May 16, 2005
The legendary reporter who goes undercover to get the story is part of the mythology of 20th century journalism. But the practice has largely gone the way of Lucky Strikes and pay phones.
The 1977 Mirage Tavern operation, when the Chicago Sun-Times set up a bar and documented shakedowns from city officials, got a mixed reception from news brethren. ABC News’ 1992 Food Lion expose videotaped disgusting food handling, but the network spent years convincing courts it should have infiltrated reporters into the supermarket posing as civilian job applicants.
The profession has turned against false pretenses. The reasons vary. There’s an unease about deception: If your job is to tell the truth you shouldn’t be lying. That seems high-minded, but it’s a cheap way around deciding whether the truth you’re after might justify the dissembling required to get it.
There’s also the feeling that the whole gambit is sensationalistic and squalid. It smacks of tabloid TV, grainy footage of low-grade frauds secretly taped in storefront offices, “Film at 11!”
And at a time when the media believe the public mistrusts their methods and motives, local news chiefs long for civic causes that are both bold and unassailable — like rescuing all the cats from the trees, whatever the cost, dammit. Unleashing a corps of junior crime-busters is nowhere on the PR consultants’ must-do list.
The upshot is a distaste for subterfuge. As Philadelphia Inquirer editor Amanda Bennett, told Editor and Publisher magazine: “I don’t permit deception. …Undercover is a method of the past.”
Not entirely. Bennett was criticizing, as did a number of other top-tier news executives, the extraordinary stories in Spokane, Washington’s Spokesman-Review about its mayor, a conservative ex-paratrooper who apparently made a practice of looking for love online among very young men.
On May 5 the paper reported: ““For a quarter century, the man who is now Spokane’s mayor has used positions of public trust — as a sheriff’s deputy, Boy Scout leader and powerful politician — to develop sexual relationships with boys and young men.”
A tangle of allegations involving the now-mayor, ex-friends and pedophilia goes back some 25 years. The newspaper put a reporter on the story last October after interviewing an 18-year-old who claimed to have had sex with the mayor after meeting him through an online chat room.
To verify the man’s story the paper hired a computer expert to determine if his onetime online partner was in fact the mayor. When that proved impossible the expert presented himself online as a young gay man, and two months later began communicating with a person who, it now appears, was the mayor.
Though cagey about his real identity, at some point the mayor began to hint at gifts and perks and suggested the purported 18-year-old apply for a city internship. Since the story broke two other men, the paper says, have claimed the mayor made similar offers of municipal largesse to them. The FBI is investigating possible abuse of office, and the mayor has taken a leave of absence.
To me the affair has disquieting elements, but deception is not one of them. I’m uneasy about the subtext that this takedown is especially sweet because as a Republican legislative leader the mayor had routinely taken positions viewed as anti-gay. Gay people should not be targeted because they do not support some agenda of supposedly gay political priorities.
I’m also bothered that the current allegations, involving males of legal age, were wrapped into the context of much older allegations of far more serious and illegal misconduct with young boys, which seem unprovable.
Moreover, the evidence of abuse of office is thin. The clearest instance was the unpaid internship offered to the newspaper’s own straw man. That’s an important weakness, since it’s the offer of job-based perks that turns the tale of a lonely man looking for companions into a story of official misconduct, and makes his personal squalor legitimate news.
But the paper’s subterfuge seems to have been judicious. It was used to confirm a pattern of behavior for which the paper already had good evidence and which has a strong claim to public importance.
I’m bothered more by the possibility that such stories are being eyed by journalists elsewhere and ignored because editors despise the reporting the stories might require. If so, that loss of public faith in the news would be warranted.