Of course, if the Washington editor of Harper's Magazine calls up one of these firms, he'll get plenty of spin and very few answers. If "Kenneth Case," a consultant for "The Maldon Group," a mysterious (and fictitious) London-based firm that claimed to have a financial stake in improving the public image of neo-Stalinist Turkmenistan calls up, he'll get a candid assessment of what services are available.
So, Silverstein went undercover, took on a fictitious persona, and gained some fascinating, albeit disturbing, insights.
In some circles, what Silverstein was unethical. In short, he misrepresented himself -- a journalistic no-no. "No matter how good the story," Howard Kurtz wrote, "lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects." Kurtz was hardly alone; the DC media establishment has been less than shy about denouncing Silverstein's tactics.
Silverstein responded today in an LA Times op-ed, arguing that a) this media establishment is far too close to the political establishment; and b) until news outlets start taking investigative journalism seriously again, the public will suffer.
The decline of undercover reporting -- and of investigative reporting in general -- also reflects, in part, the increasing conservatism and cautiousness of the media, especially the smug, high-end Washington press corps. As reporters have grown more socially prominent during the last several decades, they've become part of the very power structure that they're supposed to be tracking and scrutinizing.Chuck Lewis, a former "60 Minutes" producer and founder of the Center for Public Integrity, once told me: "The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable."
I suspect this will make Silverstein even less popular with the media establishment, but he makes a very compelling case.