Lobbying for Dictators a ‘Precarious,’ ‘Uneasy’ Business

In 2007 Harper’s journalist Ken Silverstein wanted to do a story on Beltway lobbyists’ willingness to work on behalf of creepy dictators. So he went undercover:

I decided to approach some top Washington lobbying firms myself, as a potential client, to see whether they would be willing to burnish the public image of a particularly reprehensible regime.

The first step was to select a suitably distasteful would-be client. Given that my first pick, North Korea, seemed too reviled to be credible, I settled on the only slightly less Stalinist regime of Turkmenistan.

As he reported, someof the lobbyists he approached were perfectly willing toplot out ways they could improve his client’s image among D.C. powerbrokers. Silverstein’s reporting was criticized by Guardians of the Media Establishment like Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, who was very uncomfortable with Silverstein’s methods. As he wrote, “No matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.”

Today the New York Times (3/2/11) provides an update of a sort. Under the headline “Arab Unrest Puts Their Lobbyists in Uneasy Spot,” Eric Lichtblau tells of “the elite band of former members of Congress, former diplomats and power brokers who have helped Middle Eastern nations navigate diplomatic waters here on delicate issues like arms deals, terrorism, oil and trade restrictions.”

The news here is that these “Washington lobbyists for Arab nations find themselves in a precarious spot, as they try to stay a step ahead of the fast-changing events without being seen as aiding despots and dictators.” Which is, of course, precisely what they do. Silverstein’s work taught us that they have very little reluctance about working for torturing dictators–at least until those leaders’ crimes become too difficult to ignore.

The Times story, with all its hedging and tip-toeing, is the kind of journalism that is acceptable in elite circles. As for Silverstein, he left Harper’s, writing that “I frequently find myself numb to political news and, even worse, to the lifeless, conventional wisdom peddled by the Washington media.”

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.