Project Veritas went undercover and got buried in its own muck this week. Although the organization garnered few defenders inside or outside of journalism, its nutty ploy reprised the century-and-half-old debate over the uses of this kind of deception in reporting.
Veritas had previously punk’d lefty activist groups and non-journalistic employees at NPR. But in its attempted sting of the Washington Post, Veritas went directly at the paper’s reporters with a female operative selling the fictitious story that she had been impregnated by Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore as a teenager. The Post’s reporters saw through her flimsy deceptions, counter-stinging her and Veritas with a bundle of fine reporting and thus proving the opposite of the organization’s hypothesis: The Post had no overwhelming bias against Moore, and it exercised skepticism and thoroughness in reporting an allegation brought to its attention.
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While outrageous, the depth of Veritas’ undercover deceptions is not unprecedented, even in contemporary journalistic circles. In 2007, investigative journalist Ken Silverstein went undercover for Harper’s magazine as a business executive who intended to hire lobbyists to skirt the law in helping him reform Turkmenistan’s poor international image. In 1992, ABC News producers told Food Lion a passel of lies to secure jobs at the supermarket so they could film a story about the chain’s substandard health practices. In 1963, Gloria Steinem submitted a fake name and Social Security number to get a job as a Playboy bunny for her exposé in Show magazine.
In the most famous journalistic sting of the past half-century, the Chicago Sun-Times purchased a bar in downtown Chicago, renamed it the Mirage Tavern, and turned it over to reporters to run as a “honey-pot” for crooked city and state inspectors seeking payoffs. The resulting 25-part series, published in 1978, was nearly awarded a Pulitzer Prize until the board, spurred by objections by Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, blocked the honor on the grounds that its methods were too unethical to merit an award.
The profession has yet to chisel the accepted rules of undercover reporting into stone, but a consensus has formed in recent decades that basically prohibits the direct telling of lies to get a story. So, when presumed Veritas operative Jaime Phillips allegedly lied to the Post about Moore getting her pregnant, and urged the reporters to write the story, she crossed the line. But what she’s alleged to have done—lied in the service of a story—is not without precedent in modern journalism. Reporters have posed as high school students, enlisted in the Ku Klux Klan, faked insanity to be admitted into mental hospitals and donned disguises while chasing stories. Jessica Mitford repeatedly pretended to be shopping for funeral services for a dying aunt while doing the research for The American Way of Death. In All the President’s Men, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein confess to having lied to sources and to having impersonated one of the figures they were investigating.
Such underhanded practices are largely frowned upon these days as unethical. But lying is often the lazy, unimaginative way to get the story. Did ABC News producers need to lie on their Food Lion job applications (giving false references and misstating their educational and employment backgrounds)? Probably not. In his working-inside-a-prison exposé, Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer kept on the kosher side of ethics by using his real name and his genuine Social Security number in his job application, while listing the magazine’s parent organization, the Foundation for National Progress, in the employment history section. Tony Horwitz did the same for a 1994 Wall Street Journal story about a poultry processing plant, giving the newspaper’s parent corporation, Dow Jones, as his employer.
A second kosher rule of undercover reporting dictates that a reporter may not create the very conditions he then exposes. In the Silverstein and Mirage Tavern examples, journalists created opportunities for unethical and criminal behavior that might not otherwise exist. A less morally compromised version of the Mirage story would have had the Sun-Times detecting the same crimes but bars not owned by the paper. Proponents of aggressive undercover reporting justify their methods by insisting that some kinds of investigative work can’t be done unless reporters insert themselves as fake players in the process. They’re probably right. It’s difficult to report on how sleezy lobbying and influence-peddling can be unless you insert yourself in the story. But if the press starts sanctioning the telling of lies and staging scenarios to get stories, what’s the next step? Wiretapping? Break-ins? Extortion? The employment of call girls? Other assorted dirty tricks? All of these methods would reap rich results, but at a cost that’s morally prohibitive. (And sometimes legally, too—just ask Andy Coulson.)
Lying and breaking the law are rightly considered the dark arts of journalism. But that doesn’t mean reporters must pretend to be Boy Scouts in their work. Nearly every journalist practices “deception lite” techniques that don’t rise to lying, lawlessness or even misrepresentation. For instance, when interviewing, some journalists bluff their targets or play stupid to get subjects to volunteer information. Totally legit. Others deliberately create uncomfortable silences for their subjects to fill. Observing people in a public place without first making an introduction? OK. Entering an unlocked office or workplace during business hours without first requesting formal permission? Sure. Pretending to have been impregnated by Roy Moore decades ago? No.
Soiled by its failed attempt to prove that the Washington Post is a corrupt news organization, what can Project Veritas do to redeem itself? To begin with, it could surrender its hidden cameras, its disguises and other concealments and the aliases it gives some of its operatives. The established rules of journalism aren’t that oppressive. Even the high priests of journalistic ethics at the Poynter Institute allow for pure deception, high misrepresentation and hidden cameras in reporting. The circumstance must be isolated; the information gathered must be profound; all other alternatives must have been exhausted; the journalists must be willing to disclose their deceptions and justify them; and the harm prevented by the scoop must outweigh the harm caused by the deception.
Whatever the Washington Post’s faults and biases—and they exist—the levels of dishonesty and cheating used by Project Veritas may have contaminated the group beyond salvage. In general, you can almost never trust a liar. In specific, you can never trust an organization whose first choice is to lie.
Disclosure: Ken Silverstein is a friend. Brooke Kroeger wrote a whole book about undercover reporting, which I reviewed in 2012. See also Kroeger’s splendid database on undercover reporting. Send notes from undercover assignments to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts do overcover reporting only. My Twitter belongs to the Boy Scouts. My RSS feed recently joined the Satanic Boy Scouts.