A Firestorm of fake news

The Georgia Straight - - Viff ’17 -


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.

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