Salon Radio: Harper's Ken Silverstein

The irony of Politico's reporting on Washington Post "salons"; and American media coverage of the coup in Honduras.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published July 20, 2009 5:21PM (EDT)

A couple of weeks ago, Politico's Mike Allen exposed The Washington Post's plans to charge lobbyists and corporations large amounts of money to meet -- at the home of The Post's publisher -- with various Post reporters and senior Obama officials.  Shortly thereafter, however, Harper's Washington Editor, Ken Silverstein, uncovered several events organized by Politico that raise similar (albeit less blatant) questions as the ones raised by The Post's events.  Silverstein often reports on the sleazy, corrupting intersection of money, influence and media in Washington, and he's my guest today on Salon Radio to discuss the implications of these sorts of media events generally and Politico's involvement in them specifically. 

We also discuss the American media's rather distorted coverage of the military coup in Honduras -- a topic which Silverstein covered here.  The refusal to recognize the events in Honduras as an anti-democratic military coup is redolent of the American media's coverage of the comparable 2002 U.S-backed coup in Venezuela -- specifically that infamous April, 2002 New York Times Editorial praising, in the most Orwellian terms imaginable, the overthrow of Hugo Chavez as an inspiring blow for democracy.  As always, "supporting democracy" means "undermining foreign leaders we dislike even when they're democratically elected, and attempting to empower pro-U.S. foreign leaders regardless of how unpopular they are."

The discussion is roughly 25 minutes and can be heard by clicking PLAY on the recorder below (as always, it can be also downloaded by MP3 here or by ITunes here).  A transcript is here.

To listen to this discussion, click PLAY on the recorder below:

Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Ken Silverstein, who is the Washington Editor of Harper's Magazine. Ken, it's nice to have you back. Thanks for joining me.

Ken Silverstein: Thank you.

GG: Now, I wanted to begin by asking you about this article that was published a couple of weeks ago by The Politico's Mike Allen, when he exposed these so-called 'salons' that were being arranged by The Washington Post and specifically at The Washington Post's publishers' house, where essentially lobbyists would underwrite these events and would then be able to meet with, not just high-level Obama officials, but also Washington Post reporters as well who write about issues in which these lobbyists have the greatest interest.

And I remember thinking at the time, after I read that article, that there were actually two glaring ironies to the story. The first being that it was a lobbyist for the health care industry -- of all people -- who was essentially the whistle-blower here, turning over that brochure to Politico because even this lobbyists apparently was offended by what the Post was doing, and that secondly that it was the Politico -- of all media outlets -- acting here as the ethics cop for journalism. I found both of those aspects of the story quite ironic, and sure enough, in Harper's, you now have an article that's entitled Politico Not Exactly Virginal on Wall Between Reporting/Money, in which you say that Politico has some of the same problems that they expose with regards to the Post.

What is it that you learned about what Politico is doing in this regard?

KS: Well, the Post story was a genuine blockbuster, and it really was explosive to see how shamelessly the paper was selling itself. So, I started looking into what some other outlets are doing, and there was this big irony I discovered, which is that Politico - they're certainly not identical to the Post's proposed salons, but they're pretty troubling examples. They cosponsored a party at the Democratic National Convention last year with the Glover Park Group, which is a big, big lobbying and consulting firm in Washington, tied mostly to the Democratic Party.

GG: And mostly to a lot of former Clintonites, right, are at that firm?

KS: Yes, but it's beyond Clintonites. Howard Wolfson is there; but also Kevin Madden who was the press spokesman for Mitt Romney, and there's Ruben Askew who's a longtime Washington insider. It's the classic revolving door cases, and they're mostly Democrats but there were a few prominent Republicans as well. Because, of course, Washington is a bipartisan town, where you need influence on both sides.

