HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Ken Doctor: Why The New York Times hired Kinsey Wilson
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
July 12, 2012, 1 p.m.
capitol-rotunda-cc

From Nieman Reports: Is your source secretly a lobbyist?

CREW’s Melanie Sloan tells the cautionary tale of Rick Berman.

Editor’s Note: Our colleagues upstairs at Nieman Reports are out with their Summer 2012 issue, “Truth in the Age of Social Media,” which focuses on issues like verification, crowdsourcing, and citizen journalism. Over the next few days, we’ll give you a glimpse at some of their stories — but make sure to read the issue in full. In this piece, a conversation with the head of the nonprofit government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

A lawyer who once was a federal prosecutor and counsel to powerful Congressional committees, Melanie Sloan now chases legal and ethical wrongdoing in Congress. As executive director of the nonprofit government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), she frequently follows up on in-depth reporting in the media. Her team’s investigation of U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, a Democrat, for example, started with a story she read in The New York Times about the number of apartments he was renting in New York at below-market rates.

As her organization keeps an eye on abuses of power on both sides of the aisle, Sloan has also noticed that lobbyists have gotten more sophisticated in pushing their agendas. Nieman Reports’s Stefanie Friedhoff spoke with Sloan about how journalists are being deceived, how experts with no expertise end up in news articles, and why “he said, she said” reporting isn’t helping. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

Stefanie Friedhoff: CREW has documented how lobbyists, grassroots organizations, and other special interest groups succeed in getting biased or false information — often presented as facts and expert advice — published in the media. How does this work?
Melanie Sloan: Yes, it happens all the time. Every special interest imaginable seems to be headquartered in D.C., and some speak louder than others, sometimes thanks to their greater financial backing. The proliferation of cyber advocacy has shown that while it may now be easier to educate the public about important issues, the potential for abuse is greater than ever.
Friedhoff: Can you give us a few examples?
Sloan: Richard Berman stands out as the unrivaled king of manipulation. You may not have heard of Berman, but you have undoubtedly — and possibly unknowingly — seen his work. He runs the for-profit public relations firm Berman and Company. His particular gimmick is to start up so-called nonprofit organizations — which receive favorable tax treatment by the IRS — financed by corporations with specific agendas, but which don’t want their fingerprints on the message. Berman names himself executive director of each organization and then contracts with Berman and Company to handle the organization’s activities.

By CREW’s count, he has created more than 25 such groups and websites, all of which are “staffed” by those who work for his PR firm, with each employee holding any number of different positions. One Berman and Company staffer, for example, at one point served as the chief administrative officer of Berman and Company, senior economic analyst and senior research analyst with the Employment Policies Institute, government affairs director at the Center for Consumer Freedom, and director of state affairs, spokesperson and lobbyist for the American Beverage Institute, among others. Through these alleged public interest groups, Berman and his minions push their corporate sponsors’ views in the media and are regularly cited in news articles as “experts” on subjects ranging from labor law to drunken driving to childhood obesity. Their real, well-financed agenda is hidden from unsuspecting readers.

Keep reading at Nieman Reports »

Photo of the U.S. Capitol Rotunda by ctj71081 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 12, 2012, 1 p.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Ken Doctor: Why The New York Times hired Kinsey Wilson
The former chief content officer at NPR will be moving up I-95 to one of the most important digital positions at the Times.
Why Google is taking another shot at helping readers pay for news
Google Contributor is the latest tool the company has designed to help readers pay for what they read online. But its previous experiments in supporting paid content have had limited success.
In Canada, newspapers’ attempts to experiment with ebooks haven’t seen much success
A number of papers across the country started ebook programs in the early part of this decade, repurposing their archives or producing new work. They haven’t been the moneymakers some had hoped.
What to read next
718
tweets
Ken Doctor: The New York Times’ financials show the transition to digital accelerating
The numbers may look flat, but they contain a continuing set of ups and downs. Up next: executing on a year’s worth of launches.
540Here’s some remarkable new data on the power of chat apps like WhatsApp for sharing news stories
At least in certain contexts, WhatsApp is a truly major traffic driver — bigger even than Facebook. Should there be a WhatsApp button on your news site?
502Controlled chaos: As journalism and documentary film converge in digital, what lessons can they share?
Old and new media types from journalism, documentary, and technology backgrounds gathered at MIT to share practices and discuss mutual concerns.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
Seattle PostGlobe
Upworthy
Chicago Tribune
BBC News
DocumentCloud
Chicago News Cooperative
INDenverTimes
Hacks/Hackers
Tribune Publishing
Salon
Topix
Texas Tribune