Over the weekend the editors of The Sunday Times relayed a message from the top of News International: There would be no more subterfuge in the paper’s reporting.
According to the The Guardian the order clarified that reporters could not make up false identities in order to gain access. “Blagging,” as the practice is called in the U.K., is legal and meets journalistic ethics standards if the story is in the public interest—as two of the paper’s big blagged scoops about corruption in Parliament and FIFA certainly were—and many see the mandate as a knee-jerk reaction to the allegations against News of the World.
The Times staff is reportedly frustrated, but it was an especially tough blow for Mazher Mahmood, News of the World’s notorious Fake Sheik, who exposed minor corruption and religious dalliances among politicans and sports figures. Many thought the star undercover journalist—whose memoir, Confessions of a Fake Sheik: The King of the Sting Reveals All, was published by HarperCollins, naturally—would land at The Sunday Times after the News shuttered, and he was seen taking meetings at the office. The new mandate suggested he would not be of use there.
Although blagging has a colorful history in the U.K., in the United States, undercover reporting is generally relegated to the media fringe. James O’Keefe may be the most renowned practioner at the moment, but mainstream outlets like The New York Times seem to be uncertain about whether to consider him a colleague or a curio.
Last month a Times Magazine profile by Zev Chafets gave an unsatisfying verdict:
“Had [James O’Keefe’s videos] demonstrated waste and abuse in Great Society initiatives run amok, or were they simply exposing the failures of some well-meaning, low-level bureaucrats in a basically worthy government program?” he wondered, concluding, “It depends on your perspective.”
Indeed, gotcha journalism is not exclusive to the Right. In this week’s New Yorker, Ryan Lizza dissected the various narratives Michele Bachmann serves up on the campaign trail. In Iowa she is an Iowan and in Michigan she is a Michigander, etc.
Mr. Lizza also coyly alluded to reports that Ms. Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, practices dubious psychology.
“Marcus is a psychologist who runs a clinic that employs people Michele described in 2006 as ‘Biblical world-view counsellors,’ who ‘reach out and try to bring the medicine of the Gospel to come and heal people,’” he wrote.
Mr. Lizza had the access, but it was a blagger who turned up the real news—little known reporter John M. Becker, who went undercover to undergo “treatment” in Mr. Bachman’s clinic for advocacy blog Truth Wins Out:
“Based on my experiences at Bachmann & Associates,” he wrote, “there can no longer be any doubt that Marcus Bachmann’s state- and federally-funded clinic endorses and practices reparative therapy aimed at changing a gay person’s sexual orientation, despite the fact that such ‘therapy’ is widely discredited by the scientific and medical communities.”
ABC News, a bastion of journalism so ethical it recently stopped paying for stories, nonetheless ran a story using the footage Mr. Becker captured at Mr. Bachmann’s clinic.
The New York Times ethics policy states that reporters “should disclose their identity to the people they cover,” and they “may not pose as anyone they are not.” Except, of course, for restaurant critics and travel writers, who must often falsify their identities in order to avoid preferential treatment. But just because Ruth Reichl may have been the only Times reporter to run around town in a wig—either blond (“Molly”) or redhead (“Brenda”)—doesn’t mean she is the only one to practice subterfuge, according to undercover reporting experts.
There are gradations of subterfuge in the mainstream press, according to N.Y.U. Journalism School director Brooke Kroeger, who is at work on a book about undercover reporting.
“Journalism involves behaviors one would not use in their everyday life,” she said. “It often involves layers of persona, of projection, of withholding information.”
But there is more hand-wringing about theatrical undercover work in the United States than in the U.K. In 1979, Chicago Sun-Times reporters opened and staffed a bar in order to determine how graft worked in Chicago. It was initially awarded the Pulitzer for general reporting, but the decision was overturned after Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee led a campaign against the award on the grounds that the story had been obtained unethically.
Barbara Ehrenreich certainly had to conceal her resume in order to get hired at Wal-Mart and other companies for her book Nickle and Dimed, but that didn’t stop the Times Book Review from calling her “the premiere reporter of the underside of capitalism.”
Subterfuge, Ms. Kroeger said, is best practiced sparingly, in the service of something really, really significant. She also advocated journalists have a lot of people looking over their shoulder and plan things carefully.
Off the record engaged in a little blagging of our own on Saturday night, at the Hamptons home of Jay McInerney and Anne Hearst, where a number of guests had assembled to toast the engagement of Lauren Bush and David Lauren.
The party was closed to the press, but there was no security to be found. Lucky us!
We arrived in time for the toast and surreptitiously activated the recording function on our iPhone.
“Let’s raise a glass to two special children, I’m a little prejudiced,” the bride’s mother Sharon Bush said of couple, who are 27 and 39 years old.
“Here’s to the best part,” she added, “David and Lauren Lauren.”
Off the Record suppressed thoughts of Sirhan Sirhan.
Ms. Bush, already bridal in a long off-white lace gown, glowed beside Mr. Lauren who slouched in a white suit and dirty Jack Purcells. That’s when we noticed that everyone at the party was dressed entirely in white, including Kathy Hilton, Ralph Lauren, and Ashley Bush.
Whereas The Observer was all in black.