Why is there any controversy about a reporter’s pretending to be a company in need of sleazy lobbying services, in order to find out which of Washington’s big lobbying shops are willing to provide such services? That activity seems to me transparently in the public interest. If every lobbyist worries that the guy he’s on the phone with might actually be a reporter, and shapes his behavior accordingly, so much the better.
Of course I understand why Howard Kurtz, who works for the Washington Post, wishes that all other mainstream media outlets were as tame as the organization that employs him has become. And he’s right to say that the sort of enterprising investigative journalism Ken Silverstein of Harper’s engaged in is rarer than it used to be. But it seems to me that it’s that rarity, and Kurtz’s complacency about it, that raises questions of journalistic ethics, not Silverstein’s efforts to trick the sleazebags into exposing themselves. (Matthew Felling of CBS agrees with Kurtz.)
The routine deception of sources that journalists practice in their own names — telling someone who has already been chosen as the victim of a hit-piece “I want to give you a chance to explain yourself in your own words” and then cherry-picking damning-sounding quotes — genuinely interferes with the newsgathering process by making all knowledgeable interviewees (except for the Washington insiders who know they’re going to be protected) suspicious and defensive when talking with reporters. But how deceiving a source by pretending not to be a reporter damages the broader journalistic enterprise I find myself unable to fathom. Caveat sleazebaggor.