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Citizen K Street

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Assistant Editor
Thursday, March 29, 2007; 11:00 AM

Gerald Cassidy helped turn lobbying into big business, forever transforming how politics and policy are practiced in Washington. Bob Kaiser, associate editor of The Washington Post, was online Thursday, March 29 at 11 a.m. ET to answer readers' questions about Citizen K Street, his multi-part series on Cassidy and his lobbying firm, Cassidy and Associates.

The discussion transcript follows:

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Annapolis, MD: Can you tell us whether this experiment in online journalism is working? Quite a splash at the beginning, but all that fanfare seems to have died down.

Robert G. Kaiser: Hello and welcome to my second chat on the Citizen K Street series. This is a good place to start.

I really don't know the answer to this question. We have tried something entirely new here. We are asking people to do something they have no habit of doing: checking in daily to read a chapter in a continuing serial. We have had tens of thousands of readers, which feels nice to me, but is it a sign of success? We just can't say.

One reason I'm hesitant is that we never know how many people read long stories and series in the paper, either. At least here when it is over we'll have hard numbers.

One reason "the fanfare seems to have died down" is that washingtonpost.com decided to require that people posting comments on the series had to be registered with the site. Some of the more outlandish commenters apparently decided that was their cue to disappear. Can't say I was heartbroken about that.

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Ithaca, NY: How about this Bob - why not just combine all of next week's installments into one long article on the web? I know you're trying to build up suspense, but I just don't see it in the articles. Can't we just put this to bed with one long final piece?

Robert G. Kaiser: Nope. I'm sorry you're not feeling any suspense, but next week's pieces are generally complicated and pretty long already. We're sticking with the plan.

I should say that I am hearing from people who are just discovering the series now, and are going back to read it from the beginning. One nice thing about on-line journlism is how easy that is. We actually have hopes, I hope not vainglorious, that people will be reading this project for some time to come.

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Washington DC: You spent a lot of time reporting on the history of Cassidy & Associates. Why was that worth your while?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. I did get intrigued in the business story behind this lobbying firm. I decided it was worth trying to figure out how the company grew, how Cassidy did so well, and so on. I don't think most readers understand -- I certainly didn't -- how lobbying in Washington has become a huge business. Marketing is an enormous part of it too. The Washington Lobbyist was, for most of American history, a solo practioner like Clark Clifford or Tommy "The Cork" Corcoran, who operated in the shadows and never revealed much of anything about their business. Now we have giant companies with $25 million or more in annual revenue, like Cassidy & Associates. We have firms being sold for huge amounts of cash. We have a new world. I wanted to describe its evolution using this one model.

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Arlington VA: Robert,

After this experience, how do you feel about this whole system where lobbyist get very rich by having representatives give-out tax money squeezed from hard-working stiffs?

Thanks.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the question. I'll reveal a trade secret: if reporters allow themselves to develop "feelings" about the stories they cover, they cannot do a good job. I can honestly say that I see both sides of this large issue: I see why institutions of all kinds think they need help dealing with Washington and are willing to pay for it, and I see (as you do) that the result can be extremely wealthy Washington lobbyists whose wealth comes largely--if indirectly-- from taxpayer dollars. I am going to write a book using a lot of the material gathered for this series and I'm going to have to wrestle with these issues some more myself.

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Washington, DC: What is Gerald Cassidy going to do with all that money that he has amassed? He will not live to spend it all. Every 50 minutes a child dies of hunger in this country. Will he help the poor and disadvantaged?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the question. As you'll read in Chapter 21, Cassidy has given away many millions already. One of his biggest causes is So Others May Eat, a charity in Washington that feeds and helps the poorest Washingtonians. He has given $5.25 million to Villanova, his alma mater. He has no kids, so I won't be surprised if he ultimately gives away a great deal of money.

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Arlington, Va.: There are any number of hard-charging lobbying firms in Washington, and they all pursued tactics akin to what you describe in your work on Cassidy. Why the focus on just Cassidy?