But here you have Politico cosponsoring a party at the Democratic Convention with this big lobbying firm, and I will say, there's another irony here which is that Politico ran a little item in its gossip column about it's own party, without any seeming embarrassment about it, and it talked about all the important people who were there, whether they were celebrities or Politico types, or, you had all sorts of, journalists, of course, were heavily represented here. And so, as I wrote in the piece online yesterday, you've got this amazing intermingling at this party of the lobbyists and politicians and journalists and celebrities, and it certainly gives the appearance of a cabal of insiders who really don't care at all about who pays for their party. They're just all having a grand time. No-one is even - this is what's always astonishing to me about Washington - they're not even embarrassed about it. I mean, they actually wrote about this in Politico itself. That wasn't always the case with the events I found that Politico was sponsoring, but in this case, they glowingly reviewed their own party cosponsored with a big lobbying firm without any embarrassment.

GG: Now, the lobbying firm, the Glover Park, with which Politico cosponsored this event, presumably they have clients that pay a lot of money to get legislation passed and the like, that Politico covers, right? So all of this is very interlinked in terms of Politico's objectivity; at least there's an appearance, potentially, that there's a conflict, not to say that Politico necessarily changes its reporting to accommodate these interests - you don't have proof of that - but certainly there are, outside at this party, there are all sorts of overlapping interests that Politico and cosponsor of its event, Glover Park, would have with one another right?

KS: Absolutely. And that's the problem with these events. It's true, I don't think that you've Politico editors going to reporters and saying, don't write this, or don't write that. But you have an obvious appearance problem and an obvious conflict of interest. Yes, Glover Park has a lot of big clients - I just listed just a few of them - but I listed a link to all of their clients...

GG: Name just a few of those Glover Park clients, just a few representative clients.

KS: Well, I just listed on the site Pfizer and Coca-Cola, and I don't have the other names handy, but there is a link at with my piece where you can to all of Glover Park's clients. There are a lot of big Fortune 500 companies, and Politico reports on those firms. And it reports on Glover Park Group. One thing I found that was really I thought interesting was that earlier this year, Politico ran an op-ed by Victoria Esser, who is the managing director at Glover Park. There was nothing sensational about the op-ed at all, but here you have them giving their space to this lobbying firm that they had recently cosponsored a big party with. And in fact Glover Park then linked the story on its own website, using it as promotional material. You know, was there a connection between the party and this op-ed? Maybe not - I'm not sure. But when you're sponsoring parties with private interests like that, it creates a terrible, terrible appearance problem at minimum.

GG: Absolutely. Now, there was a second event that you uncovered and documented in your story that I think was at least as problematic if not probably more so. Describe that one.

KS: Yeah, I think this one is more problematic, and it was not disclosed by Politico in its pages, at least even if they did it without embarrassment, they talked about their party with Glover Park. But on October 17 200, I got a flyer advertising a big party they were cosponsoring with the National Beer Wholesalers Association. This is a very powerful Washington lobbying organization with a whole lot of interests including undermining laws against underage drinking, which it did succeed in watering down the bill that would have curbed underage drinking. This was a few years ago. But it's a very powerful interest group in Washington, and here Politico is having this big party at the house, incidentally, with the beer group. It's their Oktoberfest event, they called it. It was by invitation only, and I also got a copy of an email from Mike Allen, who ironically broke the pieces busting the Post...

GG: You don't mean you got the email from him, I mean, this was an email authored by him and sent by him?

KS: Exactly. I obtained it, I suppose is a better way of putting it. And he urged reporters to attend this Oktoberfest event because, he said, the marketing department at Politico had spent so much time organizing the affair that reporters should go to it. Now, again, I don't think that you've got a situation where Politico is then going to reporters and telling them, write tough pieces about the beer group or don't write critical pieces about them, but it creates a terrible appearance problem, and in fact I did find a piece from Politico what was just published this last April, that starts like this: "President George W. Bush didn't drink beer but President Barack Obama does, which means that Craig Purser, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, is a happy man. We're definitely pleased to see him enjoy a cold, Purser said in the Politico podcast, it's great to have someone who understands and enjoys the product. And that story also is link to in my piece at the Harper's website. And it's just totally embarrassing.

I really don't think that someone at Politico told the reporter to go write the piece, but, again, if you're going to sponsor these big parties on Capitol Hill with a lobbying organization, it makes it very difficult to write anything about that organization. It gets pretty tricky. But certainly, a piece like this, it's a bit embarrassing I think for Politico.

