Join 3,496 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Undercover Journalists? Gasp!
May 10, 2005 5:49 PM   Subscribe

"This is a form of undercover journalism that, thankfully, went out of vogue in the early 1980's." This is one reason newspapers suck in the early 2000's.
posted by wendell (56 comments total)

 
...and a reason this story is more than LocalNewsFilter.
posted by wendell at 5:53 PM on May 10, 2005


As part of the paper's reporting, Spokesman-Review editors hired a computer expert to pose as a gay man in an online chat room, uncovering some of West's alleged Internet conversations.

Cops do it. Why can't journalists?
posted by kjh at 5:54 PM on May 10, 2005


I'm utterly dumbfounded by this. This is what happens when 90% is controlled by like, 6 companies.
posted by jonmc at 5:58 PM on May 10, 2005


Undercover is a gray area to me. Say the journalist is investigating pricing fraud at some store. Going in with a hidden camera would be OK, applying for a job at the company would be OK (using a fake resume & name), but I don't think it would be OK to represent yourself as being in a position of authority ("Hi, I'm Mike from headquarters...").

Now representing yourself as something you are not, but not a position of authority should be OK. Pretending to be gay does not put you "above" the subject, and I think it should be fine.

Why the authority test? Well, people behave in odd ways with respect to authority figures. One should read the book Obedience to Authority in which a number of subjects are asked to administer electric shocks to another person under the direction of a scientist who is perceived to be an authority figure. But I am off topic already...
posted by darkness at 6:14 PM on May 10, 2005


I second the "gray area" comment.
wendell is very right, print journalism in general is getting much more sucky. but I blame TV more than I blame many editors' reluctance to use undercover reporters misrepresenting their identity and position
posted by matteo at 6:18 PM on May 10, 2005


Hey, I said "one reason", not "the reason"...

I'll go back and sit in the corner now
posted by wendell at 6:21 PM on May 10, 2005


When it comes to investigating public figures America is already on the record as being quite keen to shoot the messenger. That HAS to have a rather chilling effect on journalism in general.

Personally I haven't been watching any of the American news channels since I now have access to BBC World and Euronews in my cable package, and I really don't feel that I'm any the worse for it.
posted by clevershark at 6:29 PM on May 10, 2005


A form of journalism that went out in the early 1980's . . . Gee, who was the president then? Reagan, wasn't it? Oh, and what doctrine went out the window that helped to keep a fair and impartial press? Oh, wasn't it the Fairness doctrine?

Stupider and Stupider, more mediocre and mediocre . . .
posted by mk1gti at 6:39 PM on May 10, 2005


we've gone from woodward and bernstein to jeff gannon in 30 short years.
posted by quonsar at 6:53 PM on May 10, 2005


There are a number of US cities I've been in that, literally, on days of major events, would have the same word-for-word headline.

Different font, though.

Market diversity, where are you now?
posted by blacklite at 6:54 PM on May 10, 2005


"While he continues to defend this approach, he has also speculated that it will prevent these stories will from winning any major awards. "

Way to go with the ironic "not edited well" tone of the story.
posted by jscott at 6:54 PM on May 10, 2005


what mk1 (and others) said. toothless journalism is useless.
posted by amberglow at 6:54 PM on May 10, 2005


quonsar writes " we've gone from woodward and bernstein to jeff gannon in 30 short years."

Indeed. At least back then when one accused a journalist of being a whore it was only a figure of speech!
posted by clevershark at 7:59 PM on May 10, 2005


So corruption is now off limits for the media. That fits. It's not that there's less corruption, just less reporting of it. As the puppetmasters said, "Perception has become reality."

Seriously, though, these editors are saying that there are many important stories out there that they won't cover -- ever, in any way -- as a matter of policy.

Oh well. Possessing a spine and a central nervous system is no longer a qualification for working in the media.

The saving grace is the independents. Though they pay so poorly that investigative journalism is an avocation and an anti-career.
posted by warbaby at 8:05 PM on May 10, 2005


You'd never see something like the Mirage Tavern series (previously discussed here) these days.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:29 PM on May 10, 2005


Google for "abc food lion".
posted by intermod at 9:21 PM on May 10, 2005


Sure, it's a gray area. That's why editors should talk about it seriously and keep a close eye on any undercover operation. But baldly stating, "Undercover is a method of the past," like the Philly Inquirer editor just did? That's absurd.

