The Unintended Consequences Of The “Defund ACORN” Act

This past Tuesday, HuffPost's Ryan Grim posted a story that rivetingly demonstrated the comedy of the Law of Unintended Consequences. In its zeal to quickly and unthinkingly get on the side of hammering ACORN for its recent transgressions, Congress passed the Defund ACORN Act, a measure written so broadly that it could apply to just about anyone! In other words, Congress made a decision to apply robust oversight to all manner of government contractors by mistake.

In a postscript to his blog post on Tuesday, Glenn Greenwald wrote: "Along those lines, if we had a real media, what [Grim's] article reports about the bill to de-fund ACORN would be huge news." He's absolutely right! This is actually an extraordinary story, that ably illuminates the dysfunction at the root of our government and the scintillating stupidity of a culture more interested in preserving seats than actually serving constituents.

First, let's go back and look at what happened:

The congressional legislation intended to defund ACORN, passed with broad bipartisan support, is written so broadly that it applies to "any organization" that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things.

In other words, the bill could plausibly defund the entire military-industrial complex. Whoops.

To his credit, Representative Alan Grayson, a rookie Democrat from Florida, out-thought and out-maneuvered all of his colleagues and quickly went to work with the Project of Government Oversight (POGO) to compile a list of contractors that "might be caught in the ACORN net."

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman both popped up quickly, with 20 fraud cases between them, and the longer list is a Who's Who of weapons manufacturers and defense contractors.

Did you know that Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman had 20 fraud cases between them? And that your Congress didn't care? It's true! Furthermore, let's allow POGO to put all of this into perspective:

Bear in mind that, since 1994, ACORN has reportedly received a total of $53 million in federal funds, or an average of roughly $3.5 million per year. In contrast, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman respectively received over $35 billion and $18 billion in federal contracts last year. (Their totals since 2000 are $266 billion for Lockheed and $125 billion for Northrop.)

Congress should clamp down on contractor fraud and waste, but it needs to keep a sense of proportion. If ACORN broke the law it, should be punished; however, Congress also needs to crack down just as rigorously on the contractors who take an even larger share of taxpayers' money and have committed far more, or far more egregious, acts of misconduct.

And consider this! A taxpayer-funded contractor for Blackwater USA got drunk and murdered an Iraqi in the Green Zone back in October 2007. That's a month after Blackwater employees went on a killing spree in Nisour Square in Baghdad. The taxpayer-funded contractors who guard the State Department facilities in Kabul spend their time taking photos of each other "peeing on one another, simulating anal sex, doing 'butt shots,' and 'eating potato chips out of ass cracks.'" Halliburton, another government contractor, bilked the Pentagon to the tune of $100 million dollars, and basically covered it up through lies and accounting tricks.

And while we're on the subject of ACORN, which had a handful of employees busted for offering assistance to a fake pimp and his fake prostitution business, let's consider the case of taxpayer-funded contractor DynCorp -- its employees actually, LITERALLY, did service a prostitution ring in Bosnia in August of 2002. Girls between the ages of 12 and 15 were involved. And then six years later, employees of the very same contractor went to Iraq and DID IT AGAIN! And this time somebody got killed.

That's one government contractor, two war zones, two continents, two prostitution rings, one known death, zero consequences. What has your member of Congress done about it? SOD ALL, that's what! And DynCorp is still "supporting U.S. interests worldwide."

Now, this isn't to say that the measure passed offers the authority to pursue all of these scofflaws to the ends of the Earth. But Congress surely ought to do whatever it takes to end this wrongdoing and abuse, if for no other reason than that it's done on the taxpayer dime. Aggressive oversight of government contracting and procurement should not be something done on special occasions. It should be the default position of your representatives. When scandals like these bloom, there should be no foot-dragging or excuses or shrugs. But that's what you're getting, in all of these cases.

Oh, but they rushed, tripping over each other in a frenzied panic to be the first and best and loudest person on Capitol Hill to stick it to ACORN, whose transgressions and funding are so paltry by comparison as to be comic. Do not be fooled for a minute that these actions stem from a genuine desire to preserve the integrity of how taxpayer dollars are spent or to preserve your interests. The primary rationale -- the only rationale -- behind your representatives' decision in this matter was to ensure that their electoral hopes don't founder because of a media-driven scandal.

