BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. Washington DC is a dateline, and it is an industry. Perhaps more than any city, the capital is a place where the marketplace of ideas has been overtaken by the just plain marketplace. Even political gridlock is good for business.
MARK LEIBOVICH: Nothing gets done in Washington, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: My fixer and spirit guide, Mark Leibovich
MARK LEIBOVICH: The only thing that gets done is people get rich. It’s a city in which we have not so much Democrats and Republicans but millionaires.
BOB GARFIELD: All Leibovich sees is an orgy of self-dealing. A culture perpetuated by, exploited by and occasionally indulged in by the media. For instance, there is the symbiotic relationship between cable news channels and political operatives, who equally benefit when partisans are anointed on-air “wise men.” MSNBC cohabits with Al Sharpton and ex-press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Fox has punditized Democratic influence peddler Lanny Davis and GOP sorcerer Karl Rove.
KARL ROVE: I can’t think of a single significant promise or pledge made about the Affordable Care Act that has been kept by this administration.
BOB GARFIELD: Money also fattens the political economy whenever the press pumps up its own audience by playing and replaying campaign smears - ironically, while underreporting the money trail leading to the smearers.
ANCHOR: Fearful the ads questioning the senator’s war record are having an impact, the Kerry campaign has responded with a new TV ad of its own to be broadcast in three battle ground states.
BOB GARFIELD: And if the press and the political class are really adversaries, what are we to make of events like the White House Correspondents Dinner and its endless associated party crawl - media organizations spending fortunes to host the crowd they’re supposed to be scrutinizing. It all brings to mind Milo Minderbinder in Catch-22. “It’s all for the syndicate, and everyone has a share.” I’m not speaking of graft exactly, certainly not of the Jack Abramoff bribing Congressmen sort. It’s more like a mentality, a buy-in to the trappings of ambition when public service, and the coverage thereof, becomes an industry. To better understand those impulses, I paid a call on one of the most prominent deal makers, a man who monetizes Washington-born, media-fueled celebrity like no other.
BOB BARNETT: I represent 300 and some television news correspondents, producers, anchors with their employment agreements.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawyer Bob Barnett, of the firm Williams & Connelly, situated literally between Capitol Hill and K Street. The man has more clients than I have Facebook friends.
BOB BARNETT: I also help a lot of people who leave government - from the senate, from the house, from the cabinet, from the white house - shape their private sector duties.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s why you’ve been described as doorman to the revolving door.
BOB BARNETT: What I'm basically doing is helping them determine what their real goals are and helping them fit those goals with the opportunities that are either presented to them or that I can help them seek.
BOB GARFIELD: There are, of course, laws and ethics regulations governing the cashing-in process, and Barnett makes sure his clients don’t run afoul of them. But he is not unaware of unseemliness. It is, in fact, on precisely such grounds that he declines to mention his megafamous clients out loud. Because one simply wouldn’t. So as I stand at his office bookcase, he silently points to one Barnett-represented volume after another, permitting me to narrate. Bill Clinton, Bob Woodward, Sarah Palin, Elizabeth Warren, Ben Bradlee, Hilary Clinton, James Baker, David Gergen, Dick Cheney, Charles Krauthammer, Alan Greenspan. My goodness gracious. Katherine Graham, Edward M Kennedy, George W Bush, Madeline Albright, The Reagan Diaries, Tim Russert. Yeah, okay, that’s a pretty good client roster.
BOB GARFIELD: And yes, those were major media figures stacked jacket to jacket with senior government officials.
BOB GARFIELD: There was a time that we in the media were kind of ink stained wretches in rumpled suits, duly and unglamorously reporting the doings of government and politics. And now some number of us are stars ourselves. We are players. We are bold faced names. is that a good thing or is that a bad thing?
BOB BARNETT: They become recognizable, they become controversial, they become the subject of attention. Nothing they can do about being well known from the work they do in their day job, from writing books, from appearing as talking heads, or whatever. But the best of them try to maintain a sense of dispassionate objectivity. Some do it better than others.
BOB GARFIELD: So, that’s one way for a journalist to tap into the Washington, DC economy. Another way is to simply switch sides. And ‘twas ever thus. Twenty years ago, Wall Street Journal reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum, author of The Lobbyists, was on CSPAN talking about the people trade public service for private opportunity.
JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: It’s played out hundreds of times over the years - people who came to Washington to work on the Hill and to try to do good, and they ended up in many ways doing well
BOB GARFIELD: And by well, he means [CASH REGISTER SOUND]. Birnbaum understands the almightiness of the dollar. In another book, The Money Men: The Real Story of Fund-Raising's Influence on Political Power in America, he framed the problem most succinctly. Quote: We all know vaguely that something is wrong in Washington, especially with its money culture. Thing is, Birnbaum is no longer at the Wall Street Journal. He’s at BGR Group, which describes itself as a “powerhouse” in lobbying, public relations and investment banking. Yes, like many Washington reporters, the man who spent a career explaining the influence-peddling trade has traded up.
JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: I moved from being a journalist to being an advocate. Which I am quite happily. And it’s my job to help clients in the way that they would like to be helped to help them advocate their positions.
BOB GARFIELD: Does your role as an advocate for clientele sometimes force you into position that would have made you extremely queasy as a journalist because you have personal or political issues with the client?
JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: It’s my job to advocate positions and I don’t take on clients whose positions as you say make me queasy.
BOB GARFIELD: For the record, last year BGR’s clientele included insurance, gambling and defense, plus the Republic of Kazakhstan, ruled iron-fistedly by president for life Nursaltan Nazarbayev. That made me wonder aloud about Birnbaum’s threshold of queasiness.
BOB GARFIELD: Have I walked into the dark side?
JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: No, you haven't.
BOB GARFIELD: Why haven't I?
JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: You're going to have to- hold on one second.
BOB GARFIELD: He’s gestured for me to turn off my tape recorder, and so I did whereupon he explained that Kazakhstan is no longer a client, but, anyway, even though it has never had a free and fair election, it is “evolving” and also so loaded with oil, uranium and other resources that even the Obama Administration sucks up to it. Then, back on went the recorder.
JEFFREY BIRNBAUM: I think that it’s a misunderstanding of what people do in Washington. To the extent that a journalist for example is a fair broker of conveying information, and you consider that a public good, then it is a public good. But people have very different views about what is a public good.
BOB GARFIELD: Evidently. But also different views about what just smells funny. And so I wanted to hear just one more voice, to understand how all these blurred lines appear - not just to the public, which already loathes both politicians and the press - but to the actual bad guys, the scavengers who themselves feed on the carrion of lost altruism. If you are a jackal, what do you think when the watchdog starts sniffing your hind quarters?
JACK ABRAMOFF: If you are cozy and comfortable with a media star, a media commentator, a media celebrity, it’s likely the case that they are just not as effective as a journalist.
BOB GARFIELD: Ladies and gentlemen, convicted felon, ex-jailbird and born-again ethicist, Mr. Jack Abramoff.
JACK ABRAMOFF: Out of social obligation and out of filial approach to their new friends and their cocktail party buddies, they are likely to forgo the kind of hard journalistic approach that others will take. Not with everybody, but certainly with their buddies. This is the way things have evolved. You know, this is a business.
BOB GARFIELD: As we spoke, we were days away from an event where precisely such fraternization would take place, in black tie no less. The White House Correspondents Dinner. What message, I asked him, does that send?
JACK ABRAMOFF: Well if I were a journalist and I wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist and somebody who had the public’s trust in mind, I think it highly unlikely that I would ever don a tuxedo in Washington DC.