BROOKE GLADSTONE: This month, a group of anti-abortion activists called Live Action tried to catch Planned Parenthood in wrongdoing on camera. A couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute solicited advice on how to get medical treatment for underage prostitutes, without exposing themselves to prosecution. They got it.
WOMAN: Everything is confidential. They don't have to tell anybody what it is that they do when they're making an appointment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Basically, these activists followed a script written in 2009 by two conservative activists who, disguised as a pimp and a prostitute, solicited advice from ACORN, a group of organizations that advocated for the poor on how to get help, while evading punishment for their crimes, most notably underage sex trafficking and tax evasion. They got it.
WOMAN: The type of business or service you provide, let me make sure there’s a code for it, okay?
MAN: A code for prostitution?
WOMAN: Well, d…
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Conservative gadfly Andrew Breitbart posted the ACORN videos on his website, BigGovernment.com, where they migrated first to conservative news outlets like FOX and then to less ideological media. In the ensuing scandal, ACORN lost its federal funding and eventually folded. But the Planned Parenthood sting hasn't caught the attention of the media or of politicians with anything like the power of the ACORN videos. Slate’s Dave Weigel wrote about these two cases, and he thinks he knows why. Dave, welcome to On the Media.
DAVE WEIGEL: Oh, thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, broadly speaking, what’s the difference between the two cases? They seem exactly the same.
DAVE WEIGEL: ACORN had a completely tattered public image. It was known, I think, by the man on the street as an organization that was accused of helping people register to vote fraudulently. Planned Parenthood is, as we all know, a very successful but controversial birth control and, and abortion organization. There are facts on the ground that look better for Planned Parenthood. In Roanoke, where one of these stings happened, the Planned Parenthood staffer listened to this faux pimp explain his problems, and the staffer followed him out to the parking lot, in trying to get the license plate of his car to report him. So these stings basically completed on January 15th, and on January 18th, Planned Parenthood, having already been in contact with some law enforcement, sent a letter to the Justice Department saying somebody had been coming to their offices and asking for these things. The argument of conservatives was that this organization will give advice to anyone and they won't even report crimes. Well, they were. And liberals are primed to defend it for stuff like this. A large group of liberal organizations decided that whenever a sting like this emerges, they need to create enough of a doubt about what’s in these videos that it’s difficult for the media to - to cover them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think it’s kind of interesting that groups that were unaffiliated with media or Planned Parenthood participated, groups like the Sierra Club or the Service Employees International Union, basically just liberal establishment groups. How did they get involved?
DAVE WEIGEL: They're on war footing. When I talked to members of these groups, they really feel like there is almost a spinning wheel [LAUGHS] of smears. They know that the conservative establishment, you know, grassroots activists, all the way up to big organizations, want to defund them. They believe if they can make these groups toxic, they can destroy them, the way ACORN was destroyed. But what happened wasn't just that liberals became better at fighting this. I mean, some of the other conservative stories didn't really pan out. Andrew Breitbart’s tape of Shirley Sherrod which, you know, he didn't come up with first – he ran the tape.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She’s the Agriculture Department staffer who was talking about how she was initially resistant to the pleas of a white farmer, and than realized they were on the same side and she needed to help them. It, it was a story of, of her own personal redemption when she understood that she was there to help everybody. And they only took the first half of the story and completely distorted it.
DAVE WEIGEL: That’s what happened. And the reaction to that, I think, was very clarifying for liberal groups and the media, and conservative groups. If you remember, the NAACP initially condemned Shirley Sherrod, but when it was discovered that people had just not taken the time [LAUGHS] to go through the whole tape and see what she'd said, there was a realization that you don't need to question the motives of everyone who’s doing this. But amateur journalism leads to mistakes, and there’s not the same quality control.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's just assume that in many cases these tapes do not really show a true picture of what’s going on. ACORN was defunded anyway. Could these Planned Parenthood videos, you think, significantly damage that organization?
DAVE WEIGEL: Well, this video has been promoted as part of a coordinated effort to pass bills that make it impossible to fund birth control and abortion. There’s a pretty apparent pincer strategy to get extra heat on Planned Parenthood as these bills are being debated in the House of Representatives. The difference is that I think this is actually adding some smoke and some distraction, instead of some ballast, to the campaign to defund abortion, to redefine abortion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you think it may actually have a kind of backfire effect?
DAVE WEIGEL: The House was already going to be debating pretty strict pro-life legislation. Because the sting’s happening, there’s another story out there, which is conservative activists are recording videos of questionable integrity and questionable heft, and the fact that it’s failing to get traction is gonna be harmful. You know, if you’re shooting at an elephant, you have to kill it. Instead, [LAUGHS] this has just reminded –
[BROOKE LAUGHS] - I think, people in the media that activist journalism comes with a ton of risks, and it’s reminded liberals that there’s a threat of right wing activist journalism that they need to spend more time combating.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, assuming that this isn't the end of Candid Camera activism, what do you think the next would-be video stinger needs to do to make his or her scandal resonate the way the Ur-scandal, the ACORN scandal, did?
DAVE WEIGEL: I think as attractive as the pimp and prostitute gambit is, it needs to be something more original. [LAUGHS]
[BROOKE LAUGHS] It’s tough to get reporters quite as interested in a pure sequel. So I, I think if this fails, it’s because it was actually, for all of the flash, a bit lazy. There needs to be a [LAUGHS] more innovative way of exposing what these left wing groups do with your money, in a way that makes people angry, as opposed to a bit confused. The test is just whether you’re exposing something that’s real or you’re just trying to bring them down for an ideological purpose.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
DAVE WEIGEL: I think that’s the problem that a lot of people in the press, post-Shirley Sherrod, post-all that, have with videos like this. Again, it’s not as if Planned Parenthood is in the habit of giving whatever a pimp and a prostitute wants. It’s that these activists thought that was a good way to trap them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're about to speak to a political science professor who’s argued that political scandals, in general, are not entirely bad. Research suggests that it makes people pay more attention to the news, not just scandal news, but also policy news. Do you think there’s an argument that these kinds of manufactured scandals have a place?
DAVE WEIGEL: I think that’s hard to deny. Howard Dean, when he was chairman of the DNC, told the journalist Ari Berman that he actually kind of liked it when the media would cover a spat between him and Rahm Emanuel. When he was running the DNC, Democrats were always criticizing him, and he said, I like it because reporters don't actually want to cover policy, but they cover fights, and if they cover the fight, they have to cover the policy.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And there’s definitely a part of that here. This is why it’s kind of a mixed bag [LAUGHS] for pro-life and pro-choice activists. Abortion is an issue that both sides have trouble getting taken seriously because the political debates kind of ossify; it’s a play that’s not very interesting. These stories, even if they're not getting quite the same pickup, are interesting and sensational and are a way to start talking about the way that the policy works. It’s not the best news for Live Action if this ends up sparking more of a discussion about what Planned Parenthood does right, but there’s really often no other way to talk about government funding and issues like that that lend themselves to TV.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Policy by Americans’ stupidest home videos.
DAVE WEIGEL: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Slate’s Dave Weigel, thank you very much.