Anyone who can't imagine a situation in 2005 in which a journalist would need to go undercover to expose serious corruption is sticking their head in the sand in an almost hilarious way.
posted by mediareport at 9:26 PM on May 10, 2005


p.s. wendell, why'd you feel the need to editorialize so strongly in the post's second sentence? Seems kind of superfluous, is all I'm sayin'...
posted by mediareport at 9:30 PM on May 10, 2005


And one more, sorry. Romenesko's letters page is the go-to spot for this, of course, and Steve Smith, the editor of the Spokesman-Review, has posted a response to critics there. I find it compelling, especially the last paragraph of this excerpt:

Please keep in mind we went to a place where the mayor already was active. The scenario we set up elicited no new behavior. The mayor responded to our character just as he had done with others. All escalations, beginning with the first contact, were initiated by the mayor. The exercise confirmed all that we knew and presented it in a way that we could use.

And, as a result, the mayor was forced to admit all of the allegations related to this portion of the story...

In my view, the online world may cause us to adopt news gathering techniques which we strived to avoid in the real world. The cyber world creates an environment of anonymity that is hard to penetrate.


A paper that takes a thoughtful risk and follows it through, knowing there will be a shitstorm of criticism? I call that a good thing.
posted by mediareport at 9:50 PM on May 10, 2005


hey, mediareport, I'm already sitting in the corner...
posted by wendell at 10:26 PM on May 10, 2005


I thought that journalism went out of vogue in the 1980's.
posted by dreamsign at 10:46 PM on May 10, 2005


Indiana University has a pretty good site with a few choice tales of journalism ethics cases. This one in particular seems pretty timely.
posted by Skwirl at 12:16 AM on May 11, 2005


Market diversity, where are you now?

Market diversity is for a market economy. A consumer economy creates homogenization.

Too bad for us, eh?
posted by Jon-o at 12:50 AM on May 11, 2005


Gee, who was the president then? Reagan, wasn't it? what doctrine went out the window that helped to keep a fair and impartial press? Oh, wasn't it the Fairness doctrine?

Wait, are you seriously wishing that the "Fairness" Doctrine was still in force today? Do you realize that would mean that the FTC (run by Bush appointees, with control by Bush) would get to decide if NBC, CNN, and ABC were being "Fair" enough and showing "both sides" of the story equally. Why do I have a feeling that every story about how stupid the Kansas creationists are would immediately be followed by a government-mandated story about how stupid evolution is? Do you really want the Bush administration to have more control over the media? Think it through... no matter where you think the MSM leans now, imagine how far it would lean right if Bush got to decide if the broadcasters were being "fair" and showing "both sides" of the story.

Hate Regan all you want, but getting the government out of the business watching-over the media's "fairness" was a huge step forward for a free press.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 12:56 AM on May 11, 2005


Market diversity is for a market economy. A consumer economy creates homogenization.

Details are for wimps. A broad brush creates pleasing over-generalization.

There are plenty of ways in which a consumer-driven market can increase market diversity. Not sure how a "consumer economy" is not a subset of a "market economy."
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 1:00 AM on May 11, 2005


Reagan, wasn't it?...Oh, wasn't it the Fairness doctrine?

Also note that Air America and Al Gore's new boondoggle TV channel absolutely could not exist under the Fairness Doctrine. And it's quite possible that Farenheight 9/11 could never be shown on cable under the Fairness Doctrine. "Fairness" was a euphemism for "censorship at the whim of the party in power." Don't bring it back
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 1:02 AM on May 11, 2005


But . . wouldn't we not need Air America and Al Gore's new channel if we still had the Fairness Doctrine? I'd much rather have accurate and fair news rather than solely liberal or conservative outlets - which, while not necessarily always inaccurate, have a lot more pressure to be so than regulated mainstream outlets.

The Fairness Doctrine not only made things fair (duh), but it also probably made things more civil/less partisan, no?
posted by Boydrop at 1:24 AM on May 11, 2005


I'd much rather have accurate and fair news rather than solely liberal or conservative outlets - which, while not necessarily always inaccurate, have a lot more pressure to be so than regulated mainstream outlets.

In principle that sounds great... if it were how the Fairness doctrine would actually be applied. Remember that the Bush administration would get to pick the people who decided if news coverage of any event was "fair". Regardless of your political stance, do you really trust Bush to make sure that the news is truly "balanced", or do you expect the administration to use claims of "bias" as a tool to tilt coverage in their favor? Do you really want equal time for Creation Science every time there is a report about discovering some new species?

