I recently received a message on Facebook from the wonderful Brooke Kroeger, a New York University journalism professor. She asked me and a number of other journalists, how we currently felt about the use of undercover reporting.
Brooke has included my work in a collection, Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception. The 2007 story of mine she discussed in her book, “Their Men In Washington,” was written for Harper’s and was about the sleazy world of D.C. lobbying. For it I posed as a bagman for the dictatorship of Turkmenistan and got a number to blue chip beltway PR and lobby shops to readily agree — in exchange for millions of dollars — to shill for the regime.
I wrote back to Brooke:
I still am strong advocate for undercover. 99 percent of what I do is not. I find arguments against it ludicrous and embarrassing and efforts by elite media to insist it’s special and more moral, which is a joke. Wouldn’t change a word but last I heard Howie Kurtz had found his natural bottom at Fox News.
And here’s the link to the story I was referring to. I wrote it for the Los Angeles Times, where I once worked on the investigative unit.
Earlier this year, I put on a brand-new tailored suit, picked up a sleek leather briefcase and headed to downtown Washington for meetings with some of the city’s most prominent lobbyists. I had contacted their firms several weeks earlier, pretending to be the representative of a London-based energy company with business interests in Turkmenistan. I told them I wanted to hire the services of a firm to burnish that country’s image.
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.
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.
Make sure you click on the link to read it all.