Washington Babylon — July 12, 2007, 5:33 pm

Journalism Ethics: A wrap-up

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post has faithfully parroted the talking points of the two lobbying firms I embarrassed in this month’s Harper’s, but APCO and Cassidy & Associates have had less luck with other journalists. The story exposed how the firms offered to polish the image of Stalinist Turkmenistan when I approached them, claiming to represent a shady energy firm that allegedly had a stake in that country’s natural gas sector.

The lobby shops attacked my ethics and Kurtz dutifully supported them in the Post and in a commentary last Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying during the latter, “When you use lying and cheating to get a story, even a really juicy story, it raises as many questions about the journalist as his target.” Encouraged by Kurtz’s parroting of the lobbyist line, APCO has been sending out a press statement denouncing me to other journalism experts.

But after being pitched by APCO, Edward Wasserman, a Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, wrote an article in the Miami Herald saying:

What Silverstein uncovered was disgusting…We’re talking about regimes that are robbing their people and lavishing a portion of their plunder on U.S. lobbyists whose entire mission is to enable them to continue their thieving–by confecting and field-testing dubious rationales, organizing junkets, misusing friendships and reputations built at taxpayer expense, and corrupting opinion pages of newspapers with the work of hirelings posing as independent experts.

Deception is a nasty business, and I respect those who say it’s never justified. But was Silverstein the trickster we should be worried about in this affair? And if we’re right to demand that public deliberations be held in public view, don’t we need to challenge the sanctity of backroom discussions that are intended to have no less impact than a mere public hearing? Trickery has its costs, but they need to be weighed against the harm of keeping those backrooms locked.

APCO also pitched Doug Fisher, a longtime print and broadcast reporter who now teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and writes the blog Common Sense Journalism. Fisher did criticize me, primarily for failing to respond adequately to the ethics controversy on our website, but said: “Silverstein has pulled just a little bit of the covers off the sordid underbelly of Washington lobbying…Do I have a problem with Silverstein’s going under cover? No, because I doubt there was any other way to get the insight he did.”

As to Kurtz, he said during his CNN commentary that undercover journalism “tarnishes the media’s already shoddy reputation.” We agree about the media’s low reputation, but disagree about the reasons for that. To begin with, the media largely gave up on undercover journalism (and to a lesser extent investigative journalism in general) twenty years ago—and its reputation with the public has tanked in the intervening years. So it seems illogical for Kurtz to propose that the now-abandoned practice of undercover journalism has somehow greatly contributed to the public’s disgust with the media.

Maybe the public has grown cynical about the media, especially the beltway press corps, because as reporters have become so socially prominent they have simultaneously become overly intimate with the political establishment they are supposed to keep a close eye on? (Take Kurtz, for example, who is married to a Republican spinmeister.)

Then again, perhaps the current disgust with the press is because–with some notable and honorable exceptions–reporters so abysmally failed the country during the run-up to the Iraq War, when they failed to challenge the administration’s fraudulent claims about Iraqi WMDs and Saddam’s ties to Al Qaeda?

Or maybe it’s because many of the regular guests on Reliable Sources and the other weekend political talk shows are so busy blathering about each other that they no longer have any time to do any actual reporting?

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Postcard October 16, 2013, 8:00 am

The Most Cajun Place on Earth

A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits 

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Avian Voices·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The mockingbird’s bath is an orgy of thrashing and writhing about. When he has finished, one of the innocents alights on the rim of the basin and looks with disbelief at the thimble of water remaining.”
Illustration by Eric Hanson
[Browsings]
Before the War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis.”
Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Estimated cost of the environmental damage caused each year by the world’s 3,000 largest companies:

$2,200,000,000,000

Two thirds of U.S. teenagers experience uncontrollable rage.

Beekeepers began extracting 1 million honeybees living beneath the siding of a house in New York State.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today