Review, Undercover Reporting

Chicago Reader: “Undercover Reporting – Not as Dead as You’ve Heard”

October 31, 2012

Chicago Reader

Undercover Reporting – Not as Dead as You’ve Heard

By Michael Miner

October 31, 2012


Brooke Kroeger’s new book brings good news. She puts in a good word for a discredited and abandoned form of investigative reporting closely identified with Chicago, and goes on to say that it’s actually not that discredited or abandoned.


Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception is a clear-eyed look at sneakiness. Kroeger is a professor of journalism at New York University and her previous books include a biography of Nellie Bly, a legendary fin-de-siecle reporter remembered for her brief stretch as a “stunt girl” (as Kroeger bluntly puts it) for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World: “What tops a ten-day incarceration as an inmate of the women’s lunatic asylum on Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island, her very first New York World assignment?”

Kroeger put in three years as a reporter in UPI’s Chicago bureau in the mid-1970s, a tumultuous era in the rich history of undercover journalism. The Tribune in particular was then “in the vanguard of newspapers that made prominent, unapologetic use of the techniques of undercover reporting for investigations,” Kroeger writes. To probe the operations of private ambulance services, a Tribune reporter took an undercover job as a driver. That series won a Pulitzer. Another reporter got a job as a janitor at a private hospital and what he found out about unsanitary practices and Medicaid fraud helped shut the hospital down.

Kroeger allows that the fraud could have been documented simply by poring over Medicaid vouchers—but not the practice of ordering janitors into operating rooms to help out with unconscious patients. First-person accounts “sweeten and embellish the more essential, data-laded efforts of an investigative series,” she writes. Another way of putting it is that investigative journalism becomes even more potent when people actually read the stories.

The Sun-Times went in another direction in the early 70s. Its top investigative reporters decoded recondite financial records and produced a series of articles that would send the second-most-powerful man in Chicago government—Tom Keane, chairman of the City Council’s finance committee—to prison. Unhappily for the circulation manager, Keane’s crime was a financial scheme almost incomprehensibly complicated, and the Sun-Times’s expose—sweetened and embellished by nothing whatsoever—was far more admired than read. I’m guessing Pulitzer jurors threw up their hands.

But midway through the 70s Pam Zekman, the leader of the Tribune’s investigative task force, crossed the street, and her move altered the investigative destinies of both papers. She brought with her to the Sun-Times the idea for an undercover project to end all undercover projects—and as you’ll read, some think it did. The Sun-Times would get the lowdown on petty graft by covertly owning and operating a bar. The bar, open for business for a little more than two months in 1977 (it closed on Halloween night), was the Mirage.

Just as John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me, by a white man about passing as a black man in the deep south in 1959, remains in print today, so the Mirage “may well turn out to have Bly-like staying power,” Kroeger predicts. “Even nonjournalists will mention it when asked to recall examples of great undercover exposes.”

The thing is, many of journalism’s most influential powers-that-be didn’t share in this judgment. “The obvious frontrunner” for a Pulitzer for local investigative reporting, the Mirage series fell victim to a “mood of new moral stringency” and was rejected by the Pulitzer board, Kroeger writes. Eugene Patterson of the St. Petersburg Times thought it had “an element of entrapment.” Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post said afterward that “we instruct our reporters not to misrepresent themselves, period.” The Mirage’s champion on the board was Zekman’s former boss, Clayton Kirkpatrick, editor of the Tribune. Kirkpatrick had been too cautious to let Zekman attempt her bar project for the Tribune, but she’d pulled it off at the Sun-Times and he applauded. Yet even within the Tribune the new moral stringency was taking hold. Jack Fuller, an editorial writer, went along with Kirkpatrick then, but as he rose to head of the editorial board and then to editor of the Tribune, he would think deeply about undercover journalism and change his mind. In 1996 he wrote a book, News Values, that recalled his carefree youth as an undercover reporter as a reformed alcoholic might remember the heedless era when he was drinking himself to death.

He wrote, “Deception carried a hint of danger that ordinary investigative techniques simply did not have. Perhaps I sensed something forbidden about it, the secrecy, the betrayal. Or perhaps it was the recognition that deception invites rage and retribution. The feeling was not entirely pleasant, but still when it was over, I wanted to feel it again.”

