I give up

Ken Silverstein’s tricking Washington lobbyists into revealing to him their deep sleaziness isn’t be ethically troubling. The journalistic establishment’s disapproval of Silverstein’s investigative enterprise, on the other hand, says very bad things about which side the mainstream media is on in the battle between the abusers of public trust and the voters.

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 &#8212 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 &#8212 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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com