GG: Let me ask you about that, because you a couple times now that you don't think that there's these explicit instructions from, say, Politico editors to go give favorable news coverage to these groups with which Politico is cosponsoring these social events. And for all I know, that might be true; I don't have any evidence to suggest that it's not. So let's assume that that's the case, though.

Isn't it fair to say that you don't actually need those kind of explicit instructions? I mean, once you start doing things like cosponsoring as a newspaper, or a media reporting outlet, cosponsoring these lavish, flashy social events designed to attract all kinds of power brokers in Washington, with organizations and groups that you directly cover in your pages and have vested interests that you cover constantly, it just creates this sort of collegial, overly friendly relationship with these parties that certainly from any journalistic perspective, ought to at least be kept at arms length? At some sort of objective arm's length?

And so I want to actually ask you about that, because you write as well as anyone in my opinion, about the intersection of money and influence and political power and journalism in Washington. And so, in terms of all of this socializing, this continuous overlapping what ought to be these kind of competing interests, staying in their separate realms, what is the real danger here? Why does this matter? You've got a quote from John Harris, the editor-in-chief of Politico who sort of said that, look, all we did was sponsor a party, this was not like what the Washington Post did, we weren't selling our reporters, which is true. So, what's the issue here? Is it just about how it looks, in terms of appearance, or is there something more substantive that's problematic about all of this?

KS: I think it's worse than appearance, definitely. And you, you've actually gone a good job of laying out the general problem here. Look, if you are a political reporter, and you're at the Oktoberfest event cosponsored with the beer wholesalers, it's, yeah, you don't need an editor to come tell you, don't write anything. Look, it's got to be embarrassing if a month later somebody comes to the lobbying reporter at Politico or the White House reporter or whoever it is at Politico, and said, gee, if you've got a good story about this organization, it's sort of embarrassing, it's, oh my God, just last month we sponsored the party with these guys and I was talking to their folks. It's got to make you uncomfortable. I have to believe that it has an impact, subtle, or perhaps not so subtle, on the way Politico covers the beer wholesalers. Definitely. And Glover Park definitely. You can't go in on these big events and not have it have some impact.

And I also think, from talking to people, that Politico is very, very aggressive about courting advertisers. And, of course, every media publications, we're all guys, it's not as if Harper's isn't looking for advertising. But, I have been told that the editors themselves, the top editors at Politico, very, very aggressively court advertisers. And, I think, you've got advertisers coming the newsroom and meeting with and seeing reporters, it's got to create problems. It just - as an individual reporter you cannot be unaware of these relationships and it's got to make you a little uncomfortable in covering them. I don't think that means that Politico is never, ever going to be doing a tough story about its advertisers, or even necessarily about Glover Park or the beer wholesalers - although I confess I couldn't find anything tough being written on them, but maybe I missed it.

But, there are people out there aggressively looking into the National Beer Wholesalers Association; I found some really good pieces that had been done about that group, and, I got to believe that Politico, it's reporters are probably not real seriously digging into the lobbying power of that organization. I could be wrong. I didn't see anything online, though, certainly to indicate otherwise, and when I spoke to John Harris, certainly didn't mention anything they'd written about either of these organizations, any of the coverage they've done about either of these organizations.

GG: Just, last question on this topic, and then I want to ask about something else in just a moment. Doesn't the same problem arise even in terms of the kind of broader socializing that we were just discussing. I mean, if you, for example, if Politico becomes dependent upon certain sources in Washington to feed them the exclusives that generate the traffic that their business model depends, and if at the same time they are socializing and they go out at night and they're drinking and eating and cavorting with many of the same people that they're supposed to cover, on some level, doesn't that also have the effect, subconsciously, consciously or otherwise, causing reporters to pull punches?

I mean, you don't want to do hard-hitting, embarrassing exposés on the people that have become your friend, that are your social partners, who you want to come to your parties to give them more cachet? Isn't that same danger embedded in even that kind of fuzzier problem about the way this culture works?

KS: No question about it. This is one of the big problems with big Washington journalism, is that you've got reporters who are very, very close, personally, to a lot of the people that they're supposed to be covering. And that they do socialize with those people; they go to the same parties, they go to the same bars, they have the same friends. It is a clubby little circle, and there's no question that that is bad for journalism.

