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.
Melanie Sloan, who heads a government watchdog group, sees lobbyists using the Web to manipulate public opinion. Photo © Brooks Kraft/Corbis.
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.
Can you give us a few examples?
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.
Grover Norquist is another example. He is the head of Americans for Tax Reform, often paid for his opinion—and happy to give it. PR executives just know that PR folks aren’t as helpful to their issues as having nonprofit organizations.
CREW’s Melanie Sloan in April at the signing of a bill to clamp down on insider stock trading by federal lawmakers. Photo by Carolyn Kaster/The Associated Press.
Why aren’t journalists catching such deceptions?
On the surface, these people look like legitimate experts. And I think many journalists don’t necessarily look at the motivations of their sources. It’s obvious when you’re talking to a political campaign, but other than that I don’t think reporters look closely enough. You have to check the background. What can you find that legitimates their expertise?
I think the culture of reporting two sides to every issue is also part of the problem.
You mean the “he said, she said” style of reporting?
Yes. Frequently, an article will report this person said X and this person said Y, as if, therefore, they are both equivalent when usually one is lying or misstating as much as possible—or maybe they both are—but quite frequently it sounds as though they are just two equally valid opinions. Sometimes there isn’t another side, like there actually is not another side to climate change. You can discuss degrees, but the concept that you can have an article that says “there is climate change, there is not climate change” is ridiculous.
With respect to climate change, though, this is changing, isn’t it? Over the past decade, it has become the most frequently cited example of the shortcomings of “he said, she said” reporting.
Yes, but interestingly, we still have it. We are still having Senator Jim Inhofe tell you there is no climate change and the Heartland Institute is still funding all these people to say the same thing. And they are being quoted in the media. There is a new book out ["Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power" by Steve Coll] that details how ExxonMobil has funded huge numbers of think tanks who will then put out experts’ reports saying there is no climate change. You can see the same techniques used with subjects like childhood obesity, where so-called experts funded by the soda industry and the junk food industry say there is no problem with childhood obesity in America. Again, you can differ on your solutions but the problem is pretty clear.
Political fact checking has been on the rise in recent years, online and in print. Is that making a difference?
I think that’s helpful, but I don’t know how many people read those little sidebars, whereas a whole lot of people see the ads in the first place. And it is not like every news article includes that. Most of the new fact checking is really limited to what political campaigns say.
Have you had conversations about this with journalists?
That’s tricky because then you are attacking reporters’ abilities and methods. I also think a lot of journalists these days have so much pressure on them to produce quickly and to produce for the blog every day on top of the newspaper stories, and with fewer colleagues because papers are downsizing so much, they just don’t have the time to check. They don’t have the resources.
You sound concerned about current changes in journalism.
Yes. There is this concept of “win the day” in Washington; the news cycle is so short that it doesn’t give journalists the time to think through those stories. Reporters are often changing every year or two now and it is very easy to spin a reporter who doesn’t know what they are talking about. You just can’t dip your toe into something like taxes or campaign finance. I now educate new reporters all the time. The amount they don’t know is stunning—and it’s not their fault. They are smart, but there is no experience. So there is no long-term memory to understand that there’s a context to what’s happening.
One place where you actually see a difference is Supreme Court reporting. Those journalists do it for a really long time, they are careful, and they give you a perspective of what really happened.
Are political bloggers filling some of the void?
I don’t know. I don’t think the blogosphere is necessarily doing us great favors in news right now. It’s like they’re all equal even though they don’t check sources and they’ll post almost everything. You really saw that at work in a terrible way in the ‘Nikki Haley about to be indicted’ case. How unfair to that poor woman. Pretty soon everybody reported it [a rumor that originated on a little-known blog and went viral on Twitter], even though there was no evidence whatsoever. This was not a one-time thing.
Also, so much of our Internet culture now is that drive for more content. If I went through The Daily Caller, The Daily Beast, Talking Points Memo, and all the other blogs, my day would be gone. Who can do that? So people are just picking the sources they really like. It’s giving you only the content that you’re likely to already agree with.
Do nonprofit watchdogs have an impact?
I think so, yes. More nonprofit groups like the Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica or the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism are picking up the role of investigative reporting. And you’re seeing good reporting in that they don’t have as much pressure to get out a story a day. Although another pressure they have is not insignificant either because they have donors who want to see that they’re making a difference. As a donor-supported organization, [we know] they want to see that you’ve done something all the time, and so you’re constantly proving your worth.
You’re an expert. How do you decide when to talk to a reporter and when to decline?
I get asked questions all the time, and I will frequently say I’m not really the best person for that. But then I will sometimes read in the paper somebody else’s quote on that subject, and I think, “Wow, that’s really not who I would have thought of as an expert on that either.” When you are in Washington, part of game is to be in the media a lot because you want to be the expert that people go to. But people should say “No” when they really don’t know the subject matter.