Ken Silverstein worked first for the AP in Brazil before freelancing. After three-plus years at the LA Times, he joined Harper's about 18 months ago.
His most recent article, where he went "undercover" to report on lobbying and PR firms willing to work for Turkmenistan, raised questions about both his tactics and the nature of lobbying work in Washington, DC. He spoke to PRWeek about covering people, politics, and power from DC.
PRWeek: What types of stories do you write about?
Ken Silverstein: I write four to five stories a year for the magazine. I was in Egypt and Lebanon last year and did a piece on Islamic movements. I did a profile last fall of
I'm the Washington editor, and I cover roughly Washington politics, but it's pretty broadly interpreted, such as a story about Islamist movements with the storyline being "should we or should we not be engaged with the movements?"
I do write a fair amount about political corruption - not necessarily illegal, but unethical stuff.
PRWeek: How do you feel about PR, public affairs, or government spokespeople? Are they helpful?
Silverstein: I guess it's a multi-part answer. Some of my good friends are PR and lobby people, and I respect them and what they do.
Of course, I take any information from a PR person as coming from a particular point of view, needless to say. But I don't always object to the information.
Sometimes you're [spun] so crassly that you're like, "For God's sake, can't you do any better than that?"
PRWeek: Is it OK to pass judgment on firms for working with certain clients? Some people say that everyone is entitled to representation.
Silverstein: Effectively, if you buy that argument, then it's OK to represent the neo-Nazis, too, because it's all relative, and who's to decide? It's obviously up to the individual, and certainly different people have different ideas about what's morally acceptable, but if you take that to the extreme of who's to judge, then, yeah, who's to judge? They can work for anybody.
PRWeek: Do you have plans for your next story?
Silverstein: I'll say that I won't be doing another undercover story.
I believe the undercover tactic should be used very sparingly, and I have no intention of returning to that sort of story. I wouldn't say never, but it won't be for a long, long time.
PRWeek: Did you spend much time debating the use of deception to do the story?
Silverstein: We did talk about it, and we felt it merited an undercover approach. I thought it did, but others are free to disagree. I feel very comfortable with having used that tactic.
Name: Ken Silverstein
Title: Washington editor
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Web site: www.harpers.org