Patterico's Pontifications


On Journalists Lying to Get a Story

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 12:10 am

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.

Kurtz says:

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.

22 Responses to “On Journalists Lying to Get a Story”

  1. You’re a pretty good writer who ought to be more careful, I think.

    Is it possible to lie to people ‘willy-nilly’? Perhaps you don’t quite understand what the expression means. Look it up, why doncha?

    nobreakfast (1de7e3)

  2. I did, and found that one of the definitions is “randomly.” That’s what I meant. So what’s the problem?

    Patterico (38c6d5)

  3. I’m with Kurtz up until he mentions the “To Catch a Predator” bit. Sure, they bring in the cops in the end, but their consultants (Perverted Justice) are anything but above board, using the same tactics and worse to try to “flush out” sexual predators.

    Rick Wilcox (bb4b76)

  4. There’s a more quaint usage. In The Taming of the Shrew, Richard Burton tells Elizabeth Taylor: “Will you, nil you, I will marry you.” It’s one of the most powerful lines in the play.

    nk (d0f918)

  5. Turkmenistan? Check it out!

    President Bush grants Trade Act waiver to Turkmenistan – White House News, June 29, 2007.

    At any rate, nothing was exposed that a thinking person didn’t believe anyway. The press is used to form, not reflect opinion, and the opinion is used, in turn, to justify government action. We have the best money that propaganda can buy.

    cboldt (3d73dd)

  6. You mean to say that “journalists” don’t routinely lie willy nilly? I find that impossible to believe of the MSM these past thirty years. I know they “think” they truth telling, but that has more to do with their tinfoil hatted leftist loon mentality.

    Sue (bd03d0)

  7. As a general matter, I agree with you as to both the tactics used by journalists and police officers. With one caveat: such deception shouldn’t be used to obtain a “confession,” or guilty plea. It’s one thing to use deception to try to gather evidence to prove something, and another to use deception to force someone to admit something you can’t prove.

    See this story (from your neck of the woods, patterico), where, despite DNA evidence clearing a suspect, the prosecutors proceeded to threaten to go to trial based on witness identification alone, and forced a guy to plead guilty:,1,1996254.column?coll=la-news-columns&ctrack=3&cset=true

    Later, when he was proven innocent, the prosecutors used the defense that his guilty plea was “voluntary” and thus he’s not entitled to damages for their actions pressuring him to plead guilty despite their weak factual case.

    Phil (427875)

  8. Phil,

    A confession and a guilty plea are quite different and you can’t lie to get a guilty plea. Under certain circumstances police can lie to get a confession, as long as they don’t say things that would cause an innocent person to confess. Different issues.

    Patterico (fa4e20)

  9. I suppose procedurally they’re different issues, but I see them generally as attempts to use fear to get a person to make an admission of guilt.

    It would be like a reporter writing a story saying “I know xxx is corrupt — I threatened his family, and he admitted he was corrupt to make me stop threating his family.” What a worthless story. Lies and coercion can be effective in getting to the larger truth, but only if they actually produce evidence leading to the truth.

    I suppose that pressuring someone to plead guilty when you don’t have sufficent evidence to convict them isn’t expressly “lying.” Just like the reporter threatening the subject’s family, an admission of guilt is produced by a threat that may or may not be a “lie.” However, it’s manipulation of the accused in a way that isn’t oriented to finding the truth, but rather presuming the truth.

    Same with a confession. Lying in order to get corroberative evidence is, in my view, appropriate because it is an effort to get to the truth. Lying to get a confession isn’t an effort to get at the truth.

    For example, saying untruthfully “we have the gun, it’s over for you; just tell us where the body is” will, if successful, produce a body. That’s evidence that tends to prove the suspect committed the crime, rather than just evidence that the suspect was scared of what you told them.

    However, saying untruthfully “we have witneses who saw you, it’s over for you — just admit you did it” if successful, produces the statement “I admit I did it.”

    If that statement is then used as evidence against the accused, there is absolutely no truth-seeking value to it. It’s just like the reporter’s extorted story I described above.

    Phil (427875)

  10. How difficult would it have been for someone to have posed in the same sense as Silverstein and then merely feed the details to journalists?

    So far as I know, many public interests groups routinely pose as people they are not, collect information, and then feed it to friendly journalists.

    Frankly, Silverstein could have use other tactics to obtain the same subset of information.

    Gabriel Sutherland (90b3a1)

  11. Patterico wrote …
    “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.”

    So, the ends justify the means?

    If a cop lies to a suspect, because s/he believes it is necessary to obtain the “right” result, how can the prosecutor/judge/jury know that other lies have not been told? How can judges be certain that this cop doesn’t lie to obtain warrants?

