Manipulating the Public Agenda:
Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong

September 2009

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Using the controversy over ACORN as a case study, this report illustrates the way the media help set the agenda for public debate, and frame the way that debate is shaped. It describes how "opinion entrepreneurs" (primarily business and conservative groups and individuals) set the story in motion as early as 2006, how the "conservative echo chamber" orchestrated its anti-ACORN campaign in 2008, how the McCain-Palin campaign picked it up, and how the mainstream media reported these allegations without investigating their truth or falsity. As a result, the relatively little-known community organization became the subject of a major news story in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, to the point where 82 percent of the respondents in an October 2008 national survey reported they had heard about ACORN.

For more information, please contact: 

Christopher R. Martin, Ph.D.
Professor of Journalism
Department of Communication Studies
University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50613  


Peter Dreier, Ph.D.
E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics
Urban & Environmental Policy Program director
Occidental College


Highlights. The activities of the community organizing group ACORN became a high profile news story in 2008, particularly toward the end of the presidential election campaign, when the Republican candidates and other conservatives attacked ACORN. More than 60% of all stores about ACORN during 2007 and 2008 appeared in the single month of October 2008, creating a well-orchestrated “October Surprise.”

Although the 2008 presidential election is long over, conservative opinion entrepreneurs and the conservative media echo chamber remain fixated on ACORN, and poised to inject their frame about ACORN as an issue in the 2010 and 2012 national elections.

Since Obama took office in January 2009, conservatives have continued to attack ACORN and tried to link ACORN to Obama and the Democrats.  Criticism of ACORN has been a consistent story on Fox News and conservative talk shows, and in conservative publications, websites, and columns in mainstream newspapers.  For example:

In early 2009, GOP allegations that the Democrats in Congress specifically targeted billions of stimulus funds for ACORN became news stories despite the fact that it was not true.

In July 2009, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released a report, “Is ACORN Intentionally Structured as a Criminal Enterprise?” that repeated many of the allegations made during the 2008 campaign and that generated media attention.

On August 11, 2009, the House Judiciary Committee released over 5,000 pages of White House and Republican National Committee e-mails, along with transcripts of closed-door testimony by Karl Rove, former Bush senior advisor and deputy chief of staff, and Harriet Miers, former White House counsel.  The documents revealed that Rove played a central role in the firing of David C. Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, for failing to help Republican election prospects by prosecuting alleged instances of voter fraud by ACORN.[2] Nearly every major news organization reported on the Judiciary Committee’s unveiling of the e-mails and transcripts, but none of them—including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal—mentioned that Rove was specifically focused on attacking ACORN for its voter registration efforts in New Mexico and other states, even though ACORN is mentioned frequently as a Republican target in the investigative documents. 

Using the controversy over the community group ACORN, this study illustrates the way that the media help set the agenda for public debate, and frame the way that debate is shaped.  We describe how opinion entrepreneurs (primarily business and conservative groups and individuals) set the story in motion as early as 2006, the conservative echo chamber orchestrated its anti-ACORN campaign in 2008, the McCain-Palin campaign picked it up, and the mainstream media reported its allegations without investigating their truth or falsity.  As a result, the relatively little-known community organization became the subject of a major news story in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, to the point where 82% of the respondents in an October 2008 national survey reported they had heard about ACORN.

Although ACORN is involved in many community activities around the country, including efforts to improve housing, wages, access to credit, and public education, the dominant story frame about ACORN was “voter fraud.” The “voter fraud” frame appeared in 55% of the 647 news stories about the community organization in 15 mainstream news organizations during 2007 and 2008. The news media stories about ACORN were overwhelmingly negative, reporting allegations by Republicans and conservatives.

In October 2008, at the peak of the campaign season, negative attacks dominated the news about ACORN:

76% of the stories focused on allegations of voter fraud

8.7% involved accusations that public funds were being funneled to ACORN

7.9% of the stories involved charges that ACORN is a front for registering Democrats

3.1% involved blaming ACORN for the mortgage scandal

The mainstream news media failed to fact-check persistent allegations of “voter fraud” despite the existence of easily available countervailing evidence.  The media also failed to distinguish allegations of voter registration problems from allegations of actual voting irregularities.  They also failed to distinguish between allegations of wrongdoing and actual wrongdoing. For example:

82.8% of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to mention that actual voter fraud is very rare (only 17.2% did mention it)

80.3% of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to mention that ACORN was reporting registration irregularities to authorities, as required to do by law

85.1% of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to note that ACORN was acting to stop incidents of registration problems by its (mostly temporary) employees when it became aware of these problems

95.8% of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to provide deeper context, especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of “voter fraud” to dampen voting by low-income and minority Americans, including the firing of U.S. Attorneys who refused to cooperate with the politicization of voter fraud accusations – firings that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

61.4% of the stories about ACORN’s alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to acknowledge that Republicans were trying to discredit Obama with an ACORN “scandal”

47.8% of the news stories about ACORN in October 2008 linked the organization to candidate Barack Obama, most of them seeking to discredit him and his campaign through guilt-by-association.

