On "Gotcha"

(AP / CBS)
This writer may (or may not) know about issues surrounding journalism, but it's now clear I'm not much of a Hollywood type. Ken Silverstein's Harper's piece – the one criticized for its subterfuge in this space a month ago – has been optioned to former LA Weekly publisher Michael Sigman, and may potentially become a movie down the line.

As reported in LA Observed a few days ago:
Former LA Weekly publisher Michael Sigman has optioned the film rights to that piece about Washington lobbyists in Harper's by reporter Ken Silverstein, who posed as a customer to nab the K Street faithful offering to do all kinds of sleazy things for him. The piece has spurred debates about the ethics of undercover reporting, but Sigman likes what he saw. "It's bad enough to be a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but some of these these guys are mass murderers," he tells Variety. "I've never seen anything like this."
I'm a big "defend to the death your right to say something I disagree with" sort of guy. So Silverman and I hashed out a number of our differences – he had called me 'funny' and not in a good way -- in recent weeks, dialing down the rancor considerably.

Then, this morning, I had a chance to catch up with him for a quick conversation. We discussed, among other things: journalistic ethics, jaded media souls and my strong preference that Steve Buscemi not be cast as me in the end result.

Matthew Felling: A lot of our disagreement focused on how jaded souls miss big stories. How jaded DC types miss things that others will notice. Explain what you mean by that…

Ken Silverstein: One of the things I heard from Washington-types was "Foreign lobbyists working for dictators? Big deal." I found that not only annoying but frustrating, because I'm not writing for the Washington insider audience. I don't think people around the country are as complacent and jaded as most Washington insiders. And what passes for normal in Washington is not seen as normal in other parts of the country.

Here, if you mention at a cocktail party and say you lobby for foreign governments, even if that government is nasty, nobody blinks an eye. But I don't think that's the response you'll get elsewhere in the country. Based on the response I got to the story, I think that people are genuinely appalled and disgusted that big Washington lobby shops will work for anyone, no matter how disgusting -- or, in the case of my story, a Stalinist dictatorship of Turkmenistan – as long as they're willing to pay big bucks.

So the idea that, "Yawn, yawn. This is old news," I found really troubling. And it reminded me of when I was in Brazil, when I was foreign correspondent for the Associated Press for four years, starting in 1989. I remember when I first got to Brazil, I'd walk out the door of my apartment building and, within twenty minutes, I'd have three story ideas. I was wide-eyed and amazed at how unique Brazil was. Then after I'd been there for a few years, I got the same sickness a lot of foreign correspondents get. You don't see anything new. Once you're there, once you're an insider, you're no longer amazed at the things that an American audience would find remarkable. But for you, it's everyday and routine.

I get the same feeling here in Washington, that people who have been here too long are just terribly jaded and are not outraged or horrified by anything. They've become as cynical as the people they write about. I think that's a real problem, and that was one of the reactions to my piece. And it was almost exclusively a Washington reaction. Lobbyists representing a bad government? There's nothing new there. I think the average American found it newsworthy.

Matthew Felling: Yes, I'm one of those DC sorts who didn't find your story surprising. But my main problem was with the subterfuge you employed. But that's something we're going to have to agree to disagree on.

Ken Silverstein: Yeah, and I'm happy to disagree civilly about that issue. I understood going in that there were going to be people uncomfortable with what I did, and would be critical. And I guess my attitude was, I knew I was going to reveal exactly what I'd done so that the reader would not be tricked. The reader would know that we had employed duplicity. And if the reader was uncomfortable with that, then they could make their own judgment. I felt the critical thing was that we were honest with our readers.

Beyond that, I do feel that it was a legitimate use of the undercover tactic, but I recognize that people are free to disagree with that. I will say that there have been a number of media critic types who didn't have a problem with what I did. So one of the things that I'm pleased with is that my piece very clearly prompted a debate within the media about whether the undercover tactic is a useful tool, and whether it's fair to employ it. While not everybody agreed with me, I'm happy to have prompted a debate. I feel very strongly that criminalizing investigative reporting is wrong, and there are times when it's not only effective but absolutely the best way to get at the story.

Matthew Felling: Now your story has traveled across the country and it's changed hands, now in the hands of a film studio. How'd that happen?

Ken Silverstein: Well, it's not in the hands of a film studio. It's been optioned by someone inside Hollywood who wants to see it made into a movie. It's been optioned as a potential film. I know how it happened. Michael Sigman who optioned it called me after he heard me on the Bob Edwards show on XM radio. He said "I just couldn't believe that story. It was the most incredible thing I've heard .. and I've got to see if I can make this into a movie. I think it's really extraordinary." To make a long story short, that's how he heard about it. He then went through the regular steps, talking to my agent, and we agreed to option it to him with the hopes that he'll be able to make it into a movie.

Matthew Felling: So it wasn't necessarily a fruit of the Beltway controversy. He didn't hear about it from the debate you incited?

Ken Silverstein: Yeah, it was before the media controversy got started. It was before I had my op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times, discussing the feedback I got. The Bob Edwards show was the first he'd heard about it. I remember that because after we began talking, I e-mailed him the op-ed I had in the LA Times.

Matthew Felling: You wrote for the LA Times before, but you're not a Hollywood type. Do you have any apprehensions about this translating to the big screen?

Ken Silverstein: True, I'm not a Hollywood type, but I have optioned something in the past. Another piece I did for Harpers, "The Radioactive Boy Scout," some years ago – and I wrote a book with the same name. 'Boy Scout' was originally optioned as a movie. But the first option expired – HBO sat on it and didn't do anything with it – so it's been re-optioned and script is being commissioned. I don't know where things stand with that.

Just because something gets optioned doesn't mean it'll necessarily become a movie … I'm excited about the possibility that it might happen, but being a pathological pessimist, I'm not uncorking any champagne.

Matthew Felling: Now that I've got you on the record, can I get you to give a strong assurance that if there is a pesky media critic in the movie who responds negatively, you won't have me played by Steve Buscemi or some other sniveling Hollywood type.

Ken Silverstein:: (Laughter) I can make you an assurance that you won't be portrayed by Buscemi. But I can't make that promise about other media types.
  • Matthew Felling

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