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June 30, 2007

Shed a Tear for the Lobbyists

Ken Silverstein is a national treasure:

EARLIER THIS YEAR, I put on a brand-new tailored suit, picked up a sleek leather briefcase and headed to downtown Washington for meetings with some of the city's most prominent lobbyists. I had contacted their firms several weeks earlier, pretending to be the representative of a London-based energy company with business interests in Turkmenistan. I told them I wanted to hire the services of a firm to burnish that country's image.

I didn't mention that Turkmenistan is run by an ugly, neo-Stalinist regime. They surely knew that, and besides, they didn't care. As I explained in this month's issue of Harper's Magazine, the lobbyists I met at Cassidy & Associates and APCO were more than eager to help out. In exchange for fees of up to $1.5 million a year, they offered to send congressional delegations to Turkmenistan and write and plant opinion pieces in newspapers under the names of academics and think-tank experts they would recruit. They even offered to set up supposedly "independent" media events in Washington that would promote Turkmenistan (the agenda and speakers would actually be determined by the lobbyists).

All this, Cassidy and APCO promised, could be done quietly and unobtrusively, because the law that regulates foreign lobbyists is so flimsy that the firms would be required to reveal little information in their public disclosure forms.

Howie Kurtz, however, is not:

Now, in a fabulous bit of irony, my article about the unethical behavior of lobbying firms has become, for some in the media, a story about my ethics in reporting the story. The lobbyists have attacked the story and me personally, saying that it was unethical of me to misrepresent myself when I went to speak to them.
That kind of reaction is to be expected from the lobbyists exposed in my article. But what I found more disappointing is that their concerns were then mirrored by Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, who was apparently far less concerned by the lobbyists' ability to manipulate public and political opinion than by my use of undercover journalism.

"No matter how good the story," he wrote, "lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects."

Press on, dear reader, press on.

June 30, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

As Silverstein noted, the only real example of mainstream undercover reporting these days is 'To Catch A Predator'. The relative value of that kind of journalism, versus exposing flacks for dictatorships, I'll leave to the reader.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 30, 2007 12:42:23 PM

Presumably, Kurtz feels that lying in order NOT to do journalism, and to simply present untruths and astoundingly propagandistic viewpoints of a right wing President and his lackeys and worshippers -- now that, that is okay in "journalism".

Lying about who you are in order to print the actual truth is distasteful.

Being truthful about who you are in order to print untruths is acceptable.

Okay, Howard.

Posted by: El Cid | Jun 30, 2007 12:58:48 PM

I keep wondering how Kurtz became the overseer of media performance. That he is, and has been (literally) for some years says a lot about the so-called pinnacle of journalism.

And you're right, Ezra. This kind of reporting IS a treasure. The same guys that are saying 'you deceived us' are the guys making a fat living by deceiving the whole nation - day after day.

Everytime I recall the recent revelation that there are 30 or 40 lobbyists for each member of congress, I think maybe we should dispense with a permanent US capitol city (or capital city), just move the Congress and White House to a new city every 4 years or so - as long as they stay out of Portland.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jun 30, 2007 2:25:42 PM

I just read Silverstein's editorial, which I heartily agreed with, and I see an obvious problem with Kurtz' "argument": Didn't Dana Priest, of the WaPo, recently go undercover to expose the gross abuses of Walter Reed? How is what she did acceptable to the Post, while what Silverstein did is beyond the pale? Is it acceptable to Kurtz to go undercover to expose government abuses, but not ones by big business? Or does he disapprove of what his own paper did also? He certainly needs to explain how the two cases are different in his eyes.

Posted by: beckya57 | Jun 30, 2007 2:31:16 PM

Priest didn't go undercover for Walter Reed, but she did her reporting 'under the gun', as it were.

I think there are distinctions to be made in undercover exposés: the 'fake sheikh' employed by the News of the World in Britain comes pretty close to entrapment journalism, and there's something creepy about 'To Catch a Predator'. But Kurtz seems to think that Silverstein should have called up these lobbying groups and asked 'oh, do you represent shadowy groups with interests in dictatorships?'

