For a story this month, Harper’s Washington editor Ken Silverstein went undercover to expose D.C. lobbyists who represent some of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
The story proved so outrageous to former LA Weekly publisher/president Michael Sigman that he went ahead and optioned the film rights.
"It’s bad enough to be a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but some of these these guys are mass murderers," Sigman says, adding, "I’ve never seen anything like this."
Silverstein’s story raised enough hackles in Washington to have some of the firms crying foul over his tactics — call them "Borat"-lite. But they did produce some compelling stuff.
He posed as "Kenneth Case," a London-based executive with the fictional Maldon Group, an energy firm with a stake in exploiting the natural gas reserves in Turkmenistan, which is led by a dictatorial regime. The idea was to improve the regime’s image and spur business development there.
With fake business cards, a London cell phone number and a bogus website, he was able to land meetings with a few K Street firms, and get them to lay out their plans for how they would spin U.S. government officials, journalists and others into drawing favorable policies and news coverage for the Turkmen regime.
The result was a few absurd-but-true pitches from various lobbying entities. First and foremost was his experience with longtime lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates, which already has been the target of media exposes. In the meeting, Cassidy vice chairman Gregg Hartley, right, held up the firm’s work for regime of equatorial Guinea as an example of how they could polish an oppressive regime. Among other things, they arranged for trips for congressional staffers and journalists.
According to Silverstein, Hartley noted that Parade Magazine had once ranked President Obiang Mbasogo as "the world’s sixth worst dictator." "He’s still not a great guy,’" Hartley went on, "but he’s not in the top ten anymore, and we can take some credit for helping them figure out how to work down that list. Is he going to win the U.N. humanitarian award next year? No, he’s not, but we’re making progress." Silverstein writes, "When I checked later, the progress seemed pretty modest. Obiang is indeed out of Parade’s top ten list for 2007; now he’s number eleven. In a brief summary, Parade noted that in 2003, ‘state radio announced that Obiang ‘is in permanent contact with The Almighty’ and that he ‘can decide to kill without anyone calling him to account and without going to Hell.’”
The tale doesn’t end with the Harper’s story itself.
Stinging from the piece, some of the K Street firms waged a counterattack, questioning Silverstein’s ethics in getting the story. So did Howard Kurtz, who said on CNN’s Reliable Sources that the tactic "tarnishes the media’s already shoddy reputation."
On his Harper’s blog, Silverstein, responded, "Maybe the public has grown cynical about the media, especially the beltway press corps, because as reporters have become so socially prominent they have simultaneously become overly intimate with the political establishment they are supposed to keep a close eye on? (Take Kurtz, for example, who is married to a Republican spinmeister.)"
Sigman is just starting on his quest to get the story to screen, but he may find himself in a good company of projects. There is "Borat," of course, but also last year’s fictitious "Thank You for Smoking," about unsavory tactics among tobacco lobbyists. And recently George Clooney optioned "Our Brand Is In Crisis," about political consultant James Carville’s less-then-savory work for an ill-fated Bolivian presidential candidate.