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?

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More from Ken Silverstein:

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Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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