Robert G. Kaiser: When I started off nearly three years ago, looking for a way to learn about and then explain the Washington lobbying business, I discovered the "S1" document that Cassidy filed in 1998 when he proposed to take his company public--to sell shares in it to the public. That was a reporter's goldmine. It provided a roadmap to the firm, and a great explanation of the lobbying business generally. Then Mr. Cassidy agreed to cooperate with the project--a generous act on his part, for which I am grateful. That combination made my choice easy.

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The District: You seem to have come up with quite a list of disgruntled former employees with axes to grind. What is your vetting process for taking them seriously? Are your editors quizzing you on these folks?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the jab. Cassidy & Associates has a huge alumni association; there has been high turnover there for years. Many of the alumni are actually very proud of their service at Cassidy, and grateful for the education they acquired there. Several of my best sources are in that category. Others are disgruntled, as I have reported.

Good reporting means thorough reporting. I have been interviewing people actively for two years. I have talked to scores of people who worked with Cassidy, knew him at different phases of his life, competed with him, or are social friends. After 43 years in this business, I have developed my own instincts for how to evaluate the credibility of various sources, but of course I don't rely only on instincts--I try to check all stories out with other sources.

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New Mexico: Mr. Kaiser, you do lots of technical reporting on things like ESOPs, debts, revenues, mergers, potential IPO, payroll. Are you qualified for this kind of talk?

Robert G. Kaiser: I wouldn't call it "talk." I have been consulting with experts on all these subjects for two years. I've had particular help from a business lawyer in Washington who kindly gave me many hours of his time. I have talked at lenth to John Menke, probably the country's leading expert on ESOPs. I have talked to many rival lobbyists about how they pay, how they do business, etc.

Reporters always cover subjects in which they don't have graduate degrees. I covered the war in Vietnam, the Soviet Union, the U.S. Senate and many other subjects without professional preparation. That, frankly, is the joy of journalism--they pay us to learn.

You and other readers have to draw your own conclusions about who is "qualified" to write about what. I would add that if only certified experts wrote journalism, there would be a lot less journalism, and it would be a lot harder to read.

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Scio, OR: Howard Kurtz recently wrote about the Post getting annoyed by people leaving comments on its site, or something like that. Do you like people commenting on your stories?

Robert G. Kaiser: I love people commenting on the series. That said, I also want to say that this is a good question, and a hard one to answer honestly. Reporters like criticism of themselves and their work about as much as you do, on a personal level. But we also know that our careers and the survival of our publications depend on readers. I am a strong believer in the power of the Internet to bring readers and reporters closer together. I have been doing chats like this one on washingtonpost.com for a dozen years already because I enjoy them so much, and because I think they are so important.

As I indicated earlier, it isn't always fun or interesting to read some of the tripe readers post as comments. But separating the wheat from the tripe is impossible; we have to put up with it.

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Arlington, Virginia: I see Gerry Cassidy has to frequently pop in and correct your reporting. Do you or your editors feel you've made too many errors?

Robert G. Kaiser: One error is too many errors, and I made one by not discussing with Cassidy comments his original partner made to me about the Cassidys attitude toward having children. I regret that error, as I have said here more than once.

I also made a mistake of a classic variety when I wrote that money the firm used to pay off a big loan that financed its Employee Stock Ownership Plan "would" have gone to higher salaries and bonuses for the employees if that loan had not been taken out. That "would" should be a "could," as it now is--we corrected the mistake when Mr. Cassidy pointed it out.

Otherwise my editors and I believe we have provided accurate information in the series. Obviously, Mr. Cassidy and others are entitled to disagree.

I note, self-servingly, that this is by far the longest series of articles The Post has ever published, nearly 60,000 words. We have been working as hard as we can to make it as accurate as possible.

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Sanibel, FL: Super series. Thanks. You're right, like him or not, Cassidy was way ahead of his time and his competitors in integrating traditional lobbying with sophisticated marketing, public relations, focus groups and polling under a single roof. Only Tom Boggs was ahead of him in partnering fundraising with lobbying.