That is not to say that you don't see excellent journalism coming The Washington Post and The New York Times, and Politico for that matter, and these big outlets. But the higher up you are in the food chain, I think it becomes more and more difficult to avoid those entanglements. And it's very embarrassing. I have faith - I barely go out at all, I have two kids who I prefer to spend my time with, so I never go to journalism parties or these parties at all. Maybe twice a year I'll go to some social event in Washington, a political journalism event. But I do know a lot of people, and I do have sources, and every once in a while it's sort of embarrassing. You get calls or a tip about a story where you know somebody involved. I never - I guess because this may speak to how small my social circles are, or at least as my political contacts - I certainly would never pull a story or not write a story because of that. But it can be embarrassing.

And even someone like me, who's not a player at all in Washington journalism circles - I have no social interaction with most of these people - I periodically will get tips because Washington is a small town. Fundamentally, it's a small town. The political circles are very, very small. And so it's impossible, the more people you know. And again, once you get up to the level of a TV reporter, and especially the more you appear on TV on the Sunday talk shows, those people are just - it's really difficult, I mean, you're just completely compromised by your social contacts by the time you get up there. It's a big, big problem with Washington journalism and it has a huge impact, I believe, on ultimately what's produced the major news organizations, and I think it contributes to a great public distrust of the news media, which is well deserved.

GG: Yeah. It's interesting - David Halberstam famously said, in his speech that he gave towards the end of his life, I think at Columbia Journalism School in 2005, that the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you likely are. And obviously there are some exceptions to that, and the like, but he was saying there seemed to be an inverse correlation between fame and one's journalism, and I think the observation that you just made explains a lot of why that is, namely that the higher up you go in terms of establishment media platforms, the more it means that your likely compromised, which in turn means the less journalism you're able and willing to do, which is a huge problem if you think about it. That the journalists that end most venerated, and with the biggest platforms, are the ones least able to really be adversarial with those who wield the most power because their ascent in many ways has been due to their relationship with those people in power. It's obviously a significant problem.

I want to shift gears for a minute, because you wrote a piece on Harper's on what I think is a very interesting topic, and that is, what you perceive to be the significant deficiencies in the way that the media has covered the military coup in Honduras. And the reason that, in part, it's interesting to me is because I still to this day find one of the most amazing and insignificant events to be when, in 2002, Hugo Chavez, who whatever you think of him, was and is the democratically elected leader of Venezuela, was overthrown in a military coup, and The New York Times editorial page not only supported that coup, but in very Orwellian fashion, they actually described it exactly as the opposite of what it in fact was.

The lead line was, "With yesterday's resignation of President Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan democracy is not longer threatened by a would-be dictator." And they urged that Venezuela needs a leader with a strong democratic mandate to clean up this mess, when in fact, of course, it was democracy that had been subverted by, not his resignation, but by his overthrow by military coup, that it turned out that the Bush administration, at least, rhetorically, if not otherwise, had supported. So, to me, what seems like, the way that the media has talked about what's going on in Honduras seems similar to that. Maybe not as egregious, but maybe it is, so talk about what you see as the problems with how these events in Honduras have been discussed and what the significance is.

KS: Well, it is absolutely egregious. The coverage of this coup is just absolutely astonishing, because you've got all sorts of similar editorials coming out - The Washington Post being perhaps the most outrageous offender, talking about how President Zelaya is responsible, he had been intransigent, and he was making all sorts of unconstitutional moves, and basically justifying the coup. And a lot of the coverage has...

GG: And of course The Washington Post editorial page, probably more than any other single outlet anywhere, literally, constantly holds itself out as the beacon of democracy around the world. It wants the US to spread democracy everywhere; it claims to believe in democratic values above all else as the supreme principle, and yet here is a democratic leader being overthrown, and yet again they're cheering it on because the democratic leader in question is one they dislike.

KS: The Washington Post in this regard is the most hypocritical newspaper in the country. It does not believe in democracy; anyone who believes that is a fool. For The Washington Post democracy is absolutely utilitarian. If you are for the United States, if you're a foreign leader perceived as being friendly to the United States, then we are for you; and if you are perceived as being against the United States, we are against you. And if you are overthrown, or removed from power illegally, we will find a way to justify it. They do it time and time again.

