Goodbye, Nellie Bly! Undercover is interred

February 14, 1997|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- A great era in journalism is passing, I fear. I lament its loss.

It was the era of undercover reporting.

I knew it well; it had a glorious history. Our grandchildren will study it the way they study Prohibition, the Wild West or the band Paul McCartney played in before Wings.

They will read about Nellie Bly, alias Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who went undercover for the New York World to expose the awfulness inside a mental asylum a century ago.

Or they will read about Upton Sinclair, who went to work in the Chicago stockyards to expose deplorable working conditions. He is best remembered for ''The Jungle,'' a brutally graphic novel that aroused so much outrage it led to the founding of the Food and Drug Administration.

Stories got results

Genteel Victorian purists deplored the ''sensationalism'' of such stunts. But undercover journalism produced important stories in ways the least educated masses could understand. Undercover reporting also got results.

One of my first assignments as an intern in Dayton, Ohio, in the 1960s, was to pose as an apartment hunter to test local housing bias.

Later, at the Chicago Tribune, as a member of an investigative team on voter fraud, I worked undercover as a poll watcher in the 1972 primaries. The effort led to several convictions. It also won a Pulitzer Prize.

But the winds shifted noticeably against undercover journalism by 1978 when the Chicago Sun-Times and the CBS program ''60 Minutes'' set up the Mirage, a legal tavern with hidden microphones and cameras.

Figuring correctly that a Chicago tavern is no less attractive to a city inspector than raw meat to a dog, the Mirage caught several in the act of inviting and accepting bribes to overlook code violations.

But, instead of a Pulitzer, the Mirage got a lot of criticism from a new wave of ethical puritans like Ben Bradlee, then editor of the Washington Post. He deplored any form of misrepresentation in pursuit of a story, no matter how beneficial the results might be.

The Bradlee doctrine didn't stop all undercover reporting, but I noticed a chill in the air, especially for major newspapers. Increasingly undercover reporting was left to television reporters armed with tinier and tinier cameras.

Now even those days may be over. Last month, a North Carolina jury found ABC liable for $5.5 million in punitive damages for a 1992 ''Primetime Live'' broadcast that accused the Food Lion supermarket chain of selling spoiled food.

Remarkably, the truth of ABC's report was not challenged in court. Neither was ABC's use of hidden cameras, some of which were hidden in the wigs of ABC producers working undercover in Food Lion stores.

Instead of charging libel or invasion of privacy, Food Lion charged ABC with fraud and trespassing. Producers had faked resumes to work at Food Lion. By focusing on that, the chain avoided having to let the jury see ABC's expose. ABC could not show the ends that justified their means of reporting.

Interviewed afterward, the jurors sounded ready to stop all undercover reporting.

''You can't misrepresent yourself,'' one woman on the jury said.

''Don't break the law,'' said one of her male colleagues.

I say: Never say never.

I wonder, for example, whether the first juror, an African American, would have been as opposed to misrepresentation in a housing discrimination case. Newspapers helped pioneer the sending of black and of white ''testers'' to pose as house shoppers and expose racial bias. You could call such practices lying, fraud, misrepresentation and trespassing, if you wanted to be lawyerly about it. Yet, testing also has become a respected and routine practice for federal regulators.

Some say journalism will be better off without undercover journalism. There are better ways to get a story, they say. Sure. But not all stories.

Undercover reporting was never meant to replace other, less-dramatic, less-audacious forms of investigative journalism. But it tells some stories better than any other form.

Chilling effect

For the sake of such aggressive and necessary journalism, I hope the Food Lion verdict is overturned on appeal. But, even if it is not overturned, I suspect the chill is on.

The Food Lion case may show that the law and public opinion are shifting. Citizens today may hate the media more than they cherish their own right to know important information about such things as the food they serve to their families.

As a result, a great era of journalism may be in eclipse. Undercover reporting may soon be a distant relic like dinosaurs, eight-track tapes and the lambada, done in by the ministers of caution.

So long, Nellie Bly. I, for one, miss you.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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