Yet, in 2001, after proving the concept of incorporating advanced, interactive, targeted website lobbying in a multi-billion dollar satellite communications lobbying victory, I took the template to my friend Dan Tate and Jerry Cassidy, and they said that their new corporate owners weren't interested. Although campaign politics and fundraising (ie., Howard Dean in 2004)finally arrived in the Internet Age, can you give your opinion why lobbying still lags so far behind in Internet applications, other than using stagnant, untargeted corporate websites, and ineffective email spam/astroturf? Why do lobbyists seem so intimidated by it? Is it the perceived loss of "ownership" and control, as in blogs and YouTube? Like it or not, the next Cassidy will master it.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you very much. You've put your finger on an important topic: the scope of "lobbying." Traditionalists thought of it as a business of relationships and introductions, arguments and information shared person-to-person and sometimes on paper. But some more "modern" practioners are bringing to bear a lot of modern technology, and think a lobbyist has to be working simultaneously in Washington and elsewhere in the country, sometimes in the world.

I can't answer why this has been slow, except perhaps to note that the dominant personalities in Washington lobbying are still mostly older guys. A number of them I know are not exactly technological wizards. Mr. Cassidy has a computer behind his desk, but when I showed him washingtonpost.com a couple of months back, using his own computer, I got the sense that this was something new to him. Since then he's launched his own blog! I think that's a strong signal that the industry will be catching up fast in the years ahead.

A personal note, Sanibel: I'd love to be in contact with you less publicly! pls send an e-mail to citizenkstreet@washingtonpost.com if you'd like to talk. Thanks.

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Maryland: I agree with some of the comments I've seen on the stories -- Why the snide comments about Cassidy making money? Here's one quote someone pulled out: "Cassidy wouldn't use a term like greed, but he never tried to deny his interest in making more money." That's not editorializing?

Robert G. Kaiser: Whoa, is that a fair comment? The line you cite followed an on-the-record quote from a former employee who used the term greed. Doesn't the sentence you quote indicate that I distinguish between greed and Cassidy's own attitude? I do. And I don't think any sensible American can deny the importance of making money, or of the ambition to make money, in our culture and history. De Toqueville remarked on this nearly two centuries ago; it is central to the American experience. And just as I wrote in this sentence, Gerald Cassidy indeed never made any secret about his desire to get rich. That desire is a key part of the Cassidy story--it drove him to accomplish all that he has accomplished. Without Cassidy's personal ambition, Cassidy & Associates would never have developed the way it did. That's a central theme of this series, isn't it?

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Washington, D.C.: In your accounts of saving the Seawolf submarine and getting the visa for the president of Taiwan, you seemed to be uncertain about who deserved the credit for these--the lobbyists or the politicians who were working on the same side of those issues. Can you say directly which one was most significant?

washingtonpost.com: Read Chapter 14: Saving the Seawolf

Robert G. Kaiser: Another good question. Your observation is perfectly fair and accurate in my opinion. This is the lobbying version of the chicken and the egg. When one of these episodes is over, there is no way to look back analytically and try to remove either the lobbyists' role, or the politicians' role; both are part of the stew, both contributed to the sequence of events that produced a certain result. So I wrote those chapters deliberately to leave the question open, as I think it almost always is.

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Washington, D.C.: Are you still getting comments that this is a puff piece on Cassidy and the lobbying industry?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not lately.

Let me add something about the environment we all now live in. As you can see on washingtonpost.com every day, a lot of readers are more interested on what "side" a story or a writer takes than in the information being provided. But most journalists don't think in those terms, don't "take sides," and don't try to push readers to think, for example, of the subject of a story as a "good" or a "bad" guy.

In this project, my ambition was to explain Cassidy and his business, and lobbying. I credit Cassidy, as I credit myself and every person I know, with a combination of admirable and less admirable qualities. Despite the urge in the popular culture to identify the "good" and the "bad," most of us combine both.

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Sanibel, FL: A follow-up. Interesting episode this morning about Boeing, and how much should be counted as lobbying. Both Cassidy and Boeing's DeLeon were right. Most government marketing and public relations activities in support of lobbying activities should be counted, but needn't be under the LDA of 1995, so Boeing was right in the appearance the numbers created. The lobby industry is many times larger than the numbers generally attributed to it -- at least ten times larger than the $3 plus billion reported.

Robert G. Kaiser: another good comment from Sanibel, thanks.

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Northwest Washington: This is turning into a kind of psychological profile of Cassidy, isn't it?