As for the fact that news seemed more civil back in the good old days, I think the growth of cable and the death of the networks has led to the fracturing of the audience that has made things more virulently partisan. Correlation, not causation.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 2:27 AM on May 11, 2005


I think it's better to say that we've gone from Woodward & Bernstein to Woodward & Bernstein in 30 short years.
posted by Dagobert at 2:42 AM on May 11, 2005


I'm inclined to think what Boydrop said, however, I am uncertain as to the reasons. Certainly media consolidation is a major influence on the lack of quality reporting today. Especially on TV, news is no longer journalism, but entertainment.
posted by Goofyy at 2:47 AM on May 11, 2005


Do you really want equal time for Creation Science every time there is a report about discovering some new species?

No.

I think the growth of cable and the death of the networks has led to the fracturing of the audience that has made things more virulently partisan.

So there's no cable television in Canada? They get imported a lot of the same shit we watch down here. However, I would go out on a limb and guess that they probably have much more media/news regulation. Perhaps that helps to partly explain why their political cultural is much less volatile than the US's - they don't allow their wackos of any particular persuasion to run roughshod over public discourse.
posted by Boydrop at 3:24 AM on May 11, 2005


(The Fairness doctrine didn't regulate cable, just like the FCC doesn't regulate cable now...)

Hey guys, of course they're going to say that undercover reporting is dead and gone. Why? So that people don't suspect them when they actually do put in a reporter undercover. (The other thing that's changed is that it's much, much easier to get documentation now. Everyone knows how to file a FOIA request, right? And most investigative stories are based on documents, not on undercover work.)
posted by klangklangston at 5:26 AM on May 11, 2005


[Nelly Bly spins in her grave.]
posted by orange swan at 7:25 AM on May 11, 2005


The Fairness Doctrine didn't apply to everything that was broadcast over public airwaves. It applied only to opinion and partisan pieces - advocacy. It would apply to talk radio and pundits. It wouldn't apply to stations practicing real journalism.

It wouldn't create "balanced" news as in the the creation science example above.

The reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine would have an enormous impact. Among other things, it would put Fox Nooz out of business. Likewise the talking hairdos like Rush and Coulter.

In the broadcast world, the Fairness Doctrine was the enforcement mechanism for the firewall between news and editorial. Reagan got rid of it (and a bunch of media anti-trust law in the Broadcast Reform (sic) Act of 1984 (heh)) and now look at the mess. That little gem also killed public access cable.

And the fact that it would be admininstered by Bush appointees wouldn't prevent the courts from serving as a check and balance. Many important Fairness Doctrine cases were decided in the courts, not administratively.

Methinks the Fairness Doctrine would be worth a FPP if there is a good site or two devoted to that quaint and forgotten piece of history.
posted by warbaby at 7:33 AM on May 11, 2005


talking through my hat about the 1984 act. Ahem.

A capsule history of the Fairness Doctrine

An analysis of the Fairness Doctrine

the Wikpedia article
posted by warbaby at 7:48 AM on May 11, 2005


Thedevildancedlightly is trolling this thread warbaby.
Although I'm not sure he isn't completely ignorant of the facts you present and aware only of "approved" talking points on the subject.
Such is the direct result of no Fairness Doctrine in place during his lifetime. Only one viewpoint presented equals only one set of reference points.
posted by nofundy at 7:55 AM on May 11, 2005


If you don't want to get FOIA requests youself, (they often will charge private citizens and yet waive fees for the press) then I suggest you support places like The Momeory Hole.

A magazine I get covered the Fairness Doctrine recently.

A short description:

"In practice, the Doctrine was meant to do two things: require stations to cover controversial issues of public importance and provide differing viewpoints on such issues. It was meant to prevent stations from broadcasting a single ideological perspective, day in and day out, without opposing viewpoints."

The argument against goes, "...that the Fairness Doctrine was confusing to stations and citizens alike, and that it was expensive and time-consuming to enforce." I'd take that further and say that because of the rise of single-view broadcast networks any attempt to bring the doctrine back will be fought tooth and nail by these entities even with 77% of people in favor of it.
posted by john at 10:43 AM on May 11, 2005


I actually agree with one of the editors in the story who said (basically) "we're in the business of truth, we shouldn't be misrepresenting ourselves."
It's always bothered me when I watched cop shows and the cops say "Hey we've got your buddy and he's about to confess, so come on and spill before he does..." The police are supposed to be the enforcers of the law, and they should be held to a higher standard than the criminals they deal with. Relatedly, just because our opponents blow up innocents doesn't mean it's OK to torture them.

