"Gotcha" Without a "Get"

2059341"Checkbook journalism?" That's so last week.

This week? It's all about "Gotcha Journalism."

A tempest in the sweltering DC teapot has developed this past week with regards to an investigative report in the upcoming issue of Harper's. Ken Silverstein, Harper's Washington Editor, has a piece called "Their Men In Washington" that is causing some consternation in the media circles … Or at least along those mediaphiles that aren't obsessing over a certain former jailbird.

In order to expose the depths and depravity of Washington, D.C.'s lobbyist community, Ken Silverstein decided to get … creative. Here's how he describes it in his own words:
My story in the July issue of the magazine details how two beltway lobby shops I approached, on the pretense that I represented a shady London-based energy firm with a stake in Turkmenistan, proposed to whitewash the image of that country's Stalinist regime.
He whipped up some business cards, made a website, assumed a name and began the PR courtship process with the firms APCO Worldwide and Cassidy & Associates. His article (unfortunately available only to subscribers) is a fairly by-the-numbers accounting of the back and forth he engaged in with the lobby shops, which – it would be generous to say – were rather forgiving about Turkmenistan's less savory practices.

Silverstein found, unsurprisingly, that it seemed they wanted to work with him. He found that they were willing to organize tours for convincible politicians. He found that they proposed a rather typical media strategy, including op-ed placements and other attempts to generate news items about Turkmenistan. He found that they 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 early in his piece:
American lobbyists have worked for dictators since at least the 1930s, when the Nazi government used a proxy firm called the German Dye Trust to retain the public-relations specialist Ivy Lee.
Now it's quite possible – and I invite readers to point this out – that I may be more unsurprised by this finding than most, having been Inside the Beltway for nearly my entire life. But is the discovery that PR flacks serve as schills for disagreeable clients really groundbreaking stuff worth hoodwinking somebody for?

In a conversation with the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, Silverstein said:
"If you want to weigh my ethics in making up a firm against the ethics of agreeing to represent and whitewash the record of a Stalinist dictatorship, I'm pretty comfortable with that comparison."
I can see his desire to bring disinfecting sunlight to the lobbying scene in Washington – it's truly nauseating. 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. (True to form, APCO quickly put out a press release.)

When you're going to take the risky step into "Gotcha Journalism," you need to "Get" something. You need to uncover something that either can't be found out in any other way, expose hidden political corruption or a potential health threat. When you indulge in subterfuge to merely provide the conventional wisdom with a concrete example, that's when the cost – to the journalist, to the media outlet, to the media at large – isn't worth the benefit. This is deficit reporting – when the payback is far smaller than the cost.
  • Matthew Felling

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