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Journalism Ethics  

2007-07-25 00:51:30|  分类: 默认分类 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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Journalism Ethics: Awrap-up

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post hasfaithfully parroted the talking points of the two lobbyingfirms I embarrassed in this month’s Harper’s, but APCO andCassidy & Associates have had less luck with other journalists.Thestory exposed how the firms offered to polish the image ofStalinist Turkmenistan when I approached them, claiming torepresent a shady energy firm that allegedly had a stake in thatcountry’s natural gas sector.

The lobby shops attacked my ethics and Kurtzdutifully supported them in the Post and in a commentarylast Sunday on CNN’s Reliable Sources, saying during the latter,“When you use lying and cheating to get a story, even a reallyjuicy story, it raises as many questions about the journalist ashis target.” Encouraged by Kurtz’s parroting of the lobbyistline, APCO has been sending out a press statement denouncing me toother journalism experts.

But after being pitched by APCO, EdwardWasserman, a Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washingtonand Lee University, wrote an articlein the Miami Herald saying:

What Silverstein uncovered was disgusting…We’retalking about regimes that are robbing their people and lavishing aportion of their plunder on U.S. lobbyists whose entire mission isto enable them to continue their thieving–by confecting andfield-testing dubious rationales, organizing junkets, misusingfriendships and reputations built at taxpayer expense, andcorrupting opinion pages of newspapers with the work of hirelingsposing as independent experts.

Deception is a nasty business, and I respectthose who say it’s never justified. But was Silverstein thetrickster we should be worried about in this affair? And if we’reright to demand that public deliberations be held in public view,don’t we need to challenge the sanctity of backroom discussionsthat are intended to have no less impact than a mere publichearing? Trickery has its costs, but they need to be weighedagainst the harm of keeping those backrooms locked.

APCO also pitched Doug Fisher, a longtime printand broadcast reporter who now teaches journalism at the Universityof South Carolina and writes the blog Common Sense Journalism.Fisher did criticize me, primarily for failing to respondadequately to the ethics controversy on our website, but said:“Silverstein has pulled just a little bit of the covers off thesordid underbelly of Washington lobbying…Do I have a problem withSilverstein’s going under cover? No, because I doubt there was anyother way to get the insight he did.”

As to Kurtz, he said during his CNN commentarythat undercover journalism “tarnishes the media’s already shoddyreputation.” We agree about the media’s low reputation, butdisagree about the reasons for that. To begin with, the medialargely gave up on undercover journalism (and to a lesser extentinvestigative journalism in general) twenty years ago—and itsreputation with the public has tanked in the intervening years. Soit seems illogical for Kurtz to propose that the now-abandonedpractice of undercover journalism has somehow greatly contributedto the public’s disgust with the media.

Maybe the public has grown cynical about themedia, especially the beltway press corps, because as reportershave become so socially prominent they have simultaneously becomeoverly intimate with the politicalestablishment they are supposed to keep a close eye on? (TakeKurtz, for example, who is married to aRepublican spinmeister.)

Then again, perhaps the current disgust with thepress is because–with some notable and honorableexceptions–reporters so abysmally failed the country during therun-up to the Iraq War, when they failed to challenge theadministration’s fraudulent claims about Iraqi WMDs and Saddam’sties to Al Qaeda?

Or maybe it’s because many of the regular guestson Reliable Sources and the other weekend political talk shows areso busy blathering about each other that they no longer have anytime to do any actual reporting?


Can trickery by reporters be right?



In a coverstory this month, Harper's Magazine Washington editor KenSilverstein described his undercover foray into hiring two top-tierD.C. lobbying firms to represent Turkmenistan, an energy-richformer Soviet republic known for gross human rights violations andanti-democratic lunacies.

Silverstein was in no position to hire the firms, of course.That was a ruse. Under an assumed name he posed as an emissary froma shadowy London middleman. He created phony business cards, aBritish cellphone number and an e-mail address.

Both lobbying firms were earnest about devising ways to positionTurkmenistan as a modernizing state and a potential stalwart inU.S. efforts to diversify energy sources. The firms brandishedformer senior officials and lawmakers who would work on theaccount. Both claimed long experience serving dictatorships withimage problems. They said they could ensure access to Capitol Hilland to the Op-Ed pages of the country's newspapers. They asked six-or seven-figure minimum annual fees.

Nobody proposed anything illegal. However, the reader couldn'thelp but conclude that if the money was right, these knowledgeable,seasoned, capable, resourceful people could turn the U.S.government in whatever direction their client needed, withinreason.

Refurbishing the image of an obscure Stalinist tyranny with nolarge U.S. exile population and no American blood on its hands wasall in a day's work.

I first learned of this story through an e-mail from one of thelobbying firms that had been duped and pilloried. Presumably I'm ona list. They objected to being deceived, and they objected to thefact that neither Silverstein nor, they said, PBS newsman BillMoyers, who did an item on the matter on his current affairsprogram, had let them give their side of the story.

Their side wasn't much: They note they never actually agreed torepresent Turkmenistan and never offered to do anything wrong. Andthey object to being deceived.

The deception interests me. It's so unusual. Journalists don'tgo undercover anymore. There's something anachronistic about it, asif reporters suddenly started using pay telephones and Remingtontypewriters.

That's not how we get news nowadays. (It's astonishing thatsomebody of Silverstein's rank in a top national publication couldbe incognito. Why isn't he a network regular on Sunday mornings oron one of those innumerable cable news-talk shows?)

But was the deception wrong?

Sure it was. The lobbyists' good faith was abused, they weretricked into wasting their time, their private conversations weremade public without their consent. Worse, all that was done by ajournalist who's professionally committed to honesty in the way hetries to gather and convey truth.

That, at least, has been the response of the mainstream, whichhas grown solidly opposed to deception in reporting. Howard Kurtz,media reporter for The Washington Post and host of CNN's ReliableSources, concluded his column on the affair by asking whyundercover reporting fell out of favor: ``The reason is that, nomatter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questionsabout journalists as their subjects.''

His logic seems sturdy, but what does it mean?

Yes, I had problems with the article. I also felt bad for theformerly high-level worthies who were so eager to help put lipstickon that miserable pig that they made jerks of themselves gropingfor Silverstein's nonexistent money.

But the idea that because what Silverstein uncovered was simplybusiness as usual and not worth the trickery, as Matthew Fellingargued on CBSnews.com, is unacceptable. What Silverstein uncoveredwas disgusting. If it is indeed routine inside the Beltway, that'seven worse.

We're talking about regimes that are robbing their people andlavishing a portion of their plunder on U.S. lobbyists whose entiremission is to enable them to continue their thieving -- byconfecting and field-testing dubious rationales, organizingjunkets, misusing friendships and reputations built at taxpayerexpense, and corrupting opinion pages of newspapers with the workof hirelings posing as independent experts.

Deception is a nasty business, and I respect those who say it'snever justified. But was Silverstein the trickster we should beworried about in this affair? And if we're right to demand thatpublic deliberations be held in public view, don't we need tochallenge the sanctity of backroom discussions that are intended tohave no less impact than a mere public hearing?

Trickery has its costs, but they need to be weighed against theharm of keeping those backrooms locked.

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics atWashington and Lee University.

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