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[Washington Babylon]

The Beltway Press Needs a Good PR Firm


I knew that there was a fair amount of hostility towards the high-end Washington press corps, but until Saturday, when the Los Angeles Times ran my op-ed, I had no idea how deep that hostility ran, and how many people shared it.

In the op-ed, I wrote about how members of the media have criticized my use of undercover tactics in a story in the July Harper’s. If you haven’t read it, the story details how I approached two lobby shops while posing as an employee of a shady London-based energy firm with a stake in Turkmenistan, and how those lobby shops proposed to whitewash the image of that country’s Stalinist regime.

Here’s an excerpt from the Times op-ed:

Now, in a fabulous bit of irony, my article about the unethical behavior of lobbying firms has become, for some in the media, a story about my ethics in reporting the story. The lobbyists have attacked the story and me personally, saying that it was unethical of me to misrepresent myself when I went to speak to them.

That kind of reaction is to be expected from the lobbyists exposed in my article. But what I found more disappointing is that their concerns were then mirrored by Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, who was apparently far less concerned by the lobbyists’ ability to manipulate public and political opinion than by my use of undercover journalism.

“No matter how good the story,” he wrote, “lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects” . . .

I’m willing to debate the merits of my piece, but the carping from the Washington press corps is hard to stomach. This is the group that attended the White House Correspondents dinner and clapped for a rapping Karl Rove. As a class, they honor politeness over honesty and believe that being “balanced” means giving the same weight to a lie as you give to the truth.

The response—in the form of blog posts, emails, and interview requests—was overwhelming, and almost entirely positive. A lot of people, it seems, just don’t approve of lobby shops that do image-enhancement work for dictators. But for some in the media—and especially beltway reporters – my piece prompted a moral crisis. They just couldn’t figure out whether it was worse for me to trick the lobbyists than for the lobbyists to have proposed a whitewash campaign for the Turkmen regime. I find it interesting that when Jeff Sharlet wrote an undercover story for Harper’s in 2003, based on his infiltration of a conservative Christian group, there was no media uproar about the piece and no questions asked about journalistic ethics. Could this be because Christian conservatives don’t drink, party, and socialize enough with Washington reporters?

I’ve received some thoughtful criticism, and I’m happy to debate the merits of the story. I set up a meeting to talk about the story with one lobbyist who initially sent me a hostile e-mail, and I look forward to the conversation. But some of the commentary has been pretty ridiculous. The funniest of all came from the CBS website, and was written by Matthew Felling, formerly of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Felling wrote that my story was old news—hardly worth reporting at all. I found, he summarized, that lobbyists “were available to do what we already know they do for clients—occasionally tuck their conscience in the attic for a check. Which is something they’ve been doing for the better part of the last 100 years, as Silverstein admits.”

I can see his point. Why make a fuss? Corrupt lobbyists have been around forever, like war, disease, and the poor. And no one does poverty stories unless there’s a hook—remember how after Hurricane Katrina there was all that media soul-searching about the plight of the poor and how the press had ignored them? It was so serious that Anderson Cooper shed tears. But how many articles and TV specials about American poverty have you seen recently?

I think it’s safe to say that most people aren’t nearly as jaded and complacent about lobbyists as Felling is.

After he wrote that my story was a non-story, Felling shifted gears. Now, he wrote, he could see my “desire to bring disinfecting sunlight to the lobbying scene in Washington–it’s truly nauseating.” My non-story was in fact a story, but “a more above-the-board report and just as readable report could have been written. Silverstein could have spent the time and energy that he did with his cloak-and-dagger ruse and done a more comprehensive look at what major lobbyist groups in Washington are retained by particular countries with undistinguished human rights policies. He could’ve sat down with previous clients and former firm employees and pick their brains–therefore arriving at the same destination–without opening himself to people crying foul … and having a point.”

Yes, I could have taken a number of different approaches, though I don’t think any would have yielded as revealing a story. And of course, no one in the press to my knowledge has written the story Felling proposed, and articles about foreign lobbyists in general are relatively rare. But since Felling is so disgusted by lobbyists I urge him to get started on the piece. I’ll look forward to reading it.

One other story that I must mention was a June 25 article by Shawn Wertz on the blog of Legal Times, which upbraided me for my lack of ethics in employing undercover tactics. “But it is now Silverstein, himself, who is being exposed,” Wertz wrote. “The information about his investigatory techniques came today from Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz, who listed some of the ways Silverstein deceived the lobbying firms.”

I called Wertz and politely but pointedly told him that he was entitled to his views about my ethics, but I resented that he wrote that I had been “exposed” by Kurtz. I explained that if he had read my piece (and Wertz acknowledged he had not) he would have known that I had freely revealed everything about my “investigatory techniques.” Neither Kurtz or anyone else had “exposed” me, as Wertz had clearly suggested.

Wertz was very sympathetic and said he would correct the story. And he did—he rewrote the copy and never acknowledged his mistake or that the premise of his original story was entirely false. And that strikes me—even if I did commit the terrible sin of going undercover—as a notable lapse of journalistic ethics.

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