The media bias against ACORN was evident not only in its focus on allegations of voter fraud but also in the language used to describe ACORN, such as leftist, left-wing, front (for Democrats), radical, activist, political, militant, and socialist.

The attacks on ACORN originated with business groups and political groups that opposed ACORN’s organizing work around living wages, predatory lending, and registration of low-income and minority voters.  These groups created frames to discredit ACORN that were utilized by conservative ”opinion entrepreneurs” within the conservative “echo chamber” – publications, TV and radio talk shows, blogs and websites, think tanks, and columnists – to test, refine, and circulate narrative frames about ACORN.  These conservative “opinion entrepreneurs” were successful in injecting their perspective on ACORN into the mainstream media.

Perhaps the peak moment in the attack on ACORN occurred at the presidential debate between Obama and McCain on Oct. 15, 2008.  Although not asked a question about ACORN, McCain injected the issue on his own, saying:  “We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.“ Clearly this statement was newsworthy. This study reveals, however, that opinion entrepreneurs, the conservative echo chamber, and the mainstream media had laid the groundwork for McCain’s attack on ACORN.

Local newspapers, which were more likely to verify the actual voting conditions of county election boards, were much less susceptible to the politicized “voter fraud” frame than the national news media.
The ACORN Story.  One of the biggest stories of the 2008 election, outside of the unprecedented number of “firsts” with the figures involved—including the first woman Republican vice-presidential candidate, and the potential for the first woman or African-American man as the Democratic presidential candidate—concerned an otherwise little-known community organization called ACORN.

Prior to 2008, few Americans had heard about ACORN (an acronym for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), although it is the nation’s largest community organizing group.  Then, during the presidential campaign, ACORN was thrust on center stage, the subject of many national stories in newspapers and magazines, on TV and radio news and talk shows, and on blogs and websites.  The spotlight on ACORN reached a peak when Republican candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin charged ACORN with undermining the nation’s economy and electoral process.

An Independent Study.  This study, which received no outside funding from any organization, analyzed the complete 2007-2008 coverage of ACORN by 15 major news media organizations, and the narrative frames of their 647 stories during that period. The news media analyzed include the four the highest circulation national newspapers—USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal—and an analysis of the transcripts of reports from leading broadcast news organizations: ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio (NPR), and NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (PBS).  We also analyzed stories from three local newspapers representing cities in which ACORN has a long-time presence: the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

Putting ACORN on the News Agenda.  The study reveals a classic case of the agenda-setting effect of the news media:  how a little-known community organization became the subject of a major news story in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, to the point where 82% of the respondents in an October 2008 national survey reported they had heard about ACORN.

Making “Voter Fraud” the Dominant News Frame.  The news not only told us to think about ACORN, as the agenda-setting effect suggests, but also told us how we should think about ACORN, as our framing analysis confirms.  Most of the news media coverage about ACORN carried one-sided frames, repeating the conservative and Republican criticisms of the group without seeking to verify them or provide ACORN or its supporters with a reasonable opportunity to respond to the allegations. Voter fraud was the dominant story frame in news about ACORN for 2007-08, with 55% of the 647 stories analyzed using it. Coverage of the voter fraud frame was even more intense in the broadcast and cable media, with 68.7% of those stories using the frame.  Given the comparatively low number of other frames about ACORN in all media analyzed, allegations of voter fraud may have been the only story frame about ACORN that most news consumers experienced.

