A Firestorm of fake news
W> BY ADRIAN MACK
e exist inside an empire of falsehood, to borrow a phrase conjured by sci-fi visionary Philip K. Dick, some 40 years before the deranged paranoid fabulist Steve Bannon would find himself with a desk at the White House. Settling on the truth of any big event in an overmediated, postreal environment like ours feels impossible, until a documentary like ACORN and the Firestorm comes along to set the record straight for a brief moment, in this case examining the takedown of America’s most prominent economic-justice organization by the allconsuming right-wing noise machine.
Pointedly, Sam Pollard and Reuben Atlas’s film begins with the story of Travis, a Confederate-flag-flying, Reagan-voting Floridian who credits ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) with saving his home during the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, a service it granted to another 60,000 lowincome Americans at the time.
“The thing I loved about Travis is that he looks like this very stereotypical guy—and he isn’t. He represents the complexity of the moment we’re in right now,” says Atlas, calling the Straight from Montclair, New Jersey. “The great fault of conservative ideology is embedded in Travis’s story. He’s the victim of their politics, and of course they wouldn’t help him, and there was no organization out there except for ACORN.”
It was, of course, conservatives and probably a lot of Travis’s neighbours who started cheering when John Mccain attacked ACORN during the 2008 presidential election. The org had spearheaded a voter-registration drive that clearly favoured Barack Obama. Mccain characterized it as a dire threat to democracy.
“I think Mccain used it as a pure political tactic, I think he knew exactly what he was doing,” says Atlas, who offers a slightly more mitigating assessment of Iowa congressman Steve King, a bigoted buffoon whose actions helped to get ACORN defunded a year later. “My best sense of him is that he was unwilling to look into anything except what he wanted to see,” he states.
The real nub of the story came when proto–alt-right prank artist James O’keefe teamed with 20-year-old student Hannah Giles to embarrass ACORN, producing videos that appeared to show the duo, dressed as a pimp and a sex worker, colluding with the organization to help finance a brothel and import underage Mexican girls for sex work. Everybody abandoned ACORN at that point. “Obama threw us under the bus,” states former CEO Bertha Lewis in the film. Atlas adds that D.C. progressives stood down because “they didn’t want to get caught in the crosshairs.”
The clips were eventually shown to be fraudulent, but it was already too late, and it did nothing to stop O’keefe, who opportunistically disrupted Firestorm’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, calling foul on the film despite ignoring Atlas and Pollard’s request for an interview. “He’s embraced it, he’s become it, he’s been applauded for it, and he has more money to do it now,” says the filmmaker. “He’s emboldened, I would say. I mean, Trump gave him money. I think he has [Robert] Mercer money.”
Giles remains the film’s most interesting and sympathetic figure, more of a crazy mixed-up kid than a wind-up ideologue, whose basic animal distrust of her government isn’t exactly hard to understand. She visibly changes as Firestorm unfolds, and Atlas, though circumspect, allows that she’s down to support the film when it’s released. He describes her story as “poignant”.
Like Travis, she certainly symbolizes the deep confusion of this moment in time, with American power so mutant and remote that it actually enacts legislation triggered by the fantasies of a media owned by billionaires. As Karl Rove once said, “We create reality now.” ACORN and the Firestorm provides a welcome blast of demystification.
“One of the things we wanted to do with the movie is for the people who were consuming that information to get a chance to make up their own mind about a more full picture of the story, without using some of the tactics that are used on FOX or right-wing radio,” says Atlas. “You think you know ACORN? Spend 80 minutes with this movie and then make up your mind.”
ACORN and the Firestorm.