They also constantly are calling for democracy in Egypt, while championing a few pro-Western opposition figures there, who are in many case very admirable people, but who very little standing in Egypt because they're not religious and they're too pro-Western for most of the population there. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been repressed for decades and decades, and which has generally been very, very good about adhering to the rules of democracy even while the government of Egypt is not, and which has deep, deep roots in Egypt, they can lock up as many members of the Muslim Brotherhood as they want, and The Washington Post doesn't care at all. They wouldn't editorialize it because it's completely irrelevant to them.

GG: Let me just interject there, too, because, that worldview that you just described, namely thinking that leaders that are friendly to the US are fine, and ones that are unfriendly aren't fine, and being kind of utilitarian about how we see the world - that is, I wouldn't necessarily call it a legitimate way of looking at things, but it's a commonly accepted argument. There are lots of people who say that that is how the US should see the world in this self-interested and pragmatic way, but those people don't pretend to care about democracy. They call themselves realist or pragmatist, and don't hold themselves out as being as marching under this banner of what's good and just. And what's so outrageous about what The Washington Post editorial page does, is they pretend that what they care about is democracy and democratic principles, and yet they violate it continuously.

So how does that relate to what they specifically have done and what the media generally has done with regard to Honduras?

KS: Well, in Honduras you've got essentially a pretty simple situation. The president - who is not a radical, incidentally, for better or worse, he's not a Chavez - his big crime in the eyes of the elites that have run Honduras forever...

GG: He was democratically elected in an election that everybody acknowledges was free and fair, right?

KS: Yes. There's no question about his legitimacy. He implemented a minimum wage increase which was desperately needed in this country, and that's why the political elite, the business elite and the military hate his guts. This has nothing to do with their reverence for democracy. Honduras is, I'm sorry to use this term, but it has always been, or for a long time, it's been a banana republic. There is no democracy in Honduras. The government has always been controlled by the elites, and this is the first guy who's sort of broken out of that mold.

But this is as backward as it gets in Latin America. So you've got a legitimately elected president, and he's overthrown in a military coup, a flat-out military coup, in which he is whisked away from the presidential residence in his pyjamas and overthrown, and this new government is illegally declared, and you see all of this agonized opinion mongering in the United States about, oh, well, you know, the president was trying to prolong his term in office, which really isn't true. He was seeking to hold a referendum, a non-binding referendum, and he would have been out of power in six months either way, even if he'd won his referendum. This guy was not a radical; he was not a threat to democracy; he was a mild threat to business as usual in Honduras. And he was overthrown in a military coup.

But you cannot - it's like the word torture, which the media uses when other people do it, but can't bring itself to use when American troops are responsible for torture in Iraq and Afghanistan. We just find other ways of describing it. But this is just a flat out military coup against an elected, legitimate president. And to even start talking about, well, both sides are guilty of violations in that context is utterly ridiculous. One guy was elected, and had the legitimacy conferred on him by being democratically elected, and the other side is a bunch of military thugs who overthrew him, and you actually have former death squad leaders who are close to the new government. It's a joke. There is no, on the one hand this, on the other hand that. And yet, that's what we're getting from a lot of the reporting and the opinions pages, the editorials are even worse. They are basically bending over backwards to find ways to justify a military coup. It's just appalling.

GG: Yeah, absolutely, and we've seen this over and over, and it would be one thing to simply opine that the military coup is somehow beneficial to the United States, but the distortion of facts about whether or not this was in fact a military coup, which is really not in doubt, pervades the entire discussion. So they're not even honest about advocating a military coup; there's actually some suggestion that this is something other than a military coup, that it was the military leaders themselves who were saving democracy from the despotic democratically elected ruler, just like The New York Times editorial page depicted the military overthrow of Chavez as being a blow struck for democracy, in order to get rid of this horrible dictator.

KS: Absolutely. Orwell would be terribly impressed.

GG: Absolutely. Hey, Ken, thanks so much for talking about both issues and it was a great job you did on Politico - I knew there must have been some of the skeletons lurking in their own closet, and I'm not surprised that you're the one who found them.

KS: Thank you very much.

[Transcript courtesy of Thames Valley Transcribe]

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