Mar 1 2008

Is Undercover Over?

Disguise seen as deceit by timid journalists

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/daysofthundr46

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/daysofthundr46

This past February, the famed lobbying firm APCO was approached by a man named Kenneth Case. Case said he represented the Maldon Group, an obscure firm that wished to improve the public image of Turkmenistan, where it had some investments. It was nothing out of the ordinary — private firms often lobby on behalf of foreign countries, either because they think it will increase the value of their investments or because they are acting as a front for the foreign government.

APCO happily met with them, despite the fact that the Stalinist regime of Turkmenistan is one of the most noxious on the planet, after North Korea. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (11/02/07) called it “one of the most repressive and authoritarian [governments] in the world,” noting it had “untold numbers of political prisoners…draconian restrictions on freedom of expression…[and] foreign travel restrictions.”

All of which would normally be considered just another day of doing business in D.C., except for one thing: “Kenneth Case” was a fiction, and his “Maldon Group” a ruse cooked up by Harper’s magazine editor Ken Silverstein to demonstrate what D.C. lobbying was really like.

‘His ethics, not ours’

The resulting piece, “Their Men in Washington” (Harper’s, 7/07), won immediate acclaim. Silverstein was interviewed on everything from NPR (6/19/07) to Al-Jazeera (7/3/07), and the article quickly became widely linked and reposted in the blogosphere. It gave a rare look at the inner workings of public relations firms, from how they pitched themselves to prospective clients to the little-known behind the scenes work they offered to do.

APCO proposed laundering money through academic groups to fund congressional delegations or special conferences, as well as hiring “think-tank experts who would say, ‘On the one hand this and the other hand that,'” writing pieces for them to sign and placing them as op-eds in major newspapers. Meanwhile, Cassidy & Associates, another lobbying firm hoping to receive the Turkmenistan account, bragged that they had “strong personal relationships” at every major level of government and had recently succeeded in keeping Equatorial Guinea’s dictator Teodoro Obiang off the list of the world’s Top 10 dictators.

Not everyone, however, was happy to have this information made public. APCO sent their PR people into damage control, issuing a press release insisting “Silverstein’s charade is a comment on his ethics, not ours. [His] claim that he was working in the ‘public interest’ [because going undercover was] the only way he could get information is as false as his story.” APCO also insisted that Silverstein’s “suggestion” that APCO offered to get others to work secretly on behalf of Turkmenistan could not be true because “current law REQUIRES disclosure” in such situations (emphasis in original).

In an NPR discussion between Ken Silverstein and APCO representative B. Jay Cooper (Talk of the Nation, 6/19/07), Cooper justified taking Turkmenistan as a client because, before doing so, they’d run the idea past their contacts in the government and they thought it would be a positive development. He also explained that writing op-eds and getting other people to sign on to them was standard practice–he’d done it dozens of times, for example. Cassidy & Associates, the more expensive firm, did little to respond to Silverstein’s charges in the press. Seeing APCO’s “defense,” this seems like a wise choice.

‘A web of deceit’

Of course, it’s not surprising that the companies exposed would be opposed to the article. More surprising was the response from the supposed arbiters of journalistic ethics. CBS‘s Public Eye blog (6/28/27) insisted that the operation was inappropriate because everyone already knows that lobbyists deceive the public about their clients. “When you indulge in subterfuge to merely provide the conventional wisdom with a concrete example,” they wrote, “that’s when the cost…isn’t worth the benefit.”

Bill Buzenberg, the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, an independent investigative reporting group, told reporters that “misrepresenting yourself is not a good idea. We’re with Howard Kurtz on this one.” Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post and CNN, had sided with APCO in a Post column titled “Stung by Harper’s in a Web of Deceit” (6/25/07). (Silverstein had long criticized Kurtz for, among other things, biased media criticism–Washington Babylon, 7/24/06.)

Kurtz reported that the editor of Harper’s defended the practice by pointing to “a long history of sting operations” by journalists. But, Kurtz wrote, “that undercover tradition has faded in recent years. No newspaper today would do what the Chicago Sun-Times did in the 1970s…. Fewer television programs are doing what ABC did in the 1990s…. NBC‘s Dateline joins in stings against child predators, but by tagging along with law enforcement officials.”

Why this decline in undercover reporting? Kurtz had an explanation: “The reason is that, no matter how good the story, lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.” But maybe that isn’t the whole story.

Undercover history

Undercover reporting has a storied history. Nellie Bly, famous for traveling around the world in 80 days, also did a famed investigation of the conditions in insane asylums for the New York World. Bly feigned insanity for a series of physicians before being committed to a lunatic asylum. There she documented rotten and spoiled food, freezing living conditions, frigid bathwater, abusive nurses and relatively sane fellow residents. “What, excepting torture, would produce insanity quicker than this treatment?” she wondered. The series, later published as the book Ten Days in a Mad-House, created a sensation, and Bly was asked to join a government investigation of asylum conditions.

More recently, as Kurtz points out, Chicago in the 1970s and 1980s was something of a golden era of undercover reporting, in no small part because of the efforts of one woman: Pam Zekman. She and her investigative crew at WBBM-TV used undercover reporting to break dozens of stories. She got a job at a nursing home so she could verify allegations of filth and mistreatment made by relatives. She got a job as a dance instructor to prove a local dance studio was cheating money from seniors. She had a team work at an abortion clinic to prove they were performing abortions on women who weren’t pregnant. And she had a staffer apply for a job at the airport to see what kind of background checks they did on bag screeners.