    The answer is, of course, that THEY CAN’T. Once someone demonstrates that they play fast and loose with the truth when necessary, how can we trust that their judgment about necessary? Particularly when there is a somewhat adversarial relationship between judges, prosecutors and cops.

    There have been far too many people set free with conclusive DNA evidence to allow the police to play fast and loose with the truth.

    tomjedrz (562284)

  12. If a cop lies to a suspect, because s/he believes it is necessary to obtain the “right” result, how can the prosecutor/judge/jury know that other lies have not been told? How can judges be certain that this cop doesn’t lie to obtain warrants?

    The judges don’t know. That’s why warrants generally shouldn’t issue just on the word of police officers, but based on the evidence gathered by the police officers. Which is why the use of confidential informants is so controversial, and why I generally oppose the use of confidential informants — becuase you can’t judge the credibility of the witness, it comes down to the trusting the police. Not to imply the police aren’t generally trustworthy — it just eliminates a cautionary check on police power.

    There’s certainly no absolute way to perfectly balance individual rights with effective law enforcement. But I think that a conviction-oriented law enforcement is far less useful than an investigation-oriented law enforcement.

    That’s why tactics such as lying and putting pressure on an accused seem more appropriate to me for purposes of investigation, and less appropriate when used to obtain bald confessions/guilty pleas.

    Phil (427875)

  13. Nice story, but I’m against lying for almost any reason. (tact and making someone’s last moment comfortable excepted)

    Lord Nazh© (e5f706)

  14. Many journalists have recieved pultzer prizes for fruadelent stories they are liars

    krazy kagu (0c7fb2)

  15. “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.”

    The first and third points seem clearcut absolutes. Its the second point’s subjectivity that keeps me from being comfortable with the lying aspect. What one might consider worth lying for, a just as equally qualified individual with the bona fides might not agree. Who gets to make that judgement? If the line of lying is crossed just for that important story who says the line of what’s worth lying for can’t be incrementally moved to suit one’s purpose, which may not be for the sake of an unbiased story.

    Dana (647b54)

  16. Doesn’t all of this really come down to who’s lies we prefer?

    After all, the reason the journalists have to “lie” to get these stories is because they can’t just ask for information — the sources will lie.

    So if you want the sources to be able to lie, then you don’t want the journalists to lie and uncover the sources’ lies. On the other hand, if you don’t want the sources to lie, a journalists’ lies that expose the source’s lies are forgivable.

    Phil (427875)

  17. Coercion, like assault, should be considered to be in the mind of the victim, and not in the acts of the perpetrator.

    htom (412a17)

  18. A reporters use of a false identity to ferret out a story can be compared to a cops’ use of an undercover identity to infiltrate a criminal enterprise.
    Both have to avoid committing an “entrapment”.
    As long as no entrapment occurs, both have performed a useful service to the public.

    Another Drew (8018ee)

  19. Lobbyists have to say who they lobby for and finding out about their clients can, for the most part, be easily done without subterfuge. The journalism standard has to be pretty high, and as some noted, is anyone really surprised that lobbyists will do anything they are paid to do? Look at Jack Abramoff. I don’t think this story met it. (I’m also not a big fan of Dateline’s predator series). Jay Rosen at Pressthink posted a long discussion about a paper paying a computer guy to follow Spokane’s mayor that I think gets into the detail of related ethical boundaries.

    Edward (8630c6)

  20. I basically agree with our host.

    But I think that in these cases, if it isn’t criminality that’s exposed (like Dateline or the ABC investigation of Food Lion), the journalists ought to have pay the investigatee for using their time under false pretenses. I’m serious about this – it provides a disincentive to do this for frivolous reasons.

    I view the Dateline pieces as a deterrent to internet predators; they serve a good purpose. It looks like the lobbying piece served a good purpose, too – but Harper’s should pay the lobbyists for their time, because it appears to be non-criminal.


    JRM (355c21)

  21. You hardly trust anything you read or hear about from the liberal left-wing news media i mean they are lying about this global warming poppycock bull kaka

    krazy kagu (557722)

  22. Definition of Fraud

    All multifarious means which human ingenuity can devise, and which are resorted to by one individual to get an advantage over another by false suggestions or suppression of the truth. It includes all surprises, tricks, cunning or dissembling, and any unfair way which another is cheated.

    Source: Black’s Law Dictionary, 5th ed., by Henry Campbell Black, West Publishing Co., St. Paul, Minnesota, 1979.

    But it’s ok if done for a ‘good’ reason, right?

    Fraud is fraud, whether I do it, a cop does it or a reporter does it and I do not care what self-serving justifications are given.

    BlacquesJacquesShellacques (f81c65)

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