What happened: Harper’s Washington editor Ken Silverstein posed as a consultant for “The Maldon Group,” a fictitious company that, as Silverstein explains, “claimed to have a financial stake in improving Turkmenistan’s public image,” and contacted lobbying groups as “Kenneth Case” about improving the image of corrupt, oil-rich Turkmenistan. One group, Cassidy and Associates, quoted Silverstein $1.5 million for a three-year-long image repair program that would reach the highest levels of the government and the news media. The result was a fascinating exposé, published in July 2007, of just how influence peddling works in Washington. No hidden cameras, but Silverstein’s eye was as unforgiving as the camera lens.
What came of it: Perhaps because everyone already knew how lobbyists behaved—though Silverstein provided a damning concrete example of it—the story’s revelations rocked nobody’s world. Instead, Silverstein and his method of reporting became the story, especially after then-Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz criticized Silverstein in a column, writing, “no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.” In a defense that was published in the Los Angeles Times, Silverstein countered that there was no other way he would have gotten the story, sang the praises of undercover journalists past like Nellie Bly and the Chicago reporters who operated The Mirage Tavern, and leveled this charge at his Beltway critics: “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.”
Our thoughts: It’s hard not to take Silverstein’s side against his D.C. critics—lobbyists stand with lawyers (and reporters) on the likability scale. But you could argue Silverstein might have gotten the story another way—if D.C. is famed as a hotbed of money-swapping and unscrupulous dealings between lobbyists and whoever offers them a bag of cash, it is also famed as a most incredibly leaky ship. An enterprising reporter might have found someone to talk openly, if anonymously, without the entrapment. One lobbyist in Kurtz’s report also raises a point worth at least considering: at no time did Silverstein reveal himself and ask for the lobbyist’s comment. In a run-of-the-mill report, doing so would be a given. But Silverstein has argued that “these guys are professional spinners” and he didn’t want to give them over a month to “lie their way out of the story.” We see his point. Perhaps the main problem with Silverstein’s method here, though—assuming you agree he couldn’t have gotten the story any other way, that it served the public interest, and that it had a positive outcome—is that it became the story’s main talking point. This is often the case in stories where journalistic deception is used. But here it seems the gravity of revelations—lobbyists take money from clients, whomever they may be—may not have justified the distractive methods which bore them out.
A Pimp at Planned Parenthood
What happened: Lila Rose, a former James O’Keefe associate, aspiring actress, and founder of conservative pro-life action group Live Action, organized for two actors to visit a New Jersey Planned Parenthood clinic posing as a pimp and prostitute. This January, the actors asked clinic manager Amy Woodruff about testing for STDs, obtaining abortions for girls who become pregnant, and contraception, and were coached by the manager on how to cover up their business (which they had openly admitted involved sex work with underage undocumented immigrant girls). The unedited twenty-two-minute sting video can be found here. Soon after, further videos were released showing similarly damning scenes at clinics in other states.
What came of it: The response was somewhat muted when compared to the ACORN sting, with much of the attention focused on Rose herself and only one employee from the several clinics exposed—Woodruff—being fired. It’s been reported that Planned Parenthood had actually contacted the FBI about Live Action’s sting before the videos began to be posted and claimed that the tape’s audio had been tampered with. Still, two state attorneys general considered investigating Planned Parenthood on the back of the videos, though one admitted a case would be hard to make without real victims (the victims here were actors, of course).