And the proof of this is in the pudding. The only reason the American people have earned a potential tool in guarding against contractor fraud is because Congress created it BY ACCIDENT.

And this is why this is an important story to cover: if the recent ACORN scandal proves anything, it proves that when the media wants to, it can spur and shame legislators into doing their job. And now, by pure happenstance, the media is afforded the opportunity to unleash the hounds of Hell on Congress and get them to use this legislation to go after all sorts of malefactors and fraudsters for widespread abuse of taxpayer trust. And even if every single abuse cannot be prosecuted under this new legislation, the press can hound Congress into doing even more.

This is a moment the media should seize. If they fail to do so, if they fall back on the pose that this is "not their role," if they merely demonstrate that their only interest is the raw political wrangling that drove legislators to mistakenly do some actual good, then the bottom line is this: the media will have aided and abetted far more prostitution than they have pretended to prevent.

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Time Inc. Is On A Mission: To Rescue Detroit

20091005The first words of Daniel Okrent’s cover story for Time magazine are telling: “If Detroit had been savaged by a hurricane and submerged by a ravenous flood, we’d know a lot more about it.” It is what I first thought when I saw the cover of the new issue of Time flash on the screen of Morning Joe today: Katrina. After Katrina, the cri de coeur was about saving a great American city; there has been no such cri about Detroit, save from Mitt Romney when he’d say anything to win Michigan

Yet here’s a staggering statistic about Detroit, put in context by Okrent: “Three years after Katrina devastated New Orleans, unemployment in that city hit a peak of 11%. In Detroit, the unemployment rate is 28.9%. That’s worth spelling out: twenty-eight point nine percent.”

But, as Okrent says, the tragedy of Detroit “has long been a slow unwinding that seemed to remove it from the rest of the country” — and even the death throes of the auto industry have brought with it a weird kind of schadenfreude, between scolding the Big Three CEOs for their private jets to Washington and clucking about how American cars aren’t as good as foreign cars and have been unduly protected (never mind articles like this: “Five Reasons Not to Buy American Cars“). Considering that Detroit is basically a one-industry town (and that industry sure ain’t newspapers!), it’s hard to see Detroit as anything but pretty damn screwed.

Time Inc. wants to change that — and so they’ve kicked off an ambitious, year-long project called “Assignment: Detroit” — they bought a house, staffed it up, and will be reporting on the ground for the next year.

In a rare joint publisher’s letter, running in both Time and Fortune, Time Inc’s John Huey says this:

Why would we ever do such a thing? Because we believe that Detroit right now is a great American story. No city has had more influence on the country’s economic and social evolution. Detroit was the birthplace of both the industrial age and the nation’s middle class, and the city’s rise and fall — and struggle to rise again — are a window into the challenges facing all of modern America. From urban planning to the crisis of manufacturing, from the lingering role of race and class in our society to the struggle for better health care and education, it’s all happening at its most extreme in the Motor City.

So to that end, says Huey, they’re going to “flood the D-zone” (urk) with a phalanx of journos, photogs, bloggers and videographers from Time, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, Money and their various dot-coms. They’ve got a blog. They’ve got a Twitter. CNN Money is running a series of videos. Hopefully for the D-zone all that will lead to a flood of money back into the city — or at least generate some interest and outrage on its behalf outside its midwestern environs.

Cleveland not DetroitBut will the country even care? Let’s put it this way: There are no commemorative picture-books memorializing the destruction of Detroit. The city’s falling fortunes are not exactly a hidden scoop — indeed, it’s risen to a darkly acceptable punchline (the still to the right is taken from a spoof video for Cleveland tourism — and it was featured in native Michigan son Michael Moore’s most recent film, Capitalism: A Love Story). But on the bright side, maybe that caring is nigh: “Detroit: The Death — and Possible Life — of a Great American City” is right now both the Most Read and Most Emailed story on

So maybe the story of Detroit will end up being…a profitable one? One that generates not only the good karma of covering an important American story but the necessary clicks to justify funding it? These are of course the daily battles in media toda — if we’re gonna cover it, how are we gonna pay for it? Snark though you might about Megan Fox coverage (MEGAN FOX BOOBS! There, we just justified the time we’ve spent on this post) but the reality is stark: Investing the time and money to cover this story means somewhere, somehow, that money has to be made back. And clearly, that money hasn’t been coming from Detroit bureaus over the past few years, since so many of them have been closed one by one — including Time’s. So you can snark on that, too, but at the end of the day this is what journalism is supposed to be about at its best: Shining a light, and helping to make things better.

