Transcript

Citizen K Street: A Case Study in Investigative Journalism

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Jeff Leen
Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor, Investigative
Wednesday, March 21, 2007; 1:00 PM

Citizen K Street is an experiment in long-form story telling in print and on the Web. But it's also the fruit of two years' worth of research, reporting and editing by reporter Robert Kaiser and his editor, Jeff Leen, The Post's assistant managing editor for investigative projects.

Leen was online Wednesday, March 21 at 1 p.m. ET to answer question about Citizen K Street -- how it was assembled, why The Post and washingtonpost.com chose to tell it in a month-long series, and the challenges of investigative journalism.

The transcript follows.

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Jeff Leen: Good afternoon -- welcome to our chat on the Citizen K Street project. We want to take you behind the scenes for the conception and execution of the project, and let you know what went into our thinking on this unique experiment in online journalism. Let's get started.

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Washington: Why is The Post doing this extravaganza? Why isn't it running in the paper?

Jeff Leen: Bob Kaiser approached me three years ago with the idea to do an in-depth reporting project on one of the most powerful lobbying firms in town. I was immediately intrigued because of the unique importance lobbying has in the nation's capital and also because Bob is a very unique reporter. He has spent his entire career at The Post, more than forty years. For six years, he was the paper's managing editor, the No. 2 official in the newsroom. From that vantage point, as well as earlier stints as assistant managing editor for national news and as a reporter covering Congress, he has developed a deep and profound insight into the political process in this town. You could say that he has been working on this story for nearly 30 years. All of his experience has gone into it.

I quickly realized that this was no ordinary project and required a unique structure. A traditional project in the newspaper would have forced us to leave 80 percent of his reporting on the cutting room floor. I felt that the strength and importance of this series lay in the depth of it, its rending of the warp and weave of lobbying down to the smallest nuance. I felt that in reading this series I really understood lobbying for the first time, and I had been one of the editors working on the Jack Abramoff coverage. I wanted our readers to have that experience. The Web gave us the opportunity to preserve Bob's reporting in all its length and glory, and at the same time allow us to see if we might find a new way of doing long investigative projects online.

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Leonardtown, Md.: Twenty-six parts. Wow! Any regrets about the length? Could the story have been told in say, 24 parts? 12 parts, perhaps? What about taking the time and space to have extensive reports on more important issues, such as global warming or the disaster in Iraq?

Jeff Leen: Twenty-seven actually. This is a story that unfolds over 30 years and is meant to provide the deepest portrait anyone ever has undertaken on Washington lobbying. At the same time, it is an experiment to see what the audience for such a project might be. We constantly are talking about length, and after this is done we will spend more time assessing that question. It's too early to make a definitive statement about it. As for tackling this subject instead of global warming or Iraq, those subjects get the attention of numerous reporters and editors every day. We feel that lobbying is of vital importance both to Washington and the nation as a whole, especially because it is so little understood.

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Sanibel, Fla.: Having worked on the Hill and the White House and lobbied for thirty years, this series points up one thing: that the lobby industry really is the dominant power in Washington today. Its powers and resources far outweigh either the Congress or the White House. The lobby industry is the major leagues, being fed its talent from the Hill and the White House.

Jeff Leen: Thanks for the comment.

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Louisville, Ky.: 1st, a comment -- what an excellent, intriguing story. I especially admire the "footnote" style employed -- the readily available reference materials enhance each chapter nicely. It also demonstrates the level of care and thoroughness utilized by you guys.

Now to the question -- what inspired this series in the first place? Is it because Cassidy is considered the pioneer Washington lobbyist? Just thought of 2 more questions: Do you all know of any other Washington lobbyists on the same scale as Cassidy? What appears to be the state of "earmark" funding today? Are our representatives still perfectly okay with it? Has it become the normal and accepted way to "do business" in Washington, or is there still controversy surrounding its use?

Thanks for the great reading!

