Monday, June 25, 2007

Journalism 101: Crossing the Line

There was a Hall-of-Mirrors quality to watching reporter Ken Silverstein interviewed by Bill Moyers Sunday about his article in Harper’s describing the sting operation he conducted to get two Washington lobbying firms to pitch for the non-existent account of a repressive government.

The mirrors multiplied into an Orson Welles “Lady in Shanghai” shootout after Howard Kurtz in his Washington Post media column observed that “no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.”

So far, so civilized. But Silverstein took the debate into Valerie Plame territory today on the Harper’s blog by quoting an anonymous comment about Kurtz’s column, which also discussed journalists’ political contributions, on the Post web site:

“While Kurtz is wringing his hands about reporters’ campaign contributions, it might be nice of him to disclose who his wife is and what she does for a living. Google ‘Sheri Annis‘ for insight into the non-partisan Kurtz household. Maybe Howie should rename his TV show ‘Resourceable Liars.’”

Googling Ms. Annis reveals that she is “a political commentator and media consultant” who was once “the spokeswoman for Arnold Schwarzenegger” and that she writes for magazines and newspapers. Reading a few turned up nothing sinister. In fact, they were quite well-written.

In interviewing him, Moyers observed that Silverstein’s imposture sounded “like something out of Borat.”

Silverstein replied, “We toyed with the Borat type approach. But...we wanted to make a political point, which was that the rules that apply to these firms are too weak...And so we thought we better do it straight as opposed to doing it as a comedy routine.”

Not a great decision. It’s no terrific public service to show that lobbyists are eager to lie for anybody who pays them. But that’s a matter of opinion.

What isn’t is that Silverstein owes Howard Kurtz and his wife an apology for trying to Scooter Libby them.


Anonymous said...

As the reaction to Silverstein's article builds, it seems to me that Silverstein's supporters and critics are dividing into two reasonably well-defined camps. On one side are the supporters, who reflect the outside-the-Beltway approach of ordinary Americans--the category in which I would place myself. On the other side, those who clearly reflect the inside-the-Beltway mentality. A major sub-group of the latter is the Gridiron Gang, consisting of those misguided souls who live in a world of self-delusion where they play the traditional role of objective journalists and watchdogs for the public interests.

In reality, these people are just the journalist wing of the Washington Establishment, who display their whoredom every year at the annual Gridiron dinner, where they show their true colors by cavorting with the officials that they are supposed to be watching. Oh, this is just one night of good clean fun, and doesn’t mean for one minute that journalists have crawled into bed with the officials? Sold out to the interests they are supposed to be passing objective judgment on? And who made this decision and condescendingly tell the rest of us how innocent it is? Why, those very journalists! A greater act of self-deluded self-justification cannot be observed on planet earth.

Regarding Silverstein’s article, the Insiders are in a tizzy over matters the rest of us could not give less of a damn about. In fact, the things the Insiders find to criticize are the very things that make Silverstein a hero to us ordinary Americans. It was a sting operation, and Silverstein should be ashamed of himself for the fraud he committed while carrying it out? To us Outsiders, this is a pluperfect case of the cowards and the prostitutes in the Gridiron Gang passing judgment on a courageous journalist who had the skills to go undercover to uncover a story that needed telling. Far from being censured, Silverstein deserves praise for carrying on in the tradition of true journalists, the kind that was once represented by Edward R. Murrow.

According to you, Silverstein committed an even greater sin by pointing out that critic Howard Kurtz is married to a Washington lobbyist. To us outsiders, your outrage is laughable. Once more, a member of the Gridiron Gang sniffs his outrage over a revelation that the Gridiron Gang itself has decided is not worth reporting. We Outsiders believe this is well worth reporting. We do not accept as a given that all of these cozy, interlocking relationships among journalists, individuals, politicians, and businesses are innocent. Telling us that Kurtz can be married to a lobbyist and still remain an objective observer on a story about lobbying is like telling us that a Congressman with a financial stake in a corporation can still be objective about voting on legislation affecting that corporation. Maybe so, but it’s not a given.

Here’s the bottom line: I at least would like to KNOW about the financial relationship between the Congressman and the corporation. I would like to hear his justification for not recusing himself from voting on legislation affecting that corporation. In exactly the same spirit, I want to KNOW about Kurtz’s relationships with the lobbying community. I want to hear from him his admission of that relationship and his assurances that he is still an honest, objective observer about the lobbying scene. He may well be, but I want the facts on the table.

I don’t want the Gridiron Gang telling me that they and only they are the policemen of their own conduct.

Anonymous said...

Well, I took up your offer to Google Sheri Annis, Kurtz's wife. While the results probably support your comment about her writing some fine articles, what they mainly show is what a right-wing political operative she really is. Her career is as a spokesman for the political right, with no pretense of being a journalist. Nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. But it absolutely reinforces my belief that the fact of her career and the fact of her being Howard Kurtz's wife should be noted in any column that Kurtz writes about American political divisions.

What the Google search reveals just as clearly is the extent to which the fact of Kurtz's being married to Ms. Annis has been a matter of considerable notice and debate on the web for years. The phrase "conflict of interest" is constantly raised. Again, doesn't mean Kurtz has been found guilty. It simply means that there is a longstanding controversy surrounding this Washington Post journalist.

It means that Ken Silverstein, contrary to the message you attempted to foist on your readers, did not suddenly invent this issue in his comments to Moyers last Sunday.

The web site most worthy of consulting is: This is the one that discusses Kurtz's favorable reporting on Schwarzenegger's campaign--without revealing that, at the time, his wife was Mr. Schwarzenegger's press agent. It takes someone absolutely sick with Inside-the-Beltway disease to describe that fact as innocent.

Other web sites worth consulting:
(This one reports Ms. Annis’ flat statement that John McCain “is not a real Republican.”)