Review, Undercover Reporting

Newspaper Research Journal, “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception”

February 1, 2013

Newspaper Research Journal

Winter 2013, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp 112-14

NRJ Book Reviews

By Peter W. Goodman

Newspaper Research Journal

Vol. 34. No 1

Winter 2013

Review by Peter Goodman

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer, 1990

Brooke Kroeger does not mention Janet Malcolm’s notorious screed about Joe McGinniss in Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception, her encyclopedically rich journey through the annals of undercover reporting in the American press. But Kroeger, a professor of journalism at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, is taking dead aim at the narrow, mean-spirited attitude about journalism, an attitude that has been reflected in recent decades among journalists themselves. The book argues:

For a restoration of honor and legitimacy to the discomfiting techniques of undercover reporting because of their value to so much of the journalism that has mattered in the past century and a half . . . (8)

The term “encoclopedic” is an appropriate description of Undercover Reporting, part of the Medill School of Journalism’s Visions of the American Press. The book examines hundreds of examples of journalism in which reporters did not identify themselves, adopted false identities, took jobs under false premises, dissembled or otherwise obfuscated the true purpose of their presence. Merely listing her definitions of “undercover” is reminiscent of a biblical geneaology:

They have posed as; lived as or among, worked as; interned as; volunteered as . . .

for almost a full page of text. (11)

This thoroughness is justified by the depth of resistance to the concept of journalists’ using deception in any way as they gather information. She saves what may be the most egregious example of this resistance for the penultimate chapter about the Chicago Sun-Times’ celebrated or excoriated “Mirage” series, in which the newspaper ran a bar for six months in the fall and winter of 1977. The paper’s detailed documentation of widespread corruption and bribery among city officials resulted in federal, state and city investigations, reorganization of Chicago government, suspension of city inspectors and widespread public approbation.

What it did not get was a Pulitzer Prize.

Kroeger, who examines a number of Pulitzer controversies, cites a “near-forensic” account by Myra McPherson of The Washington Post of the Pulitzer board’s decision, in which a number of eminent journalists – many of whom themselves had used or supervised undercover investigations – considered that there was a “mood of new moral stringency.” (268) “A shift in the zeitgeist that made the use of ethically ambiguous reporting methods a far less appealing prospect,” Kroeger writes. (269) In the peremptory words of The Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee, “We instruct our reporters not to misrepresent themselves, period.”

But before arriving at the Mirage, Kreoger builds a very imposing foundation from which to push back. Starting with pseudonymous reporting about slavery before the Civil War, she presents chapters on every imaginable type of investigation: virtual slavery among Pacific Island cotton workers; the sex trade; urban poverty; factory work; race; prisons; mental hospitals and similar institutions; and ideological groups such as the KKK and certain religious organizations. She spends time recounting Nellie Bly’s sojourns in New York mental institutions, Jack London’s immersion among the wretches of London’s East End, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle—which, though published as a novel, was based entirely on his own experiences.

She documents how carefully the journalists and their editors prepared, how remarkably scrupulous they were in undertaking such ethically dubious investigations, how they worked to get everything right and how almost all the time they succeeded.

Her research is extraordinarily thorough. That is another reason the label “encyclopedic” fits so well. One can open the book at any chapter, nearly every page, and find detailed, fascinating accounts of journalists who managed to inveigle their way into jobs, locations, occupations, classes or races to report about what was really going on within. There are times when, in fact, the accounting is so overwhelming that the reader may be inclined to watch a football game or fold some laundry just to catch a few breaths. One indication of just how deep the research was is the fact that 293 pages of text are followed by 111 pages of notes and 61 pages of bibliography.

She makes her case: Undercover reporting, time and again, has produced reportage that was essential to fulfilling journalism’s most important role: “the quest to change some systems, or get some wrongs righted, at least for a little while.” (295)

Kroeger’s writing is exceptionally nuanced. She goes out of her way to image and respond to every objection that has been or might be made to undercover work. She examines and convincingly resolves the ethical questions involved, to use Pete Hamill’s words from his foreword, “of assuming another identity, of posting as someone you are not, of performing a falsehood.” (xiv)

Indeed, she makes every story sound so interesting that one yearns to read the originals. And thanks to the internet, one can. As part of the research for the book, Kroeger and  NYU Libraries created the Undercover Reporting Database, a “hand-curated resource” of many of these investigative stories, searchable by keyword, media outlet, date or author. I, for example, dithered away some time reading American Civilization Illustrated, the account of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, March 9, 1859, of a “great slave auction, 400 Men, Women and Children Sold,” by Q.K. Philander Doesticks – the pseudonym of Mortimer Thomson, who posed as a potential customer, “not desiring to be the recipient of a public demonstration from the enthusiastic Southern population.”

Besides being a fascinating read for journalists, Undercover Reporting is an invaluable pedagogical tool. It would be easy to craft stimulating courses on investigative journalism from the database alone. Taken together, book and database are a salutary corrective to the prevailing notions that undercover journalism is unethical, and anyhow is rarely practiced nowadays.

Peter W. Goodman is an assistant professor of journalism in the Hofstra University School of Communication.