The ACORN Stunt:  Why Do 'Citizen Journalists' Feel They Are Above The Law?

By:  Rachel Marsden

Everyone is so full of admiration for the ACORN stunt – but what about the ethical and legal implications of “citizen journalists” doing whatever the hell they want because they’re feeling “brave”?

You can’t just affix a pinhole camera on your “pimp and ho” costumes, go into the offices of a group you don’t particularly like, record what they say and publicise it. Especially when the state in which all this takes place has laws making it a criminal felony to record a conversation in the absence of both parties acknowledging or consenting.

Yet that’s exactly what a couple of twenty-something conservative activists did under the guise of “journalism” when they went into ACORN offices – a dubious community services group funded by both Republican and Democratic governments since 1994 – nabbing some workers allegedly advising them on how to handle a prostitution venture the two costumed kids claimed to be looking at setting up. Now the State of Maryland may opt to file criminal charges against the filmmakers. Or not.

At least one major media television outlet has gotten their hands on the tapes and has been playing them on a near endless loop. It’s the journalistic equivalent of sending underaged kids into a liquor store or getting them to steal cars because the penalty would be more lenient.

The reason major news outlets aren’t pulling similar stunts isn’t because they’re too liberal, biased, cowardly, or lazy. It’s because they’re professionals who are legally advised to avoid committing criminal felonies in the course of carrying out their professional duties.

If investigative journalism was as simple as this, all of us in the business would walk around with a pinhole camera on our lapel, infiltrating various groups of shady people. Is this now going to be the standard for the rest of us in the profession as well? If so, kindly let me know if the authorities will look the other way while I pursue what I feel to be truth and justice against people I dislike, because I have a list the length of my arm of people I would really like to go after.

So what are these kids now left with? Will they bring down ACORN? Not in any meaningful sense, since the ill-begotten tapes are inadmissible in a court of law. Sure, it will make a lot of noise, and they will get  some recognition and pats on the back and some face time on TV. But at what price? Will the people cheering them on be willing to cover their legal fees in the face of felony criminal prosecution? And at worst, does the adulation compensate for a possible criminal record? Did they play this chess game out in their heads and come to the conclusion that, in the worst case scenario, Barack Obama will pardon them?

Journalism isn’t a game. Actions have consequences. And even reality shows have teams of lawyers. But if we’re now in some kind of new era where anyone with a blog who picks up a pen and notepad can be a journalist free of the usual legal and professional constraints, then let’s clear that up.