By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 25, 2007
Ken Silverstein says he lied, deceived and fabricated to get the story.
But it was worth it, he insists. Those on the receiving end don't agree.
As Washington editor of Harper's magazine, Silverstein posed as Kenneth Case, a London-based executive with the fictional Maldon Group, claiming to represent the government of Turkmenistan. He had fake business cards printed, bought a London cellphone number and created a bogus Web site -- all to persuade Beltway lobbying firms to pitch him on representing Turkmenistan.
"For me to deny, or try to shade the fact that I tricked them would be stupid," Silverstein says. "Obviously we did. If our readers feel uncomfortable, they're free to dismiss the findings of the story."
Says Harper's Editor Roger Hodge: "The big question in our mind was whether anybody was going to fall for it."
They did. According to Harper's, executives at the Washington firm APCO Worldwide laid out a communications plan that included lobbying policymakers -- possibly including a trip for members of Congress -- and generating "news items." Senior Vice President Barry Schumacher told Silverstein the firm could drum up positive op-ed pieces by utilizing certain think tank experts. The proposed fee: $40,000 a month.
There was no discussion of anything illegal. On human rights issues, Schumacher said there were bound to be "isolated incidents that look bad, and it's up to the communications company to figure out a way to be honest about them, to react and put them in the proper perspective." He told Silverstein that "we live up to the spirit and letter of the law" in registering as foreign agents, but would provide "minimal information."
APCO has written a letter of complaint to Harper's, and company spokesman B. Jay Cooper says Silverstein's approach was "pretty amateurish." The firm had not yet decided to represent Turkmenistan, and it was Silverstein who was "being unethical," he says. But Silverstein says APCO pursued him hard and expressed disappointment at being turned down.
Another Washington firm, Cassidy & Associates, asked for at least $1.2 million a year and touted a proposed trip to Turkmenistan for journalists and think tank analysts. "We are surprised that a reporter would go to such extraordinary lengths to gather information in such a deceptive way that really isn't all that new or interesting," the company says in a statement.
"What bothers me most," says APCO's Cooper about the story in the July issue, "was there was never a moment where he unveiled himself and asked us to comment on anything we did wrong, because we didn't do anything wrong. They never called us to say, 'You got punked.' "
Says Silverstein, noting the magazine's long lead time: "These guys are professional spinners, and I didn't feel like giving them six weeks to lie their way out of the story." He says his piece exposed how lobbying firms try to manipulate public opinion.
"If you want to weigh my ethics in making up a firm against the ethics of agreeing to represent and whitewash the record of a Stalinist dictatorship, I'm pretty comfortable with that comparison."
Hodge says the caper is part of "a long history of sting operations" by journalists. But that undercover tradition has faded in recent years. No newspaper today would do what the Chicago Sun-Times did in the 1970s, setting up a bar to entrap crooked politicians. Fewer television programs are doing what ABC did in the 1990s, having producers lie to get jobs at a supermarket chain to expose unsanitary practices. NBC's "Dateline" joins in stings against child predators, but by tagging along with law enforcement officials.
The reason is that, no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.Crossing the Line
Why do journalists keep making political contributions?
The issue has surfaced again with a lengthy report by Bill Dedman on MSNBC.com, replete with lame-sounding excuses from the donors, who overwhelmingly gave to Democrats. Among the examples:
· George Packer, who covers Iraq for the New Yorker, gave $750 to the Democratic National Committee: "My readers know my views on politics." New Yorker writer Mark Singer, who profiled Howard Dean in 2004 and then gave $250 to Dean's America Coming Together, says he felt good about his support for "getting rid of George Bush, who has been the most destructive president in my lifetime."
· Guy Raz, who as a CNN correspondent in 2004 was embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq, gave $500 to John Kerry's campaign: "I did not cover U.S. news or politics." No, only the biggest issue in the campaign. A CNN spokeswoman says the network was unaware of the former reporter's donation and that it violated network policy.
· CBS "Sunday Morning" correspondent Serena Altschul gave $5,000 to the Democratic Party in 2004. A spokeswoman says the network now bans such donations.
· MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, gave $4,200 to a GOP House candidate in Oregon. "Joe hosts an opinion program and is not a news reporter," a spokesman says.
· Gideon Yago, who covered the last two presidential campaigns for MTV and donated $1,450 to Wesley Clark's campaign, Dean's group and the Democratic Party: "I don't understand. Things that I do as a private citizen? I mean, what the [blank], man?"
· Forbes Assistant Managing Editor Jean Briggs, who donated $1,750 to the Republican National Committee: "You call that a campaign contribution? It's not putting money into anyone's campaign." Actually, the RNC funnels cash to candidates.
· Newsweek health correspondent Anne Underwood, who gave John Kerry $1,000: "I really don't want to participate in this." Click.
· Beryl Adcock, Washington news desk chief for McClatchy Newspapers, gave $1,650 to Kerry and the DNC. She offered to resign when her bosses found out but was kept on.
· At Fox News, a Bill O'Reilly producer donated $5,000 to Volunteer PAC, which gives to Republican candidates, while a Brit Hume researcher gave $2,600 to Tennessee Democrat Harold Ford. The network does not discourage personal contributions.
· Washington Post film critic Stephen Hunter gave $250 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2004. He says in a telephone interview with The Post that he got a phone solicitation and "I suspect, knowing my pathologies, a little bit of drinking was involved. I can't remember dealing with it as an ethical issue." A top editor later learned of the donation and warned him that the paper bans the practice. "I have not given a penny to anyone ever since," Hunter says.
Also on the list were staffers for ABC, the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Newsday, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle and San Diego Union-Tribune, as well as the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Salon, Time and U.S. News & World Report.
When the Chicago Tribune revealed that entertainment reporter Maureen Ryan had given $3,000 to Kerry and the Democratic Party -- and wrote a column denigrating President Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina -- Ryan apologized to readers.
Some of these folks remain in denial. When you become a journalist, you give up the right to back political candidates or parties with your checkbook. And in this age of federal disclosures, it always comes out.
The news outlets that don't ban donations seem to regard them as a matter of personal preference, like joining the PTA. But they seriously underestimate the public distrust of journalists, which is only fueled by such practices. Those who work for opinion magazines or are employed as commentators have a stronger case that their views are no secret. But there is still an important distinction between rhetorically supporting a candidate and helping bankroll one.
The scorecard -- 125 of 144 donations to Democrats -- provides fresh ammunition to those who say the press has a liberal tilt. It's hard to argue you don't favor one party when you've just coughed up cash for that party.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."