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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."

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.

In other news . . .

Well, it seems to be happening: Rupert Murdoch is on the verge of gaining control of the Wall Street Journal. Once the family agreed to meet with him, and with a $5-billion offer on the table, I figured it was only a matter of time. You can always hammer out language to paper over any disagreements.

For its part, the Journal says this morning that there was "a near breakdown in discussions over a proposal to safeguard the editorial independence of The Wall Street Journal, according to people familiar with the matter."

The New York Times leads off a piece by recounting how Trent Lott changed his stance on a measure that would have forced Murdoch to sell some of his television stations--after getting a $250,000 book contract from Murdoch's HarperCollins. Nut graph:

"His vast media holdings give him a gamut of tools -- not just campaign contributions, but also jobs for former government officials and media exposure that promotes allies while attacking adversaries, sometimes viciously -- all of which he has used to further his financial interests and establish his legitimacy in the United States, interviews and government records show."

Another benefit not available to you and me: "The News Corporation paid no federal taxes in two of the last four years, and in the other two it paid only a fraction of what it otherwise would have owed. During that time, Securities and Exchange Commission records show, the News Corporation's domestic pretax profits topped $9.4 billion."

John McCain, who regularly campaigns against special interests, has more lobbyists in his campaign than any other 2008 contender, Tom Edsall reports.

Hillary may have done a nifty star turn in a Sopranos spoof, but Peggy Noonan thinks she's got a ways to go:

"Hillary Clinton doesn't have to prove she's a man. She has to prove she's a woman.

"She doesn't have to prove to people that she's tough enough or aggressive enough to be commander in chief. She doesn't have to show she could and would wage a war. She has to prove she has normal human warmth, a normal amount of give, of good nature, that she is not, at bottom, grimly combative and rather dark.

"This is the woman credited with starting and naming the War Room. Her staff has nicknamed her 'The Warrior.' Get in her way and she'd squish you like a bug. This has been her reputation for 20 years. And it is her big problem. People want a president to be strong but not hard."

Amid the Bloomberg blather, the New Republic's Michelle Cottle wonders about the coverage being drawn by his predecessor:

"Congratulations to New York City Mayor Michael Boomberg! This week, by changing his party affiliation from Republican to Independent and touching off a storm of speculation about his possible plans to mount a third-party bid for president, the diminutive multibillionaire entrepreneur turned self-financed pol officially knocked off Rudy Giuliani as the reigning king of New York provincialist chutzpah.

"It has been bad enough lo these many months watching Rudy strut around arguing that he is qualified to run the greatest nation on the planet by simple dint of the fact that he was mayor when New York suffered its most horrifying catastrophe of modern times. We get it: He lived through September 11. He rallied the troops and denounced the bad guys and generally supplied a strong, strident Daddy figure at a time when the Big Apple was scared and bleeding. Of course, there are those who've suggested that Rudy showed a shocking lack of foresight by headquartering the city's emergency response center in the one landmark already known to be a terrorist target. Or that he could have been more on the ball about preparing the city's emergency responders to handle catastrophes by seeing to it that, say, their communications equipment was up to snuff. But why split hairs?

"Also in the interest of fairness, I suppose we could go back and parse Rudy's entire record to determine if, on the whole, his pugilistic, divisive . . . approach to leadership was worth whatever concrete gains he made in cleaning up the city. But, let's face it. He's not running on his overall record. (And who can blame him: Pro gun control? Pro illegal immigrant? Pro choice? Pro gay rights? That kind of platform is more likely to get him stoned by the base than nominated.) He's running as the tough-guy candidate, the man who, when anyone dares question his bomb-'em-all foreign policy impulses, begins quivering with self-righteous outrage and demands a retraction based on the fact that, on September 11, He Was There!"

A reality check, from Ryan Sager in the New York Sun:

"The Pew survey . . . shows that while Mayor Bloomberg has rather good name recognition -- 65%, which is better than Mitt Romney (62%), Joe Biden (58%), Fred Thompson (51%), or Bill Richardson (48%) -- he's still got a low ceiling of potential support for his run for president.

"Only 9% of poll respondents say there would be a 'good chance' they'd vote for him. Some 23% say there's "some chance." Now, that's not to say $150 million could change things, but . . . "

More people know who Bloomberg is than Fred Thompson? Doesn't that suggest the media may be overestimating the prospects for a huge Thompson boom? Or do many folks only know him by the name of Arthur Branch?

This NYT piece suggesting that John Edwards's antipoverty group may have been merely a vehicle for his 2008 ambitions--shocking, I know--draws a sharp retort from the Huffington Post's Susan Madrak:

"The same paper that was oh, so reluctant to question the motives of the gang of crooks and liars that have been desecrating the White House and Congress for far too many years now is going after John Edwards for being smart enough to keep himself politically viable.

"As anyone who's ever paid a lick of attention knows, John Edwards cares about poverty. He grew up poor, and you do tend to think about it, even when it doesn't apply anymore.

"So when he and Kerry lost the presidential election, he had to figure out what he was going to do next - and how. He decided to turn himself into an anti-poverty brand. He formed a 501(c)4, and began traveling around the world, talking about poverty.

"Nothing he did was illegal. (If there's one thing John Edwards has never been accused of, even by the New York Times, it's being a bad lawyer.) It's important to make that distinction with the Times, since they have such a very long track record of implying things about Democrats by nature of the resources they devote to a story. After all, you have to justify all that time and money somehow!"

But Sister Toldjah, who's clearly not a fan, is agitated:

"Just more proof that John Edwards is a dishonest, self-serving creep who is more interested in feathering his own nest while trying make others feel guilt about not 'doing more for the poor.' . . .

"Edwards new campaign motto should be: Ask not what you can do for the poor, but what the poor can do for you."

I don't see where it's all that different than politicians forming these Committee to Pontificate on America's Future groups.

Ombudspeople don't usually get into op-ed pages, but Clark Hoyt questions whether the Times should have run columns by a) a Hamas spokesman, and b) a former vegan who says it's a dangerous lifestyle and invokes the death of a baby who was fed such a diet (and neglecting to mention a major study upholding the safety of such diets):

"Unlike the Middle East, The Times has not presented another view, or anything, on veganism on its op-ed pages for 16 years. There has been scant news coverage in the past five years . . .

"Op-ed pages are for debate, but if you get only one side, that's not debate. And that's not healthy."

And in case you missed it over the weekend, Larry King will interview Paris Hilton on Wednesday now that ABC and NBC have dropped out. For the full hour.

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