Belmont Club

Secret ACORN

David Zurawik describes his role in the John Stossel taping case . Stossel in 1996 was “charged with illegally tape recording a Baltimore doctor without her permission for a report he was preparing for the news magazine ”20/20.”  Stossel was preparing a documentary on the broad subject of overly-hyped therapies. The doctor took umbrage and hired a lawyer. Zurawik was asked to testify in the matter but refused under a “shield law” extended to journalists.

I do not know anything about the dealings [reporter] Shen and “Post” had with the State’s Attorney’s office, but I was advised that the conversation outside that room with Stone and Stossel was protected under Shield Law, a crucial and hard-won journalistic protection absolutely essential if the press is going to be free to operate without government control. You don’t waive that lightly. As a result, my attorney and I both advised the State’s Attorney’s office that I would not be testifying about that conversation despite the subpoena….

So, unless the law has changed (and I have found no evidence of that), there is clear precedent for the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office in charging these two filmmakers with a felony that carries a maximum sentence of five years.

And this time, Baltimore State’s Attorney Patricia A. Jessamy’s office won’t have a case based on at least one journalist who won’t testify and a network that says videotaping never took place. From what I’ve seen online, O’Keefe and Giles are saying openly that they secretly taped the ACORN employees in Baltimore with hidden cameras.

Going back through this unpleasant experience of declining to testify and being told I could be jailed for it isn’t the way I had planned to start my weekend after four days of nasty deadlines. But I was there in 1996, and it felt like my number was being called to recount this bit of Baltimore media and legal history — as cable TV pundits and Internet analysts mostly add to the confusion in these ahistorical times of whether or not a crime was committed by the fimmakers with their ACORN taping.

The events surrounding the Stossel affair are as follows:

While preparing a 20/20 segment on multiple chemical sensitivity that aired in January, John Stossel sent ABC associate producer Deborah Stone and her sister-in-law, Julie, to Dr. Grace Ziem, an MCS specialist in Baltimore. Prior to the visit, Ziem sent the two healthy women a 16-page questionnaire that included items such as “Do you crave sweets?” and “Do you ever forget what you read?” as well as queries about headaches, chest pains, and other symptoms. They answered the questions honestly and brought the completed forms to Ziem’s office, where a physician’s assistant gave them brief physical exams. After looking at their answers, Ziem told them they were chemically sensitive. She warned Julie not to get pregnant. She recommended that Deborah move out of New York City and enlist a “smelling buddy” to walk around with her, steering her away from dangerous odors. She charged each woman $925 and prescribed $3,300 in lab tests.

Later Ziem heard through the grapevine that the patients were ABC confederates and that Stossel, who had requested an interview, planned to discuss MCS in the context of “junk science.” She also read a transcript of Stossel’s 1994 special, “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?,” in which he took a hard look at over-hyped hazards such as dioxin, asbestos, and pesticide residues. Surmising that Stossel would not portray her in a positive light, Ziem not only backed out of the interview, she filed criminal charges against him, Deborah Stone, Julie Stone, and two other producers, accusing them of surreptitiously recording the conversation at her office. In Maryland, that’s a felony. ABC said no such recording was made, and the charges were dropped about a month and a half later for lack of evidence. A disappointed Ziem promised further, unspecified legal action, and her bewilderment at the prospect of a journalist’s skeptical treatment was almost touching. According to the Associated Press, “she had always considered the news media ‘a friend’ but now wonders who she can trust.”

As Ezra Levant and Mark Steyn discovered, your enemies don’t necessarily have to be in the right if they have the right lawyers. Fortunately, members of the old media and even Ezra Levant had enough money to hire their own lawyers. The one thing an “independent” film-maker doesn’t have is a legal department to defend himself against the rough guys once he goes up against them. If it seems odd that the film-makers who caught ACORN staffers on tape abetting prostitution, tax evasion and child sex trafficking should now be facing prosecution instead of commendation, that is the way the world works. Who said life was fair?  It seems appropriate to remember how Albert Camus observed that historical tragedy had two dimensions. The first was physical. But the actual outrages were secondary; the primary damage proceeded from an evil we had come to accept, admire, indeed, to love before the heinous deed. The thought is nearly always the father of the act. In a broader political sense, too many already think ACORN is “ok” for it to vanish easily before the lenses of two young people.  The film makers may have struck the first blow against ACORN, but surely not the last. Camus wrote:

One might think that a period which, in a space of fifty years, uproots, enslaves, or kills seventy million human beings should be condemned out of hand. But its culpability must still be understood… In more ingenuous times, when the tyrant razed cities for his own greater glory, when the slave chained to the conqueror’s chariot was dragged through the rejoicing streets, when enemies were thrown to the wild beasts in front of the assembled people, the mind did not reel before such unabashed crimes, and the judgment remained unclouded. But slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy or by a taste for the superhuman, in one sense cripple judgment. On the day when crime dons the apparel of innocence — through a curious transposition peculiar to our times — it is innocence that is called upon to justify itself. …

What is a rebel? A man who says no.

What is a rebel? Sometimes it’s somebody who says ‘no you can’t’ when an ACORN adviser says “yes we can”.


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