Jeff Leen: Thank you. What inspired us was the desire to discover what the term "Washington lobbyist" really meant. Bob picked Cassidy because he had put so much information about his firm on the record when he proposed to "go public" in 1998 and sell stock in his firm. This was highly unusual, something Washington lobbyists don't do. There are a few other big lobbying firms comparable to Cassidy, but he has the longest history.

At the moment on Capitol Hill, earmarks are the subject of hot debate as reformers press for more transparency. Earmarks always will be around in some form.

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Laurel, Md.: Are you reading Gerry Cassidy's blog? Has it been helpful for reporting/editing the series?

Jeff Leen: We read it carefully every day. It has been helpful.

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Silver Spring, Md.: In a town full of lobbyists, many of them quite successful at lobbying, why the singular focus on Gerry Cassidy? For a 26-part series, couldn't The Post have come up with at least one other name to report on?

Jeff Leen: Effective storytelling requires a main character. Also, we wanted to treat this subject in extraordinary depth. We could have done a survey of Washington lobbyists, but we would have sacrificed depth to do so.

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Arlington, Va.: Can you walk us through your role in the series --- is it hard to be the editor of such a well-known, and I guess some might say powerful, journalist? How is it to critique Bob Kaiser?

Jeff Leen: Bob is a formidable character and intellect. He in fact is one of the people who hired me in 1997. But he is also a very smart guy who appreciates tough editing. We've had a great time working together on this project.

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Washington: So far I think this is an interesting experiment. I'm interested in politics, but the only reason I'm reading every story is that I have a relative that formerly worked for C. and Associates and I'm looking to see if his name appears. My impression has been that most associates don't leave the firm on good terms (hopefully that is a wrong impression).

Jeff Leen: Thank you. You forgot to tell us your relative's name. Several associates are named in later chapters, but we won't ruin the suspense by giving that away today. The Cassidy alumni association is big -- some of its members are disgruntled, others have warmer memories.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Do you regret any of the missteps since the series began, such as Kaiser's sloppy reporting on why the Cassidys don't have children? Have there been any other errors in judgment, bad journalism, anything you regret?

Jeff Leen: Bob already has expressed his regret that he quoted Cassidy's former partner, Ken Schlossberg, on his memory of a conversation with the Cassidys on why they did not have children, without asking Cassidy for comment. Journalism is never perfect, and we are sure there are some things we could have done better.

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Boston: Gerry Cassidy may be successful in his profession, but he is hardly a public figure -- in fact your own series keeps hammering the point that he wants to stay out of the papers, not get in. So how does The Washington Post elevate someone to the public spotlight? Who internally makes the decision that alters someone's life forever?

Jeff Leen: We chose to tell the story of Washington lobbying through Gerry Cassidy, who certainly is a public figure, but perhaps not a well-known one outside of Washington. Cassidy and his firm have been written about before, both in The Post and in the Wall Street Journal, and often in more specialized publications covering Washington and lobbying. We made this decision collectively. Fortunately for us, Mr. Cassidy decided to cooperate with our project.

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Maryland: Midway through this experiment in online journalism, how's it working out? How's the readership? Good numbers? What you hoped for? Lessons learned for future similar endeavors?

Jeff Leen: We are pleased with the wonderful display and execution of extra features that our colleagues on our Web site have provided. We believe they have enhanced the reading greatly. We are monitoring our numbers carefully, but Bob and I don't have the authority to reveal them today. So far we seem to be holding readers interest. As for what we hoped for, because this is an experiment we did not know specifically what to hope for. We are learning many lessons to apply to future projects of this type.

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Tampa, Fla.: First, I enjoy your writing! I long have been interested in this discussion both in the news and on the Hill. I believe to lobby is a right but to pay a senator, congressman or administrative official in any form should be, on the first offense, a mandatory year in prison!

Jeff Leen: Thank you. It's actually Bob Kaiser's writing. Thanks for giving us your view.