Back to Detroit. Daniel Okrent is from there, and he’s the right writer for this story — a straightforward storyteller, not too maudlin, but with a few twists of the knife:

If, like me, you’re a Detroit native who recently went home to find out what went wrong, your first instinct is to weep. If you live there still, that’s not the response you’re looking for. Old friends and new acquaintances, people who confront the city’s agony every day, told me, “I hope this isn’t going to be another article about how terrible things are in Detroit.”

Cut to the heading of the next section: “My City of Ruins.” Ouch.
The larger “ouch” comes from the fact that Okrent is not only telling a personal story along with the engrossing tale of Detroit as a city, that could easily stand on its own — it comes form the larger implications. To put it bluntly, Detroit is the canary in the coal mine — we’ve already seen that with the newspaper industry, cutting back home delivery to a few days per week, and we’ve certainly seen that with the implosion of the American auto industry over this last year (longer, surely, but this last year has been the doozy, complete with the impossilbe-sounding “B” word). Here’s Okrent:

The ultimate fate of Detroit will reveal much about the character of America in the 21st century. If what was once the most prosperous manufacturing city in the nation has been brought to its knees, what does that say about our recent past? And if it can’t find a way to get up, what does that say about our future?

What indeed. I guess Time Inc. will spend the next year telling us.


Detroit: The Death — and Possible Life — of a Great American City [Time]
Assignment Detroit: Why Time Inc. is in Motown [Time]
“The Green Car Economy That May Well Be Detroit’s Last Hope” [Fortune]
Investment in a City of Struggles [NYT]

Also Related, Ironically…

…and sadly:

Metadata Madness

If you have any interest at all in the debate and discussion regarding Snow Leopard’s abandonment of creator code metadata, this piece by John Siracusa is a must-read. It’s not about what should be done so much as it is about establishing the fundamental facts.

Adam Luna: CNN: It’s Time to Deport Lou Dobbs

This week, America's Voice is launching a campaign to air our new TV ad targeting CNN.  The goal: to get CNN to drop Lou Dobbs.

This is about taking a microphone away from one of the most dangerous propagandists in America.

Few individuals have done more to bring extremism and race-based hate speech into the mainstream than Lou Dobbs.  The network that purports to be "the most trusted name in news" broadcasts his vitriol every weekday during primetime - sandwiched between Anderson Cooper, John King, Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash.  And because Dobbs carries the CNN seal of approval, millions are force-fed his bile every day in airports, hospital waiting rooms and public spaces across the country.

White nationalist conspiracy theories flow seamlessly from vigilantes and extremist web sites to Dobbs and back again.  Watch just a couple of episodes and you'll see how he throws around the term "criminal illegal aliens" with the spite and frequency of a mid-century Southern politician using the N-word.  In Dobbs’ world, immigrants are disease ridden criminals who kill cops and are plotting for revolution.  Bogus claims that immigrants are bringing a new wave of leprosy to America might be taken with a grain of salt on Fox - but on CNN, it’s news.

Perhaps to quell the criticism, CNN is airing a new mini-series in October called, "Latino in America."  The network is in heavy promotion mode, sending the show's host, Soledad O'Brien, around the country to drum up interest.  In fact, O’Brien is speaking today at a Washington, DC luncheon for Latino leaders.  From the show's Facebook page:

"CNN's Soledad O'Brien journeys into the homes and hearts of a minority group destined to change America. Is it the ultimate clash of cultures or the ultimate melting pot?"

CNN seems to have already answered the question, airing about 260 hours of “culture clash” TV every year, and just a couple of hours to tell the story of Latino families who are a vibrant part of the American experience.

Civil rights organizations believe that there is a causal link between propagandists like Lou Dobbs and the dramatic rise in hate crimes against Latinos.  CNN gives Dobbs a platform to perpetuate his disturbing worldview that immigrants are less than human, should be looked at suspiciously, and deserve fewer rights.  And how does the average person tell the difference between a disease carrying “illegal alien,” a legal immigrant, and Latino US citizen?  You can’t.  Your Latino neighbor might be one of them, so watch out, is the message from CNN.

