Saturday, June 30, 2007

Column argues in favor of undercover journalism

When Harper's editor Ken Silverstein recently went undercover to do an expose on the lobbying industry in Washington, he uncovered greed and corruption that should surprise no one that reads this blog on a regular basis.

Saying he was representing the repressive government of Turkmenistan, Silverstein approached the powerful lobbying firm of Cassidy and Associates (regular heavy contributors to our own Seventh District Congressman Roy Blunt) to see how the firm would promote the interests of "his country."

Silverstein explained his approach in a column in today's Los Angeles Times:

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).

All this, Cassidy and APCO promised, could be done quietly and unobtrusively, because the law that regulates foreign lobbyists is so flimsy that the firms would be required to reveal little information in their public disclosure forms.

Unbelievably, the outcry following Silverstein's expose was not about the sell-their-soul-for-a-buck lobbyists, but about Silverstein's tactics. The column is well worth a read, and he makes a point at the end of it that should make all Washington journalists do a little soul searching:

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.

Silverstein is absolutely right. Too many times, what passes as political reporting is simply taking one side's accusation, calling the other side to get a response, then printing both sides without ever making an effort to ascertain the truth.

We need more Ken Silversteins and fewer Beltway pundits.

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