young America’s Foundation, which sponsored her paid internship at the National Journalism Center. Unlike ACORN, the Young America’s Foundation doesn’t accept–or more accurately doesn’t apply for–any federal funding. However, as ACORN did before it declared bankruptcy, the Young America’s Foundation does represent itself as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, albeit one that is wholly supported by voluntary contributions from the public. And so, in exchange for supporting the self-described “principal outreach organization of the Conservative Movement,” contributors to the YAF get the tax benefit of being able to write-off their donations.

A central requirement for the 501(c)3 designation is that the organization be non-partisan.

Now, as it happens, the charge of partisanship was what initially brought ACORN to the nation’s headlines. During Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008, accusations of “voter fraud” were rife (what was meant was “voter registration fraud,” but why split hairs?) and ACORN was singled out for especial attention because of its work on a nationwide voter registration campaign in advance of the election. An external audit, released prior to the election, revealed that ACORN’s financial affairs were in complete disarray: a brother of the organization’s founder was found to have embezzled $1M years earlier; funds from the organization’s charitable operations were commingled with Project Vote, another non-profit; the registration campaigns, far from being non-partisan, appear to have been organized in areas with strategic value in the presidential election.

It’s fair to say that ACORN did not respect the guidelines governing the ways that non-profits may participate in the political process. In these fraught times, the organization might have been penalized and ordered to straighten itself out or else. But with Obama’s victory in November 2008, bringing down the organization became a high priority for the Republicans on Capital Hill. Further investigations were called for and initiated; legal remedies and financial consequences were pursued. ACORN was definitely in line for a beat down.

But the wheels of justice turn slowly. And our jogger wasn’t so interested in separating the rumors from the facts: the thug organization was going down and she was going to make it happen.

*

And the Young America’s Foundation?

They’re strictly an education shop, running seminars for college and high school students, sponsoring internships at the National Journalism Center in D.C., and maintaining Ronald Reagan’s western White House, Rancho del Cielo.

See the difference?

Non-partisan 501(c)3

*

Still scratching your head?

Perhaps this will help.

More than 1,700 students have had internships with the National Journalism Center since 1977. In 2008, the summer class swelled to forty interns, each of whom received a monthly stipend of $1K. That’s $120K in direct support for these journalists-in-training. And the total expenses for the program in 2008, according to the 990 filed for organizations exempt from income tax? $523K.

In other words, for every dollar that makes its way into the hands of an eager journalist-to-be more than three dollars are expended getting that dollar moved from point A to point B.

How is that possible? That’s a bureaucratic accomplishment that is government-worthy, no?

Well, there is a lot of overhead at the YAF.

They’ve got to keep the board happy, for example:

In 2008, Board President Ron Robinson’s salary was $485K.

Richard Kimble, Vice President, $229K

Darla Anzalone, Director of Communications, $2o2K (she worked 65 hours/week in 2008.

And the other compensated Board Members for 2008 received more than $600K.

You can’t say the Board didn’t earn its keep in 2008, though. They’re not a bunch of bums just picking up a government check.

YFA pulled down nearly $22M through tax-deductible contributions, program revenue, and return on foundation investments.

If you’ve got a problem with this, you must be smoking crack.

*

Not that anybody is counting, but for the most recent year that records are available, the cost of the National Journalism Center program rose to $698K in 2009.

How much of this 33% increase in cost for the program from 2008 to 2009 was attributable to additional payouts to interns like the intrepid Ms. Giles, who was so horrified at the thug culture over at ACORN squandering her precious tax dollars?

The increase in funding for interns in 2009 accounts for .04% of the differential (7K out of 175K).

Not that anybody is asking, but I’m sure there’s a good explanation for why the overhead blew up like that.

*

And who are these interns who have committed themselves to the non-partisan work of changing “the biased nature of today’s media”?

Click on Image to Enlarge

Surprised?

Gladwell seems like the outlier here, but he started his career at the conservative monthly The American Spectator, moved on to Insight on the News, owned by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, and then joined the Washington Post in 1987.

It is tempting to see O’Keefe and Giles’ ride down the East Coast as a Gladwellian “tipping point,” a little thing that makes a big difference: two twenty-somethings, a camera, a stupid story and the goliath of ACORN comes crashing to the ground.

But what is it that has tipped?

Is this a turning point for the nation’s tax code? The definition of the 501(3)c? The pretense of objectivity in journalism? The dawning of the day when the most tested generation in history shapes public policy?

*

When O’Keefe posted the first ACORN video from the visit to Baltimore, he offered this assessment of why the organization attracted his interest:

ACORN has ascended. They elect our politicians and receive billions in tax money. Their world is a revolutionary, socialistic, atheistic world, where all means are justifiable. And they create chaos, again, for it’s own sake. It is time for us to be studying and applying their tactics, many of which are ideologically neutral. It is time, as Hannah said as we walked out of the ACORN facility, for conservative activists to “create chaos for glory.”

Chaos for Glory: is that where we are?

*

Next up: The Seventh Inning Stretch

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This is the seventh in an evolving series on Citizen Journalism. It may be read on its own or as part of the series, which begins with “My Brush with Celebrity: The Other Side of Cyber-Spying.” A summary of each section of the series may be found here:  Citizen Journalism and the Case of James O’Keefe (Table of Contents).

Background on Giles’ jog may be found here.

The description of the National Journalism Center’s internship may be found here.

The transcript of O’Keefe and Giles’ visit to the Baltimore ACORN office may be found here.

The 2008 public 990 tax form for the Young America’s Foundation may be found here. The 2009 may be found here.

Information about ACORN’s involvement with Project Vote was gleaned from these NYT articles: Acorn Report Raises Issues of Legality and Groups Tally of New Voters Was Vastly Overstated.

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