Creating the “October Surprise” of the 2008 Campaign.  Across all news media, October 2008 was the most intense month for stories with the voter fraud frame, with more than three-quarters (76%) of all stories in that month using the frame.  Because there was little national news media coverage of ACORN prior to October 2008 (more than 60% of all ACORN stories over the two-year study period appeared in the single month of October 2008), the news media frames of that important month before the national election carried extra weight, as most citizens had little prior knowledge of ACORN against which to evaluate the reports.  Although the conservative media slowly built their case against ACORN over many years, when the full force of the Republican anti-ACORN campaign hit in October 2008 it came as a classic “October Surprise”—an element added in the final days of the campaign with little time for citizens to gain an accurate understanding of the issue 

The Origins of the ACORN Story.  How did the ACORN story emerge on the news media’s agenda?  Of the various ways to frame the controversy, how did the news media choose the “voter fraud” frame?  This report examines how different interest groups – we call them opinion entrepreneurs – were able to place their views in the media, and how they used the network of conservative media organizations (the so-called “echo chamber”) to test and promote their frames and channel the stories into mainstream media agenda. The seamlessness of the campaign against ACORN was startling:  in the 2008, almost everything that the McCain-Palin campaign said about ACORN duplicated, sometimes almost word-for-word, what the conservative media and opinion entrepreneurs had already uttered.

The seeds of the story began years earlier among conservative business groups and Republican officials upset with ACORN’s community organizing efforts to help poor Americans improve economic conditions and gain a stronger political voice. The beginning of the narrative framing for this particular ACORN news story began in 2006, when Republican candidates and operatives began accusing ACORN of a variety of economic and political wrongdoings, including widespread “voter fraud,” and later, triggering the housing meltdown and economic crisis because of its support for mortgages for working class homebuyers and the Community Reinvestment Act.  These criticisms of ACORN were then repeated by what has been called the conservative “echo chamber” – publications like the Weekly Standard, American Spectator, and National Review, radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, newspaper columnists like John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, and Fox News Channel pundits like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, as well as conservative websites and bloggers.  The conservative echo chamber also linked Democratic candidate Barack Obama and his campaign to ACORN and, more broadly, attacked Obama’s experiences as a community organizer and, by implication, his ties with “radical,” even “socialist,” community organizing groups.  These criticisms, too, were picked up by mainstream news organizations.

An Ongoing Saga, and the Shortcomings of Journalism.  Were this simply an isolated example of media complicity (witting or unwitting) with political organizations, the attack on ACORN would be of interest only to ACORN, its allies and detractors.  But this case has wider implications.

Our analysis of the narrative framing of the ACORN stories demonstrates that—despite long-standing charges from conservatives that the news media are determinedly liberal and ignore conservative ideas--the news media agenda is easily permeated by a persistent media campaign, even when there is little or no truth to the story.  In the instance of the 2008 presidential election, the conservative echo chamber’s allegations about ACORN, mostly unfounded, became one of the news media’s major stories of the campaign.

Journalism is essentially a discipline of verification, and verification is what separates it from propaganda, as Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach note in The Elements of Journalism. In the case of ACORN, the story continued—and still continues—to serve as misinformation because it has largely been reported without transparency and accuracy.

If other stories of the campaign hadn’t garnered more attention, particularly the nosediving economy (despite efforts of the conservative echo chamber to blame this on ACORN, too), it is likely that this story could have become a determining factor in the 2008 presidential race. (In fact, Republicans and conservative news media continued to insist in 2009 that the New York Times intentionally killed a bombshell story linking ACORN, Obama, and election fraud.)  It still may be a factor in the 2010 mid-term elections and in the 2012 presidential race. Moreover, the attacks on ACORN in the conservative echo chamber persisted into 2009. These included false statements—made by Republican officials, repeated by the conservative echo chamber, and reported by the mainstream media—that the economic stimulus plan sponsored by Obama and the Democrats had billions of dollars set aside specifically targeted for ACORN.

While other stories of the campaign (such as the level of Michelle Obama’s patriotism, the meaning of the Obamas’ fist bump, and the comments of Rev. Jeremiah Wright) have faded after Obama’s election, ACORN continues to be a target of conservative media and the Republican Party, which, for example, launched the Web site in May 2009. 

Our goal in this study is not to get bogged down in charging various news media with left-wing or right-wing bias, but to instead demonstrate that there are indeed intensive political efforts to influence the national news agenda and to frame news stories by special interest groups, or opinion entrepreneurs.  Moreover, when journalism organizations take a disinterested stance of “objectivity,” passing along the day’s political talking points, and failing to verify allegations before they report (or, just passing along the political talking points because they have 24 hours of programming or news holes in their op-ed pages to fill), they do a great disservice to citizens, the electorate, and their own profession.