Last week, there was a brouhaha over a journalist going undercover to expose some devious-sounding lobbyists. Howard Kurtz didn’t like it:
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.
Silverstein defended himself in a piece on the pages of the L.A. Times, which he used to work for:
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I put on a brand-new tailored suit, picked up a sleek leather briefcase and headed to downtown Washington for meetings with some of the city’s most prominent lobbyists. I had contacted their firms several weeks earlier, pretending to be the representative of a London-based energy company with business interests in Turkmenistan. I told them I wanted to hire the services of a firm to burnish that country’s image.
I didn’t mention that Turkmenistan is run by an ugly, neo-Stalinist regime. They surely knew that, and besides, they didn’t care. As I explained in this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, the lobbyists I met at Cassidy & Associates and APCO were more than eager to help out. In exchange for fees of up to $1.5 million a year, they offered to send congressional delegations to Turkmenistan and write and plant opinion pieces in newspapers under the names of academics and think-tank experts they would recruit. They even offered to set up supposedly “independent” media events in Washington that would promote Turkmenistan (the agenda and speakers would actually be determined by the lobbyists).
Silverstein says the only way to get the story was to go undercover:
In my case, I was able to gain an inside glimpse into a secretive culture of professional spinners only by lying myself. I disclosed my deceptions clearly in the piece I wrote (whereas the lobbyists I met boasted of how they were able to fly under the radar screen in seeking to shape U.S. foreign policy). If readers feel uncomfortable with my methods, they’re free to dismiss my findings.
Yes, undercover reporting should be used sparingly, and there are legitimate arguments to be had about when it is fair or appropriate. But I’m confident my use of it in this case was legitimate. There was a significant public interest involved, particularly given Congress’ as-yet-unfulfilled promise to crack down on lobbyists in the aftermath of the Jack Abramoff scandal.
Could I have extracted the same information and insight with more conventional journalistic methods? Impossible.
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.
I disagree. I think Silverstein has the better of this argument. I think it matters how good the story is, and whether there’s any other way to get it.
I’m not wild about the idea of journalists running around lying to people willy-nilly. But if there’s no other way to get a story, and if the story is important, and if the journalist’s credibility is impeccable, I don’t have a problem with their going undercover in rare situations.
There’s an analogy here to law enforcement. If a cop lies to a suspect about having found the murder weapon, in order to get a corroborated and uncoerced confession from a guilty man, it’s not likely to bother me. If the cop lies to the jury about having found the murder weapon, that’s quite different, and the cop should be fired and prosecuted.
Similarly, it doesn’t bother me terribly if Ken Silverstein misleads the subjects of a story — if he does it in rare circumstances, for an important reason, and discloses it in his article. What bothers me is when Ken Silverstein misleads his readers — something that, by the way, he did as an L.A. Times reporter.
It’s all about getting the truth to the public. If the media would just tell us readers the truth, I’d forgive a little deception sparingly used in order to get us the goods.