Can trickery by reporters be right?

July 9, 2007

In a cover story this month, Harper’s Magazine Washington editor Ken Silverstein described his undercover foray into hiring two top-tier D.C. lobbying firms to represent Turkmenistan, an energy-rich former Soviet republic known for gross human rights violations and anti-democratic lunacies.

Silverstein was in no position to hire the firms, of course. That was a ruse. Under an assumed name he posed as an emissary from a shadowy London middleman. He created phony business cards, a British cell phone number and an e-mail address.

Both lobbying firms were earnest about devising ways to position Turkmenistan as a modernizing state and a potential stalwart in U.S. efforts to diversify energy sources. The firms brandished former senior officials and lawmakers who would work on the account. Both claimed long experience serving dictatorships with image problems. They said they could ensure access to Capitol Hill and to the op-ed pages of the country’s newspapers. They asked six- or seven-figure minimum annual fees.

Nobody proposed anything illegal. But the reader couldn’t help but conclude that if the money was right, these knowledgeable, seasoned, capable, resourceful people could turn the U.S. government in whatever direction their client needed, within reason. Refurbishing the image of an obscure Stalinist tyranny with no large U.S. exile population and no American blood on its hands was all in a day’s work.

I first learned of this story through an e-mail from one of the lobbying firms that had been duped and pilloried. Presumably I’m on a list. They objected to being deceived, and they objected to the fact that neither Silverstein nor, they said, PBS newsman Bill Moyers, who did an item on the matter on his current affairs program, had let them give their side of the story.

Their side wasn’t much: They note they never actually agreed to represent Turkmenistan and never offered to do anything wrong. And they object to being deceived.

The deception interests me. It’s so unusual. Journalists don’t go undercover anymore. There’s something anachronistic about it, as if reporters suddenly started using pay telephones and Remington typewriters. That’s not how we get news nowadays. (It’s astonishing that somebody of Silverstein’s rank in a top national publication could be incognito. Why isn’t he a network regular on Sunday mornings or on one of those innumerable cable news-talk shows?)

But was the deception wrong?

Sure it was. The lobbyists’ good faith was abused, they were tricked into wasting their time, their private conversations were made public without their consent. Worse, all that was done by a journalist who’s professionally committed to honesty in the way he tries to gather and convey truth.
That, at least, has been the response of the mainstream, which has grown solidly opposed to deception in reporting. Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post and host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, concluded his column on the affair by asking why undercover reporting fell out of favor: “The reason is that, no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.”

His logic seems sturdy, but what does it mean?


Yes, I had problems with the article. I also felt bad for the formerly high-level worthies who were so eager to help put lipstick on that miserable pig that they made jerks of themselves groping for Silverstein’s non-existent money.


But the idea that because what Silverstein uncovered was simply business as usual and not worth the trickery, as Matthew Felling argued on, is unacceptable. What Silverstein uncovered was disgusting. If it is indeed routine inside the Beltway, that’s even worse.


We’re talking about regimes that are robbing their people and lavishing a portion of their plunder on U.S. lobbyists whose entire mission is to enable them to continue their thieving — by confecting and field-testing dubious rationales, organizing junkets, misusing friendships and reputations built at taxpayer expense, and corrupting opinion pages of newspapers with the work of hirelings posing as independent experts.


Deception is a nasty business, and I respect those who say it’s never justified. But was Silverstein the trickster we should be worried about in this affair?


And if we’re right to demand that public deliberations be held in public view, don’t we need to challenge the sanctity of backroom discussions that are intended to have no less impact than a mere public hearing?>

Trickery has its costs, but they need to be weighed against the harm of keeping those backrooms locked.

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