The movement to challenge CNN to drop Lou Dobbs Tonight is growing.  Dozens of local and national advocacy organizations are standing together to take the fight to CNN. Media Matters with, and dozens of Latino groups with, and Democracia Ahora with TellCNNEnoughisEnough, have all launched excellent campaigns against Dobbs. And groups like the National Council of La Raza have chronicled Dobbs’ extremism through websites like

Our new campaign to get Dobbs off the air will hit CNN both on the air and online.  In addition to the TV ad, we’re running online ads and targeted ads on Face Book.  You probably won’t see them unless you work for CNN or Turner – we’re asking Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Wolf Blitzer and others how they feel about promoting and enabling Dobbs and his unrelenting campaign of immigrant bashing.

The real question is, what else does Dobbs have to do to get fired?  He called Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst a "public service," perpetuated the birther conspiracy, has congratulated the Minutemen, and just last week was honored by the anti-immigrant group FAIR -- designated a Hate Group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

It's time that CNN executives and the other "talent" at CNN deport Dobbs to Fox or talk radio where he belongs.  He doesn't deserve the CNN seal of approval. Until CNN deals with its Lou Dobbs problem, any attempt to reach out to Latino audiences will be pure hypocrisy.

Adam Lasnik: Super Top Secret SEO Takeaways

When Google spokespeople for the organic search side, such as Matt Cutts or Adam Lasnik, share their thoughts in Q&A's on the conference circuit, typically what you expect to get is three parts official Google philosophy, and one part personal insight. Sometimes you get that little extra interpretation that helps you sort out where things really are now with the algorithms, and where they may be headed. In that regard, Adam didn't disappoint in his talk yesterday here in Oslo at the SEM '09 conference, hosted by IAB Norway.

Leaving aside a relatively well-traveled topic, underscores vs. hyphens in URL's, Adam explained a couple of other interesting nuances in the Q&A part of his talk.

He put this into overall context by saying (paraphrasing here) that there are often points made by speakers at conferences where he wishes he could jump in to discredit a myth or otherwise set the speaker straight. So often, it's possible to overanalyze something and take it in a direction that just doesn't stack up with how Google's technology really works.

On that front, Adam seemed to take issue with the overall point (jumping off the SEOmoz expert survey of ranking factors, and correlations with what appear to be real rank) that keywords in URL's and domains help with rank. He suggested a couple of other reasons why this coincidence occurs (other actual causes that are actually in the algorithm). I think the point is valid, and could think of a couple of other reasons why savvy companies who happen to be putting keyword-rich URL's into the public domain happen to do several other things well; and it's these things that really cause them to gain higher rankings. IMHO a disproportionate number of high organic referral type companies (Yelp, TripAdvisor, Kijiji, etc.) have the keywords-in-URL thing covered. These guys rank well for all sorts of reasons. And as a proportion of high ranking pages, they take up a large number of 'em. So there's that skew. It doesn't follow that any old company will see a great ranking benefit from pursuing relatively trivial changes to their site architecture or nomenclature. It's a small piece of the puzzle at best. But the mindset that causes companies to do it (user experience) is the right mindset to have.

Adam went on at greater length about why H1 and H2 tags, etc., don't correlate with rank. More to come on this. It's time for dinner.

Economist’s CQ-Roll Call Integration Wipes Out 44 Editorial Jobs

FishbowlNYC just posted a memo outlining a massive editorial overhaul of The Economist’s newly merged CQ-Roll Call group and it’s a jaw-dropper: 44 jobs are being cut across all newsrooms. In the memo, Laurie Battaglia, EVP and managing director, writes: “These decisions, along with our earlier commercial changes, have been extremely difficult to make, and are now made only after a nearly two-month painstaking effort to review our editorial teams and determine our needs going forward. But we are happy to now say that our restructure is complete, and no further personnel reductions of this nature are forthcoming.”

With the acquisition of Congressional Quarterly, The Economist Group promised “the largest and most experienced” newsroom covering Washington D.C. CQ alone had more than 160 reporters, editors and researchers. More to come.