Undercover Journalism

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 25, 2007; 7:24 AM

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."

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