Robert G. Kaiser: I hope not! Journalists are definitely not trained as pscyhologists or shrinks. We are trained to dig our details of lives that we think are interesting or illuminating, but I would never dream of trying to "explain" Mr. Cassidy or anyone else I write about.

I do think it's the most natural aspect of story telling to report on human traits that affect the story being told.

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Arlington, VA: Are you planning to turn the series of articles into a book?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not exactly, as the Hertz man says. I have a contract to do a book on lobbying and Cassidy for Alfred A. Knopf. I'll use a lot of the material I gathered for this series, but I'll also go well beyond the Cassidy story to write about the ways Washington has changed in the last generation. None of the words in this series will appear in the same way in the book.

Yes, this is an early advertisement!

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Washington: I'm interested in the way the Cassidy company kept looking for new clients. Is that typical of the lobbying business?

Robert G. Kaiser: It sure is. Nothing is more valued in a lobbying firm that a "rainmaker"--someone who brings in new clients. And growth is highly sought after in virtually all American businesses. Over the years the Cassidy firm made a lot of money by persuading institutions that had not previously considered the idea that they should hire a lobbyist--Cassidy & Associates. Marketing was a huge part of its early success representing universities.

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Wheaton, Maryland: According to the FEC, The Washington Post reported spending $117,000 on federal lobbying in the last six month of 2006. Have you or anyone at the Post reported this? What's the purpose of all that lobbying?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have no idea if this is accurate, but it wouldn't surprise me. Newspapers, like so many American businesses, are strong affected by decisions made in the government, and they want to make sure their views are heard on the Hill and in the agencies that can alter the business environment in which they operate. Also of course The Post Co. owns cable outlets, TV stations, etc.

If your number is accurate, it's a very small sum for such a big company.

Is this big news? I don't think so. In fact, I think it's rather mundane, as the series has tried to make clear. Companies that DON'T lobby may be more newsworthy today than those that do.

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Washington DC: You haven't written much about Cassidy's political contributions. How come?

Robert G. Kaiser: Stay tuned! Next week an entire chapter is devoted to this subject. My colleage Derek Willis, a computer wizard at washingtonpost.com, has created some really interesting data bases that will show you just where Cassidy's contributions have gone, and also provide a lot of details on where his employees have donated their money.

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Somewhere, USA: How long will the series stay online? I've only read a few installments!

Robert G. Kaiser: It will be up indefinitely.

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Online journalism: It seems to me online journalism IS the future. Your series would never command the space in a major daily such as the Post, and would likely remain a neglected proprosal. Online, however, space is unlimited. Plus, there is the further advantage of reaching a world-wide audience, rather than a local one.

I'd like to the Post do even more online. Maybe advertising isn't where it need to be in that respect, but a lot of money can be found through subscriptions.

Your thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: This excellent question will be the last today. Thanks to all for tuning in.

We at The Post have no doubt that online journalism is a big part of our future--not the only part, but a very important one, and more important every month. You all know this is a tough time for newspaper businesses; we are losing advertisers in print, and we are losing, slowly, subscribers and readers of the print edition.

However, and this is really important to us, The Washington Post has never had remotely as many readers as it has today. We have millions of individuals reading Post journalism every day, all over the world. This is a huge boon for us.

We are also making serious money from advertising--just not as much as our bosses would like! The business model of the old ink-on-paper newspaper was fabulous; it produced huge profits. The business model for on-line journalism is much harder; we haven't yet figure out how to make enough on line to support our news operations, which are expensive. Can we charge readers for reading on-line? Not yet. Maybe in the future.

Your comments on this series are apt. When my talented editor Jeff Leen first proposed we do it in this format, I was surprised and delighted. As he said, the only way we could begin to take advantage of the richness of the Cassidy/lobbying story and of the over-ambitious reporting I had done was to share a lot more of it than would be possible in a conventional newspaper series of four or five long articles. The only practical solution was to go on line.

I hope this doesn't sound like tooting my own horn, but I will note that you won't be seeing another extravaganza like this next week or next month. This has been an experiment, and it took most of two years to produce it. The Post is great about sponsoring ambitious, long-term projects, but this one has been unusual.

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