But Zekman’s biggest story came while she worked at the Chicago Sun-Times. Everyone knew Chicago’s government was corrupt, but Zekman proved it. She purchased a seedy tavern on Chicago’s Near North Side with “more code violations than barstools,” renamed it the Mirage Tavern, and recorded everything as a long string of officials–the fire inspector, the plumbing inspector, the ventilation inspector, the county clerk, accountants, landlords–took bribes while overlooking violations. Even the people who maintained the pinball machine dropped by to show the management how to skim profits.

The resulting 25-part series was full of juicy details like the “business broker” who advised them to bribe everyone except cops, because cops “keep coming around every month, like flies, looking for a payoff.” It led to a stream of tourists visiting the bar, and hundreds calling the paper with new tips. There was coverage in outlets like Time (1/23/78) and 60 Minutes (1/15/78), and in newspapers from Denmark to Australia. A federal investigation of the inspectors quickly led to indictments for 29 electrical inspectors, while the Illinois Revenue Department created a 12-man “Mirage Audit Unit” (Chicago Sun-Times, 1/10/88).

In more recent years, Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover for Harper’s as a maid, a waiter, a Wal-Mart employee and a nursing home assistant. She argued that such “unskilled” jobs were much harder than the white-collar work she was used to and found that even working by herself, eating little, and living in pitiful conditions, she still was unable to make ends meet. The result was the bestselling book Nickel and Dimed, which led to a resurgence of interest in the conditions of the “working poor.”

Food Lion fallout

But, outside of Harper’s, undercover reporting has largely dried up in recent years, and many point to the Food Lion case as the reason. In 1992, ABC‘s PrimeTime Live sent reporters undercover at the Food Lion grocery store to investigate claims of unsanitary food handling practices. The reporters falsified their resumes (“I really miss working in a grocery store…. I would love to make a career with the company,” one wrote on her application), donned hidden camera rigs and got the story.

The pictures were vivid: “old meat being redated and put out again for sale, old ground beef being mixed with new, out-of-date chicken getting a coating of barbecue sauce before being relaunched in the gourmet section” (CJR, 3/97). Viewers came away convinced of Food Lion’s wrongdoing.

But Food Lion fought back, filing a lawsuit against ABC–not challenging the accuracy of the story (although they did do that in public), but charging the reporters who got it with dishonesty. The chain sued ABC for fraud (for lying on their application), trespassing (for coming to Food Lion without permission) and breach of loyalty (for videotaping bad practices when they were supposed to be working for the company). After years of legal wrangling, in 1997 a jury awarded Food Lion a $5.5 million verdict. In 1999, the case was overturned on appeal on somewhat technical grounds.

But by then it was too late–the case had been grinding through the legal system for nearly seven years, and journalists and news outlets had gotten the message: undercover reporting has serious costs. Looking back in 1997, the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review (3/97) declared the 1990s “a humbling time for journalism, particularly investigative television journalism.” Among those humbled: 20/20 had to pay $10 million for claiming BankAtlantic Financial had hoodwinked investors, the Minnesota News Council upheld a complaint against a Minneapolis TV station for painting “a distorted, untruthful picture” of Northwest Airlines safety practices, a Houston TV station paid $5.5 million for charging a state representative with an insurance scam, Michael Moore’s TV Nation paid $5 million for claiming a company had spread toxic sludge over a Texas ranch.

“You can expect journalists in the wake of this to give us more stories about Dennis Rodman and Madonna instead of more stories that are important to us,” 1st Amendment lawyer Bruce Sanford said at the time of the Food Lion case. “The specter of a verdict of this magnitude … will have a chilling effect on investigative journalists all over the country,” proclaimed Jane Kirtley, then executive director of the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press.

Out of fashion

They appear to have been right (although, thankfully, the spate of Dennis Rodman stories has since abated). Undercover reporting has fallen out of fashion. Ken Silverstein argues that this is because reporters, especially Washington reporters, have grown complacent. In an L.A. Times op-ed on the controversy (6/30/07), he wrote:

The decline of undercover reporting–and of investigative reporting in general reflects, in part, the increasing conservatism and cautiousness of the media, especially the smug, high-end Washington press corps. As reporters have grown more socially prominent during the last several decades, they’ve become part of the very power structure that they’re supposed to be tracking and scrutinizing.

The piece on lobbyists, he and his editor insist, was not just done to investigate the particular lobbying firms, but to reawaken journalists to the power of undercover reporting. “There was this meta level in the planning that asked, ‘How will the journalism establishment react?'” Harper’s editor Roger Hodge told a reporter (AJR, 10/07). “The fact that undercover journalism has fallen out of fashion seems to be a problem with the profession.”

Investigative journalism has gotten so rare that foundations have stepped into the gap. A collection of funders has joined to form the new nonprofit ProPublica, which will have an annual budget of $10 million, already making it the largest investigative journalism team in the country.

It’s unclear if anything will wake news organizations from their slumber. Perhaps someone should go undercover inside them to find out.