The 'good guys', be they reporters, law enforcement or someone else, must reject the tools of their opponents, even when those tools might make them successful.
I've never been a fan of Star Wars but in that Goerge Lucas is correct. If in defeating 'them' we become 'them', where's the benefit.
posted by Octaviuz at 1:40 PM on May 11, 2005


The Fairness Doctrine didn't apply to everything that was broadcast over public airwaves. It applied only to opinion and partisan pieces - advocacy. It would apply to talk radio and pundits. It wouldn't apply to stations practicing real journalism.

And who decides what is "advocacy" and what is "real journalism?"

Among other things, it would put Fox Nooz out of business.

In a country where the right controls both the executive and the legislative branch, I'd bet dollars to donuts that the FCC would decide Fox News constitutes "journalism," not "advocacy," and thus is not bound by the Fairness Doctrine. Meanwhile Air America would be declared to be "advocacy," not "journalism."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:57 PM on May 11, 2005


Everyone can be charged for FOIA requests, but that charge has to be a legitimate representation of filing, retrieval and duplication costs. Fees are waved only when you're doing a story that's likely to be positive with regard to whatever agency you're hitting with the FOIA, and that's rare (since friendly stories rarely need a FOIA).
posted by klangklangston at 3:23 PM on May 11, 2005


Thedevildancedlightly is trolling this thread warbaby.
Although I'm not sure he isn't completely ignorant of the facts you present and aware only of "approved" talking points on the subject.
Such is the direct result of no Fairness Doctrine in place during his lifetime. Only one viewpoint presented equals only one set of reference points.
posted by nofundy at 7:55 AM PST on May 11 [!]


WTF?

If you want to contest any of my assertions of fact or conclusions from them then please feel free to do so. If you want to call references to history and poltics "trolling" then take it somewhere else. What, precisely, do you disagree with about my statements? Where exactly do I get these talking points, especially since the conclusion is that Bush would manipulate the media? I'm not really sure what you're adding to the conversation here.

As for "one viewpoint", you think that MeFi, CNN, FoxNews, LGF, DailyKos, and IndyMedia all present the same viewpoint? If so, please describe what these viewpoints all have in common.

Do you disagree that the Fairness Doctrine would be misapplied by the Bush Admnistration to get their way in the press? Do you disagree that it would make the media as a whole shift rightward? If so, then why? Until then please refrain from calling people trolls when you disagree with them.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 3:36 PM on May 11, 2005


The Fairness Doctrine didn't apply to everything that was broadcast over public airwaves.

Given that the Right is trying to apply public deceny standards to cable TV, I wouldn't trust that the Fairness Doctrine wouldn't also be applied to CATV. If it isn't applied to cable then it is entirely toothless since Fox News (apparently the biggest problem here) is a cable channel and wouldn't be affected.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 3:39 PM on May 11, 2005


Huh, looks like another typical nofundy troll-and-run.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 6:05 PM on May 11, 2005


thedevildancedlightly, I didn't think you were trolling, but I remembered how the Fairness Doctrine was applied and it was different from how you are presenting it.

I'm assuming that when we are talking about the Fairness Doctrine, we agree that we are talking about what is was like, not what it might be like hypothetically.

Rush would be out of business if the Fairness Doctrine was in place. So would Michael Savage and all the other bully-ragging hatetalk jocks. They'd have to provide a forum for a reply to their nonsense. They'd also stand to cost stations their licenses due to the now defunct "personal attack" policies that accompanied the Fairness Doctrine.

The important cases were settled in the courts, not by the FCC. This seriously cuts the ground under your claim that the Bush regime would control how it was used. The Fairness Doctrine, when it was in effect, was ultimately administered by the courts. And most stations played along, because there were real consequences to using a federal broadcast license as a bullhorn to push people around with.

In the most serious case (I forget the specific cite but I could look it up in Committee of the States if you wanted) a station lost its license for airing the anti-Semitic rantings of William Potter Gale, the great grand-daddy of the Posse Comitatus and the so-called militia movement.

Long story short, the Fairness Doctrine did work to level the playing field and restrain the excessive enthusiasm of political zealots (particularly those who owned broadcast licenses.)

the upshot of the 1984 Telecom Act and the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine has had a very real and substantial effect. The loss of these protections has contributed to the erosion of the Republic and the moribund state of democracy.
posted by warbaby at 7:00 PM on May 11, 2005


a station lost its license for airing the anti-Semitic rantings of William Potter Gale, the great grand-daddy of the Posse Comitatus and the so-called militia movement.