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Washington: I've really appreciated this series so far -- it has been eye-opening to hear about the variety of issues that lobbying firms get involved in for their clients. As an administrator at a university, it has been of particular interest (and concern) to me that a number of universities have lobbying firms such as Cassidy's on retainer. As the American public has expressed concerns about the rising costs of university education and the subsequent congressional movement on the issue, it gives me pause to think that universities are spending millions of dollars a year on lobbying efforts in Washington. I want to congratulate you on a great piece.

Jeff Leen: Thank you. The use of lobbyists by universities has been a particularly eye-opening facet of the series for me.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Thanks for taking questions. Here's a really off-the-wall question: While lobbyists probably cannot be regulated thoroughly because of First Amendment concerns, could voters demand that their officials make pledges not to give any greater access to a lobbyist than they would to any other constituent? It seems to me that in the Internet age, all the informational needs of legislators can be met through public online access, in forums not unlike the one we are using presently. The only things that cannot be accomplished in a public online forum are the secret deals, the passing of money and the other negative aspects of the K Street scene. Thanks.

Jeff Leen: Recommending specific reforms is not our line of work. I note that bribery is illegal and the giving of campaign contributions is not.

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Arlington, Va.: Every government has lobbyists. Do you think today's lobbyists have grown too powerful in our political process? If not, why? If yes, what was the defining point in U.S. politics (or in this story) when the lobby did become too powerful?

Jeff Leen: Lobbyists are probably more influential today than they ever have been, in part because there are now so many of them and the money involved has gotten so big. In addition, the issues before government have multiplied in the past generation. As the government's reach has extended into every corner of American life, more and more people and institutions have felt the need to hire a lobbyist in Washington. And lobbyists have become one of the chief sources of information for members of Congress; they've also become a principal source of campaign contributions.

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Washington: How did you decide on the format of starting in the paper and jumping to the Web?

Jeff Leen: We wanted to find a way to unite a series in the paper with a series on the Web, building on the strengths of each and creating a clear bridge from one to the other for readers to follow. I always have admired the structure of Orson Welles' film, "Citizen Kane," and felt there was something we could borrow from that. Cassidy is not Charles Foster Kane, but the universal story of Kane speaks to anyone making the journey from idealism to realism. The movie begins with a 15-minute newsreel hitting the highlights of Kane's life. Then it follows as a reporter goes out in the field to discover the truth underneath the newsreel version. The film ends with a summation scene at Kane's Xanadu castle. For us, the first part of Citizen K Street in the newspaper was the 15-minute newsreel version of Cassidy's life, the chapters on the Web are an attempt to probe beneath the surface, and the series will end with a summation piece in the newspaper on April 8.

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Washington: What do you foresee for future of investigative reporting on the Web? In general?

Jeff Leen: We all are trying to answer this question. One of the reasons we wanted to conduct the Citizen K Street experiment was to see how long-form journalism plays on the Web when there is no print component in the newspaper. As space for long projects shrinks in newspapers, can the Web be used as a "virtual printing press" to take up the slack? Will readers read truly long, in-depth reporting on the Web? We still are trying to find out the answers to these questions.

As for investigative reporting in general, The Washington Post remains committed to in-depth investigative reporting in the newspaper. I will share with you one troubling piece of information that has been worrying me lately: A few year back, I judged the Selden Ring awards, which gives the highest money award for investigative reporting ($35,000) in the nation. The contest draws entries from papers all over the country and represent as good gauge of the top-notch investigative work being done in any given year. When I judged in 2003, there were about 100 entries; this year, my sources tell me, there were about 60. That's a 40 percent drop in four years.

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Falls Church, Va.: Why do people keep saying the series takes up space that could be used for other things? It's online! It doesn't take up any space! Questioning the time spent putting the story together I can understand, though I don't necessarily agree. But space?

Jeff Leen: Good point. One of the glories of cyberspace is the fact that it is virtually unlimited. We thought we would use this to our advantage with Citizen K Street.

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Long Beach, Calif.: I think its great. The main problem in the MSM today is there is little reporting that gets to the root causes of a story -- it's all about what is gleaned off of the top easily. This is because many reporters know nothing about the subject they are covering and aren't given the resources, such as time, to get the job done right. This is how the world was told by the MSM that a 17-year-old could develop corporate Internet portals -- and we got the dot.bomb shortly thereafter. It is also why TV is all about car chases and the death report. A long-running series is the polar opposite, and should be celebrated.

Third-party mercenary lobbying should be outlawed. This series helps shine the light on its evils and how it undermines democracy and representative government. Thanks for the great job!

Jeff Leen: Thank you for your comment.

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Sanibel, Fla.: Impressive series. Having spent a lifetime as a D.C. lobbyist (Hill staff, White House, downtown and international) this series highlights an important fact. My guess is that from Cassidy's firm alone, only about 25-35 percent of his total expenses need to be reported as lobbying under the 1995 Lobbying and Disclosure Act. From experience, in the defense and telecommunications industries the percentages are much lower, in the 10 to 20 percent range. Accordingly, National Journal and others point to total D.C. lobbying expenditures in the $15-20 billion range. I think it's much higher. Whatever the actual total is, this makes the D.C. lobbying industry many times larger than the $3 billion-$4 billion annual cost of running the White House and Congress combined -- where most of the policy-making occurs. Thus it can be said that the lobbying industry is the dominant force in Washington today, more so than government itself. This is unique to the past thirty years. It's never happened before.

Jeff Leen: Thanks -- this is a good question. In fact, lobbying firms like Cassidy's now compete with each other on the basis of their revenue, so they have no interest in minimizing it. Corporations and trade associations, on the other hand, may well be spending vastly more than they are reporting as lobbying costs. That's a subject we might well pursue in the future. You are probably right that we don't get a good idea from any of the currently available sources of the real amounts spent on lobbying now.

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Washington: How does Kaiser feel about most of his work not running in the newspaper?

Jeff Leen: I am going to let Bob answer this directly:

From RGK: When I was managing editor of The Post in the 1990s, I helped launch washingtonpost.com and long have considered it an extremely important part of The Post's future. I am proud to be the author of the longest series ever to appear on the Web site, and proud of the attention we have attracted to it. Yes, a younger and more ambitious reporter on the paper might have felt somehow gypped if she/he did so much work on a project and only a small fraction of it got into the paper, but I honestly can say this hasn't bothered me a bit. And I note also that with the first and last pieces in the series, I am going to get a lot of words into the paper!

Another benefit of publishing for the Web: It is never used to wrap fish. Citizen K Street will be available to readers, students, whomever for years to come.

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New York: Referencing the comment about lobbying being the most important industry in Washington today, it's as if lobbying the analogous to the English Civil Service, which often is referred to as Great Britain's permanent government.

Jeff Leen: Well, we have a civil service too. And the Brits have lobbyists. But your point is an interesting one.

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Washington: Do Mr. Kaiser and The Post have plans for a book based on this series?

Jeff Leen: Kaiser has a contract to write a book for Alfred A. Knopf. He'll use a lot of this reporting, but the book will be quite different from the series.

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Washington: What's it like to edit such a good writer?

Jeff Leen: I'm not falling for that, Bob.

Seriously, one fact that makes Citizen K Street different from other serial narratives that have run before is the scope of the project and length of the individual chapters. When Peter Roy Clark published his AIDs serial in 1996 in the St. Petersburg Times, the story was intensely personal and the chapters were very short. When Black Hawk Down appeared in 1997 in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the chapters were longer but the story was intensely focused around a two-day gun battle. Recently the Rocky Mountain News has produced "The Crossing," a 33-part serial on the ramifications of a school bus/train accident encompassing 40,000 words. Citizen K Street is different -- it spans more than 30 years in the life of a Washington lobbying firm and its proprietor, and when it is done it will reach nearly 60,000 words.

Thanks to all for participating and reading.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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