BROOKE GLADSTONE: In 2008, Harper’s Magazine 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 controversial genre, involving some degree of deception, ranging from merely not disclosing that you’re a reporter to outright lying and fakery. When we first aired this piece in 2008, Bill Wasik was an editor at Harper’s – now he’s at Wired. Howard Kurtz, who is still the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, told me he wasn’t a fan of the genre, 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 feed 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 exposé, spent ten 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 exposés. 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 resumés to work at the Food Lion grocery chain. The network was slapped with a five-and-a-half-million-dollar fine. Two years later, the ruling was overturned, though some critics did claim ABC had faked some footage, which ABC denied.
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.
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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, yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hansen strides in, pad in hand.
CHRIS HANSEN: I’m Chris Hansen, and I want to ask you some questions. Please have a seat.
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?
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.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Conover told us that part of his reason for going undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse was to understand and convey the pain that enables the pleasure we derive from eating meat. It’s a pain that he argues he couldn’t get access to any other way.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Khrista Rypl, Ravenna Koenig and Alexandra Hall. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Ian Turner.
Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News, and our boss. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.