After he got a grip he proselytized. “Why should newspapers shy away from impersonation and undercover practices?” he wrote. “First, because in most cases there are other ways to get the information: deception is just a shortcut. Second, because it creates an environment that tolerates lying, which is highly dangerous for a journalistic enterprise. And third, because a newspaper’s strongest bond with its audience is the simple truth. Any departure from that, even when the audience seems to understand the reasons, can hardly help but erode the confidence that forms the very basis of the enterprise.”

And journalism, Fuller believed, had collectively got religion. “Eventually undercover journalism (for which the Tribune had won several Pulitzer prizes) went out of fashion altogether,” he wrote. “And it was a decision by the Pulitzer Prize Board that, more than anything else, caused the rules of the game to change.” This was the decision to reject the Mirage series.

I was pleased to read that Kroeger doesn’t buy what Fuller was selling. She zaps him with a quizzical parenthetical—“(And yet, I would ask, how often is truth a simple thing to establish?)”—and accuses him of conflating a couple of things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other: the Mirage controversy and the “continued and steady erosion of public confidence in the press” as expressed in surveys dating back to the early 1980s. These surveys find the press accused of bending to “undue influence” (from government, big business, labor, advertisers, and what have you), and of partisanship, immorality, unbelievability, and dubious values. But, she says, there were no specific complaints of “undercover reporting, hidden cameras, or the use of surreptitious techniques.” Some undercover reporting justifies itself and some doesn’t, and the public can tell the difference, she believes. What the press owes the public is an honest report on how it got that story.

Moreover, Kroeger tells us that to her own surprise (and mine) it seems Fuller was wrong—undercover reporting didn’t go out of fashion. “Based on a reasonably thorough review of the available record,” she writes, “there has been no letup in the cumulative rate or use of undercover techniques across all media, not before or since Mirage, and not before or since Food Lion.” Food Lion was the 1992 expose by ABC’s Prime Time of sanitary conditions inside the supermarket chain that led to Food Lion suing in retaliation—not for libel but for fraud, trespass, and breach of duty by employees it had a right to assume were faithful. After years of litigation and media hand-wringing, Food Lion wound up being awarded $2 in symbolic damages.

Undercover Reporting was published by the Medill School of Journalism and the Northwestern University Press, and it’s complemented by an elaborate website Kroeger’s assembled. On behalf of responsible journalism I’d better acknowledge here that Kroeger and I play Scrabble on Facebook, and that, what’s more, my name shows up a couple of times in her index — spelled correctly. I should add that I’ve read Undercover Reporting for her discussion of Mirage but not all the way through. That said, I’m comfortable praising her thoughtfulness and common sense; it’s not simply because she writes what I’ve thought about Mirage, but also because I admire her discussion of a couple of books about the Ku Klux Klan.

These books are Patsy Sims’s The Klan, published in 1978, and Jerry Thompson’s My Life in the Klan, published in 1982. The first was reported conventionally; the second is an account of Thompson’s year and a half undercover as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean. He was a member of a Tennessean task force that published a series of articles on the Klan in late 1980.

The foreword to My Life in the Klan, written by the Tennessean’s editor, John Seigenthaler, defends Thompson’s deception. “To get behind their pious attitudes and expose what they really stood for, it was necessary for Thompson to misrepresent himself,” Seigenthaler argues. As a general defense of undercover journalism, it’s a line Kroeger has considerable sympathy for; but every case has to be judged on its own merits and she has serious reservations about this one.

Sims didn’t go undercover, Kroeger points out, yet she also “produced remarkably unfiltered comments from her subjects. To her, they say many of the same things for quotation that Thompson went to more questionable, and far riskier, lengths to gather. To both reporters, the Klansmen express their hatred of blacks and Jews without apology.” Furthermore, Kroeger faults Thompson for dwelling on his own safety and the toll his assignment is taking on his family. “His choice to go undercover shifts much of the focus of his book to himself,” Kroeger notes, and she’s old-fashioned enough to believe that’s usually the wrong focus. Standing outside the Klan, Sims provides the more “complex” and “detailed” picture of it, and in the end the “stronger, and far more affecting narrative.”

It’s only fair to remember that Thompson’s book came later. Originally he was part of a task force, the reporter the Tennessean sent undercover to get that piece of the story. A tool in the tool box…