See, that strikes me as the entire problem. I disagree with his speech, but standing on a soapbox on a corner isn't effective politically anymore. Clearly somebody thought his speech was worth airing, why should the government (the FCC or the courts) get to decide that his speech isn't worthwhile and that somebody else's is? It might seem hateful to you and I, but pro-gay-rights television still seems hateful to people in the Midwest. I wouldn't trust a judge in Kansas to decide that it was "fair" to show speech that supported gay rights.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 7:03 PM on May 11, 2005


and thank you, warbaby, for engaging in civilized dialogue.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 7:04 PM on May 11, 2005


particularly those who owned broadcast licenses

If you brought it back today would you apply it to Cable TV as well, given that cable is where the poltiical action is today?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 7:19 PM on May 11, 2005


We would do well to bring the fairness doctrine back.
posted by amberglow at 7:19 PM on May 11, 2005


We would do well to bring the fairness doctrine back.

How would you square the First Amendment with the fairness doctrine for cable? On the airwaves it's a plausible argument about the public trust in the airwaves, but for cable (private transmissions between parties), especially since if you count cable you can count the Internet?
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 7:27 PM on May 11, 2005


I don't think the FCC has licensing jurisidiction over cable. There was plenty of cable operations when the Fairness Doctrine was in place, but there was very little programming originating on cable that was carried over licensed broadcast stations.

you ask: If you brought it back today would you apply it to Cable TV as well, given that cable is where the poltiical action is today?

Short answer: no.
posted by warbaby at 7:42 PM on May 11, 2005


About the KTTL-FM case involving William Potter Gale.

The bare bones were that Gale went on a rant (details here). People who felt they were attacked asked for equal time under the Fairness Doctrine.

They weren't acting to silence Gale, they wanted to have their side be heard. The station told them to get stuffed. They appealed to the FCC under the FD. The FCC stumbled around and it ended up in court.

The conduct of the station was so egregious that the upshot was they lost their license and the station was placed under the trusteeship of the plaintiffs.
posted by warbaby at 8:07 PM on May 11, 2005


They weren't acting to silence Gale, they wanted to have their side be heard.

That seems more reasonable. I still question the line-drawing problems about what's "advocacy" and what's "journalism", and who gets to measure what's "fair." Even if it's done through the courts, I think the intimidation factor of having to face a suit will shut down a lot of kinds of beneficial speech. If small independent channel X knows that if they air a Matthew Shepard documentary then the Family Values Coalition will file a lawsuit (however frivolous) that will cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend, then they might not air it.

Short answer: no.

I'm not sure how much good the Fairness Doctrine would do if it didn't apply to cable. If we have four "fair" broadcast networks (which are all crap anyway) and 500 unregulated cable channels then I'm not sure if there will be any sort of impact. The conservative and liberal blow-hards will still have their cable shows, and the national broadcast networks will continue their watered-down "Meet the Press" style of political commentary.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:25 PM on May 11, 2005


the Fairness Doctrine doesn't limit anyone's speech--it requires equal time for opposing views.
posted by amberglow at 9:27 PM on May 11, 2005


it requires equal time for opposing views.

The First Amendment has been interpreted to prohibit government-compelled speech just as much as it prohibits government restriction of speech. The government can't force you to wave happy signs when Bush drives by, just as much as it can't [in theory, we need to work on this...] prevent you from flicking him off. If the radio station WAMBER doesn't want to present anti-gay speech the government has a First Amendment prolbem in trying to get WAMBER to let that Phelps guy talk. Over the public airwaves there's a "public trust" rationale, but over private communications lines it's a lot more difficult.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:45 PM on May 11, 2005


thedevildancedlightly ,

I understand your point about government-compelled speech, but doesn't the fact that the public owns the space mean that there might be some argument for other points of view to be taken into account? I would say that preventing a counter view is censorship. I would not hold a station responsible for creating a program with that view, but preventing one that existed from airing would seem wrong.

Certainly, there is the possible problem of a near infinite regression of opinions to be heard, but I don't see it as that big of a problem.
posted by john at 4:55 PM on May 12, 2005


but doesn't the fact that the public owns the space mean that there might be some argument for other points of view to be taken into account?

You're entirely correct - that's how the Fairness Doctrine got applied to the airwaves when it was used. Basically the broadcasters got to use the airwaves only subject to the "public trust" which meant that there were restrictions (here, equal speech) applied. The problem is how to extend that to cable without also including the Internet? Cable is private communications over privately owned wires, just like the Internet.

Not applying it to cable wouldn't do much these days since Fox News and Al Gore's channel are both on cable.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 5:22 PM on May 12, 2005


« Older best review of the new NIN cd ever...  |  The puzzle that ate the world?... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments