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[Washington Babylon]

Kurtz on Undercover Journalism: “The horror!”

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Earlier this year, when I was working with my editors to plan out a story about lobbyists willing to work for the Stalinist regime in Turkmenistan, I predicted that after the story was published Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz would write a hand-wringing, tut-tutting column about my tactics. Right on schedule, Kurtz delivers his opinion. “No matter how good the story,” he writes, “lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.”

Kurtz seems to be condemning almost all undercover reporting, from the Chicago Sun-Times Mirage tavern sting, to ABC’s Food Lion investigation, which revealed that the grocery chain was using bleach to cover up the smell of rotting beef it was selling to consumers. NBC, however, gets a nod of approval for targeting sexual predators, because Dateline tags along with the cops to get the story. Kurtz is a reliable champion of “balanced” coverage—such as the Post‘s own 27-part series earlier this year on one of the lobby shops discussed in my story, Cassidy & Associates. That series came in with a whimper on March 4 and went out with a whimper five weeks later. A classic of “he said, she said” journalism, it uncovered little besides touching anecdotes about Gerald Cassidy’s boyhood and, from what I can tell, was barely read and had little impact. (It’s interesting to note the silence of Cassidy & Associates in the debate over my story. As APCO takes the heat, Cassidy keeps a low profile. Corrupt dictators shopping for a full-service D.C. lobbying firm should take note—Cassidy may be more expensive, but they’re smarter too.)

People should, of course, read the Kurtz column, read my piece, and come to their own conclusions, and as I have said before, those uncomfortable with my tactics are free to dismiss the story’s findings. Despite Kurtz’s concerns, most readers seem to understand why I went undercover. From a website comment that followed Kurtz’s column:

As Howard Kurtz falls over himself defending the greed-infested and immoral sleaze-meisters at APCO, Cassidy & Associates (and the lobbying/bribery industry in general), he misses the irony of the headline . . . the true Web Of Deceit is spun by these firms that purport to be run by honest and ethical people who just happen to sell lies for a living in their service to any brutal, murdering dictator that can fork over enough cash. Anything for a buck, Mr. Kurtz?

Incidentally, APCO Associates told Kurtz that it had actually decided not to represent the regime and was still evaluating the situation. This was a demonstrable lie, as I showed in my post yesterday with e-mails APCO had sent me, but Kurtz apparently didn’t intend to run their claim past me. In fact, the only reason I was able to get a reply into his column was that I already knew APCO had been pressing that argument to others, and I asked Kurtz if they had made that claim to him. When he acknowledged it had, I asked to respond.

I read Kurtz the APCO emails but couldn’t offer copies to him on Wednesday, when he called me, because I had already promised an exclusive to the Bill Moyers Journal. On Saturday, after the Moyers interview aired, I contacted Kurtz to offer him the emails but he declined, saying he had already filed his story.

Except that story wasn’t published until today. I know the Washington Post is Old Media, but surely Kurtz had time to review the emails and cite them in a story that was running two days later. He ultimately wrote only that “Silverstein says APCO pursued him hard and expressed disappointment at being turned down,” so it was my word against theirs, despite a plethora of evidence that APCO had been ready and willing to sing the praises of Turkmenistan (assuming the checks cleared).

In the same column where he discussed my story, Kurtz criticized reporters for making political contributions (a story that has been blown wildly out of proportion, as Matthew Yglesias summarizes). The comments on washingtonpost.com regarding this part of Kurtz’s column are even more entertaining. For example:

While Kurtz is wringing his hands about reporters’ campaign contributions, it might be nice of him to disclose who his wife is and what she does for a living. Google ‘Sheri Annis‘ for insight into the non-partisan Kurtz household. Maybe Howie should rename his TV show “Resourceable Liars.”

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