The conventional wisdom in DC's elite circles seems to be that lobbying is a sausage factory, and you're best off not knowing what bits of rotten meat go into the final product. Plus, while some people have been sniffy about the topic, Kurtz's wife is a self-proclaimed image polisher.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 30, 2007 2:40:07 PM

It's to Silverstein's advantage to focus on the the issue of lying to get information rather than the more serious issues that have been raised about his reporting on this story. Silverstein was interviewed on a local NPR affiliate in Los Angeles along with a representative of one of the firms he reported on. I wasn't so impressed.

It's not that the he-said/he-said was clearly against him. It's that he wouldn't even consider any interpretation of the events other than what he wrote, despite plausible alternatives, even when there was no dispute about the events of the one meeting but only about the significance of what was said.

For example, Silverstein says the firm "offered" to send a congressional delegation over to Turkmenistan, while the rep claimed rather plausibly that all of the talk at the one meeting was preliminary and exploratory, with no offers made, only descriptions of possible services. The rep claimed quite plausibly that they don't accept unknown clients at a first meeting like that, that it's just the beginning of a process in which each party must learn more about the other before any agreements are reached. Silverstein refused to entertain this point, arguing that what he was told was a firm offer. As evidence he described an email (I think it was) from the firm in response to his telling them that they wouldn't get the job, in which they expressed disappointment and wanted to know what the problem was and if there was something they could do to meet his concerns. He presented this as implying that he had been accepted as a client, which hardly follows. They may well have only wanted to continue the process which, according to the rep, included learning more about the nature of the potential client and whether it was a legitimate enterprise to work for.

I can't say whether the firm would have represented him in a nefarious enterprise. I can say that Silverstein gave no room for any view but his own, despite what seemed plenty of room for other interpretations to me. That makes for bad reporting, however heroically he dresses it up with comparisons to Nellie Bly.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jun 30, 2007 2:47:04 PM

I think you also have to take into account that Kurtz's paper, the Washington Post, is a bellweather of beltway opinion. It's quite natural that Hiatt, et al would feel threatened by Silverstein's ideal of investigative journalism.

Posted by: A.E. | Jun 30, 2007 4:33:54 PM

Speaking of going undercover as a lobbyist, I'll take any excuse to bring up this gem:

http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/9519839/how_to_be_a_lobbyist_without_trying

Posted by: Ned | Jun 30, 2007 5:41:07 PM

Silverstein refused to entertain that point because only an idiot couldn't see that's a distinction without a difference.

Posted by: Sandals | Jul 1, 2007 3:07:20 AM

Sandals, I thought the point was clear enough, but apparently not. Silverstaein represented as offers what the firm maintains were only explanations of the types of services they can provide, if they accept a client. They don't accept all clients, and claim to do some checking to see if they should represent a client. There was only one meeting. Silverstein claims it was clear to the firm that he was representing an illegitimate enterprise, but in fact he said very little if anything that indicated what his made-up company did, and the firm maintains that they made inquiries designed to allow them to check Silverstein's company out.

You may think it doesn't matter if the firm would have actually represented an illegitimate firm such as Silverstein was imagining but not really describing to the firm, but since Silverstein's whole point was that they actually agreed to do so and would have, while they said they didn't and wouldn't have represented a client involved in illegal activity, I think it's a very importance difference. What's most bothersome to me isn't that Silverstein disagrees about how to interpret the meeting, but that he just refuses to take any possibility but the one he was seeking into account, and to report it. Again, bad reporting.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 1, 2007 2:42:50 PM

There's no point in discussing this with Sanpete everyone, you should know by now that when he's made up his mind that someone is innocent, then nothing short of DNA evidence and CCTV footage of the crime as it happened will change his mind.

The amusing thing is the way he thinks he is being "contrarian" and "anti-groupthink" by parroting the wider groupthink on a small corner of the internet...

Posted by: Meh | Jul 1, 2007 2:58:49 PM

Very odd post, Meh. I explicitly said that I don't know if the firm is innocent. I rather doubt it is. The rest of your comments are equally due to things you imagine rather than to things I've said. If you have some substantive point that shows what I've said incorrect, that would more useful.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 1, 2007 3:54:00 PM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 8, 2007 8:17:53 AM

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