Irony: NYTimes Journalist Sees 'Dirty Tricks' in Young Conservatives Going Undercover to Sting Liberals

April 3rd, 2012 5:39 PM

Tuesday's New York Times "Gotham" column by Michael Powell went after conservative guerilla journalism in New York City: "At Advocates' Offices, Confronting an Anti-Liberal Scheme."

Powell, a well-known opponent of former New York City Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani as a Metro reporter, portrayed methods that have an honored place in investigative journalism as "dirty tricks" when done by young conservative activists. While admitting ACORN did wrong, he chalked it up to stupidity, as if there was nothing sinister about giving a pimp advice on how to falsify taxes to conceal a prostitution ring.

Young, bearded, a bit scruffy, a young man walked into a community organizing office in East Harlem, lugging a heavy bag. A little nervous, he said that his name was Melvin Howting, and that he worked for an environmental company in New Jersey and had a few questions about how to organize a union.

He wanted to know how to get higher wages.

And, oh yes, he had another question: If he formed a union, could his fellow workers join with the employer to shake down politicians for more money?

At this point, Rhea Byer-Ettinger, an organizer for Manhattan Together, felt her internal baloney detector go on red alert. “Beep, beep, beep,” she said. “I said to him: ‘Well, that’s not how we work. Tell me, why are you asking me about that?’ ”

This is the anatomy of a political sting.

Nothing this fellow said was true. Public records reveal that his real name is John M. Howting. He is active in the conservative movement and does not want to organize a union. His company -- for which he built an elaborate Web site -- and its officials do not exist. Ms. Byer-Ettinger suspects that he secretly recorded their conversation.

For several years, young conservatives have made a cottage industry of going undercover and trying to goad people working at perceived liberal institutions -- like Acorn, NPR and Planned Parenthood -- into saying something stupid. Trained by well-financed foundations, these dirty tricksters pose as pimps, sex traffickers and Muslim activists and record conversations surreptitiously. Then they release videos that have often been heavily edited.

Apparently they don't edit anything at the Times (a reasonable suspicion, given Matt Bai's 10,000-word cover story for the Sunday Magazine.)

Conservative Congressional representatives call for investigations and try to slash financing. In the case of Acorn, some workers did, in fact, give truly stupid advice to the fake prostitutes. That organization went belly up.

Powell did his own sliming, and unlike Howting, made accusations without evidence.

Mr. Howting, in fact, is a young conservative in a hurry. He matriculated at Miami University of Ohio, where he led the deeply conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute and invited James O’Keefe, the grandmaster of conservative undercover dirty tricks, to speak on campus. Mr. Howting was accused by fellow students of once slathering tanning oil on his face and trying to pass as a Latino liberal activist on campus.