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Oh, Boohoo, Somebody Was Sneaky
Ken Silverstein, the Washington editor of Harper's Magazine, wanted to see the extent of lobbyist scruples, so he did a little undercover work, which he wrote about for the LA Times:

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.

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.

...Yes, undercover reporting should be used sparingly, and there are legitimate arguments to be had about when it is fair or appropriate. But I'm confident my use of it in this case was legitimate. There was a significant public interest involved, particularly given Congress' as-yet-unfulfilled promise to crack down on lobbyists in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Could I have extracted the same information and insight with more conventional journalistic methods? Impossible.

Based on the number of interview requests I've had, and the steady stream of positive e-mails I've received, I'd wager that the general public is decidedly more supportive of undercover reporting than the Washington media establishment. One person who heard me talking about the story in a TV interview wrote to urge that I never apologize for "misrepresenting yourself to a pack of thugs … especially when misrepresentation is their own stock in trade!"

Posted by aalkon at June 30, 2007 8:23 AM

Comments

What bothers me most about all this is that I haven't heard ONE WORD about it in the regular news. What these lobbyists are doing sounds borderline treasonous to me, certainly immoral. But apparently legal.

Good for Ken Silverstein.

Posted by: Kimberly at July 1, 2007 1:42 PM

I agree, Kimberly. And my question for all of you is...when is it okay to use deception to get to the truth?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 1, 2007 5:12 PM

Here's some more background, from (Here I go again!) Moyers, June 22:

"...KEN SILVERSTEIN: This was one of their big selling points. Both the firms bragged about how well connected they were. And they each talked about how, you know, other firms might boast about their connections, but nobody could really do it the way they could. And they talked about having connections across the board in Congress-- at-- with key staffers, with administration officials at the State Department.

And they kept trotting out these names of former government officials, and former members of Congress, who could open doors for me, because of-- you know, their past experience on Capitol Hill or in the administration.

BILL MOYERS: You describe an interesting meeting at APCO when one of the other lobbyist brags about the ties of one of the people in the room to the Republican Party.

KEN SILVERSTEIN: Yeah, because they had been laying out how, you know, we've got all these people on staff, and they were listing a number of Democrats. And I said, well, that's great, but-- don't we have-- need ties to the Republican Party as well? And the-- Barry Schumacher said to me that-- Jennifer-- Jennifer Dyck, who was a former spokeswoman for the CIA, and-- and for Vice President Cheney, he joked, she's so well connected with the Republicans that she's worth six of our Democrats. Ha, ha.

So, yeah, this was all-- you know, a big game. They had connections across the board, and they could open doors for me. No problem..."

Link: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/06222007/transcript1.html

Moyers' blog (same website) also reflects some of the criticism directed toward Silverstein.

Posted by: Doobie at July 1, 2007 5:22 PM

>I agree, Kimberly. And my question for all of you is...when is it okay to use deception to get to the truth?

I've been thinking about this one, and I'm honestly not sure where my line is. To expose fraud, corruption, even hypocrisy, yes. I'd include exposing important info to the public as Silverstein did as okay. I guess as long as the intent is to help or enlighten others I'm fine with it.

If it's a personal issue, lying to find out the truth about something, I'm not sure. Depends on how big the issue is. Deceiving your significant other 'cause you suspect he/she is cheating, for example. That could so seriously backfire. And frankly if you can't trust your s/o, why be with them? I really don't know where my line is for personal matters, but do know I'd be seriously insulted if someone close to me deceived me to get at some "truth" they might be better off never knowing.

Posted by: Kimberly at July 2, 2007 10:32 AM

> ...when is it okay to use deception to get to the truth?

That's a tough one. I tend to agree with Kimberly, but then you get cases like this:

In Spokane, WA, a newspaper suspected its conservative, anti-gay Republican mayor--the late James West--was trolling online for gay sex.

The Spokesman-Review hired a consultant to pose as a 17-year-old gay male to lure West, but West didn't take the bait until the male supposedly turned 18--the age of consent. The paper still ran the story.

From Bill Morlin, the investigative reporter covering it:

"...Well, of course we had concerns about it. I knew I couldn't do it. Our code of ethics prohibit me from pretending to be somebody I'm not, and I'm mindful of those ethics. But we're not prevented from hiring consultants, and what those consultants do to accomplish their jobs, as long as it's legal, you know, I don't have a problem with that..."

Wow. And yet--given the story's various twists and turns--it still seems to go beyond what Silverstein did.

Here's the transcript from the West story:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/hiddenlife/etc/script.html

Posted by: Doobie at July 2, 2007 5:45 PM

You're right on this one, Doobie. The transcript was fascinating. If they really thought he might be molesting children, I would think they'd make their consultant younger than 17. Pedophiles don't go for people months short of official adulthood. They go for actual children. Yet even when he didn't bite they persisted.

If they'd gone after him initially for attempted corruption, and stuck to that, or to pointing out his hypocrisy of voting anti-gay while meeting men for sex, that would have been one thing. What they did instead was basically just slander him with the worst label imaginable. Pretty crappy.

I guess if they'd lied to honestly expose something illegal, or the immorality of hiding who you are to the extent of causing damage to others, I'd have been okay with it. If he'd actually been shown trolling for kids I'd have been okay with it. Instead they seemed to just fit their deception to whatever they thought they could get out of it. Not cool.

Posted by: Kimberly at July 3, 2007 2:51 PM

> Instead they seemed to just fit their deception to whatever they thought they could get out of it.

Exactly. They spent a year and a half trying to nail West for sexually abusing children, but found nothing...no evidence. That took lots of time and money, and it appears they kept pursuing him only because they were hell-bent for a return on their investment.

And the quote from Morlin (above) is just a lame rationalization. If the staff hires someone to do something the newspaper's code of ethics prohibits them from doing, they're still doing it by extension.

Posted by: Doobie at July 3, 2007 5:39 PM

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