Should reporters lie or misrepresent themselves in order to get an important story? Undercover reporting has long been an effective, exciting and, some would argue, necessary journalistic tool. But at a time when the public's trust in the press is waning, can journalists afford to lie? In a piece that originally aired last fall, Brooke talks with undercover reporters and their critics.
BOB GARFIELD:Greg Miller is a reporter for The Los Angeles Times and coauthor of The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Is it ethical for reporters to misrepresent themselves to get a story? What if they unearth injustice or corruption on a massive scale? In a piece we originally aired last fall, Brooke reported on the ethics of the much-acclaimed and much-criticized practice of undercover reporting. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Reporters often have to wade through a river of ethical dilemmas, and when they're working undercover that river can become a swamp. Even their colleagues don't approve of what they're doing, and their targets – well, here’s a clip we found on YouTube of what happened when an NBC Dateline reporter working undercover at Defcon, a conference of underground hackers, was unmasked. [CLIP]: [CROWD BOOING] MAN: I'm not cool with that, especially when they turn down the opportunity to get a press pass. So I need a show of hands, a new contest, “Spot the Undercover Reporter.” [APPLAUSE AND CHEERS] [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: A crowd of jeering hackers followed as she bolted from the building. [END CLIP] MAN: Thanks for playin’! MAN: “To Catch a Reporter.” MAN: Come back next year. WOMAN: Give our love to the editors! [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Harper’s Magazine has just released an anthology called Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person. It’s a collection of Harper’s articles reported, more or less, undercover. It’s a tricky genre involving some degree of deception, ranging from merely not disclosing that you’re a reporter to outright lying and fakery. Washington Post and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz is not a fan, but – HOWARD KURTZ: I don't think we have to go around with a bullhorn saying, press here, please let me in so that I can expose your wrongdoing. But I think there is a very significant step, a gap, between doing that and between taking on a fake name, fake business card, fake profession in order to go after what might be a very worthwhile story, but you’re still lying to get it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here, Kurtz is referring to a particular Harper’s story in which writer Ken Silverstein donned a new suit and a pair of fake glasses, printed some business cards and passed himself off as a consultant looking to hire a Washington lobbying firm to spruce up the rep of the hellaciously repressive nation of Turkmenistan. He found a couple of takers, happy to charge upwards of a million dollars to seed the press and cozy up to congressmen. Silverstein named names and took some hits, as he told us in June of 2007. KEN SILVERSTEIN: I think there’s a slight irony in some ways to the criticism of the undercover tactic in this case. I mean, to me, you know, it’s okay for these lobbying firms to plant op-eds and to create bogus news events and to manipulate the media, but it’s not okay for me to expose their dirty linen. I find that somewhat ironic. BILL WASIK: Is it usually bad for a reporter to lie? Sure. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Harper’s senior editor Bill Wasik edited Submersion Journalism. BILL WASIK: But in the case of Washington lobbying for foreign dictatorships, we felt like that this was an instance where it was justified for Ken to create this identity to go and get a story that he wouldn't have been able to get through any other means. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And Wasik says it received an overwhelmingly positive response. Readers pay attention when reporters go undercover. Consider Silverstein’s career, says Brooke Kroeger, director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. BROOKE KROEGER: You look back at his record, he has written about 20 pieces about Washington lobbyists since 1995, either for The Los Angeles Times or for Harper’s – over 20 pieces. What he told me was that this is the only one that ever got serious significant attention, a spotlight put on this issue. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Kroeger wrote a biography of one of history’s greatest undercover reporters, called Nellie Bly: Daredevil Reporter, Feminist. BROOKE KROEGER: She, in her very famous insane asylum expose, spent 10 days inside as someone who was deranged, and came out to write about it in a huge two-part series that had just momentous impact, and caused new monies to be brought into that facility. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Starting around 1887, Bly went undercover for a spectacular series of exposes. She spawned legions of imitators, and the practice persists to this day. Well, there was that controversial case in the nineties that looked as if it might kill undercover reporting for good, when a jury found that ABC News had committed fraud when its reporters faked their resumes to work at the Food Lion grocery chain. The network was slapped with a five-and-a-half-million-dollar fine. Here’s ABC spokesperson Eileen Murphy after the ruling in 1997. EILEEN MURPHY: Food Lion has succeeded in convincing a jury to punish ABC for using undercover techniques that exposed its unsanitary practices. The company did so without ever challenging the truth of our broadcast. And we're obviously troubled by that. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Two years later, the ruling was overturned, though some critics did claim ABC had faked some footage, which ABC denied. The issue is one of trust. And in an age of famous fakers, like The New York Times’ Jayson Blair and The New Republic’s Stephen Glass, trust in journalism has been leaking like air from a punctured balloon. Howard Kurtz. HOWARD KURTZ: There’s a long and colorful history of these undercover investigations, and often they do have a payoff that exposes some sort of dastardly conditions in factories or unclean conditions in restaurants, or you name it. But I think that in modern journalism, that’s a luxury we can no longer afford. PAM ZEKMAN: In many instances, it’s the only way to get the story. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pam Zekman is an investigative reporter for Chicago’s CBS affiliate. PAM ZEKMAN: And if the abuse is extensive enough and affects enough people it’s justified, so long as you don't break the law and you don't hurt anybody in the process. BROOKE GLADSTONE: For years, she reported for The Chicago Sun-Times, and she often went undercover to expose a wrong, most notably in a 25-part series that ran in 1978, centered on a little bar called “The Mirage,” in Chicago. MIKE WALLACE: But it could be almost any neighborhood tavern, anyplace. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Wallace, narrating a 60 Minutes report on the story. MIKE WALLACE: Actually, it’s a story of corruption in city government, inspectors on the take, bribed to overlook health, building and fire code violations - kickbacks, tax evasion. Well, several months ago some investigators and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Chicago Sun-Times set out to determine for themselves how many of those rumors were fact in their city. BROOKE GLADSTONE: That would be Zekman, who said that small business owners were hurting but were afraid to go public. PAM ZEKMAN: And we had to, in order to prove this, become them. BROOKE GLADSTONE: “The Mirage” was, in fact, a mirage, a bar set up by The Chicago Sun-Times. When its doors opened, the crooks poured in, taking bribes in envelopes or directly from the register – all on camera. The celebrated series was up for a Pulitzer Prize but was stymied by Pulitzer Board member Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, who disapproved of undercover journalism. Zekman finds it frankly amusing – now - since The Post had won a Pulitzer a few years earlier for Watergate, which relied on anonymous sources, a practice she believes is every bit as problematic as going undercover, if not more so. PAM ZEKMAN: I have always been a believer that the undercover technique, when there’s no other way to get the story, is a truer way of getting at what’s happening in an abusive area, and a more credible way for the viewer or for the reader because they can see and hear what’s happening. They don't have to trust that these anonymous sources exist. They don't have to make that leap of faith. BROOKE GLADSTONE: At least when a reporter goes undercover, you know who to trust or who not to. Harper’s Bill Wasik: BILL WASIK: When we do these first-person narrative stories, the writer comes back and essentially has to convince the reader through just an act of great writing and great journalism that what they've seen says something very important about the future of the nation or the future of the economy or technology, or what have you. And so, in terms of trust, it’s a process that has to be built up every time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wasik says Harper’s’ undercover reporters aim not so much to expose individuals, as to slip past otherwise impenetrable public relations barricades to show how the world really works. Others do troll for individual evildoers, like NBC’s Chris Hansen, who works with the police and uses human decoys to Catch a Predator. [CLIP]: [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] CHRIS HANSEN: You heard that right. He wants to take someone he thinks is a 12-year-old to a hotel for sex. But the decoy won’t budge, so Cisneros gives in and shows up at the house. And he comes prepared. DECOY: So what are you doing? Did you bring condoms? MR. CISNEROS: Yeah, yeah. DECOY: Sweet. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hansen strides in, pad in hand. [CLIP]: CHRIS HANSEN: I’m Chris Hansen, and I want to ask you some questions. Please have a seat. [END CLIP] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Score! BROOKE KROEGER: That, for me, goes a little bit too far. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Journalist and author, Brooke Kroeger. BROOKE KROEGER: An argument could be made that law enforcement is set up to do some of those things. Is that really the role of a reporter? BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the role? To always be truthful to everyone, no matter who, no matter what? Former Chicago Tribune editor and publisher Jack Fuller is an absolutist. JACK FULLER: We don't deceive our readers and we don't deceive people we deal with, even if, from time to time, you end up missing a story as a result of it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Nellie Bly could not have exposed corruption and abuse and man’s inhumanity to man without deceit. Sometimes a fake name is a ticket to a dark world of injustice desperate for the light of day. JACK FULLER: Well, that’s the best argument in favor of it. The best argument against it is that you have truth tellers lying. That’s dangerous. I mean, that’s the choice people have to make. You know, it’s not an easy one. It’s a judgment call. BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Washington Post’s Dana Priest did not identify herself as a reporter to the authorities at Walter Reed Medical Center as she investigated horrific conditions there, but she did reveal herself to everyone she interviewed. She won a Pulitzer. How about Ted Conover, who revealed himself to no one when serving as a prison guard at Sing-Sing for his widely-admired book, Newjack? Mr. Fuller? JACK FULLER: If they identified themselves by their own names and they never told an untruth, then I would have no problem with it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And maybe it helps to suffer over your decision, like Ted Conover. BROOKE KROEGER: He tried every other possible way to do that story but felt it was very, very important to get inside of. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Brooke Kroeger. BROOKE KROEGER: So he approaches this with the right kind of agony, I think, and that makes his work very powerful. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up in a moment, we'll hear from Ted Conover, whose agony left him with some permanent marks on his psyche, but no ambivalence about his choice. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]