Did the ends justify the means? The Pulitzer board said “no,” after the Chicago Sun-Times reported on corruption at the Mirage bar it operated. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times
The story of legendary undercover reporter Clarence Jones does more than fill me with nostalgia for the rough-and-ready days of newspaper andbroadcast reporting. It makes me want to imagine the new forms of mass media that could enable such public-spirited derring-do to flourish again.
Now that cell phones can make movies, and the Internet gives access to a mass audience to everyone with a computer, undercover reporting can be done by anyone. But so far, at least, it seems most likely to be done by political activists—including those with intent to mislead.
Jones’s self-published "They’re Gonna Murder You: War Stories From My Life at the News Front" reminds us of the need to find a way to create and maintain institutions that will use those tools responsibly and fairly. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1934, he put his writing skill and mechanical ingenuity to work in the service of his journalism.
His early career with his hometown paper reminds us that newspapers were a natural monopoly in most places, and bad ones could flourish as easily as good ones. A railroad company tied to the city’s power structure owned both Jacksonville papers and they often blocked controversial projects. Jones sought to escape by applying simultaneously to the Nieman Foundation and The Miami Herald. Both said "yes." He went to Harvard first, joining the Nieman class of 1964.
Jones and I had overlapping service with the Herald and its parent company at the time, Knight Newspapers. He faithfully captures the paper’s culture, and in the chapter, "Bosses with Balls," pays tribute to two strong creators of that culture, publisher John S. Knight and editor John McMullan. They were tough newsmen who recruited good reporters and then backed them up.
At the Herald, Jones used a broad spectrum of methods: confidential sources, paper trails, and undercover work to expose public corruption and organized crime. In 1968, he became the first newspaper reporter to analyze public records with a computer. That was for his investigation of Miami’s criminal justice system.
But Jones’s most exciting tales deal with his television days. Frustrated by low pay at the Herald, he jumped at a chance to work for the Bingham family’s WHAS-TV in Louisville, Kentucky and embark on a long-term undercover operation. For eight months, he lived under an assumed name and participated as a customer in gambling dens. He had a camera hidden in a lunchbox, and a microphone taped to his chest. It was then that he learned to use information strategically.
After he aired his report on illegal gambling and corrupt law enforcement, he appeared with the mayor on a live interview show. The mayor accused Jones of being an FBI agent and faking an interview with a friend of his, using leftover clips from somebody else’s interview. Jones promised to prove its authenticity by running extensive excerpts from that interview on the 11 o’clock news that night, and he did.
"Great technique," a police source told him afterward. "Always save a trump card up your sleeve so you can play it when they think they’ve got you cornered." Jones learned to do that deliberately in later investigations.
Florida eventually passed a law that banned the recording of conversations without the participants’ knowledge. Jones found an ingenious way around it.
In an effort to preserve racial segregation, the state Legislature had made it easy to establish private schools, and some became outright diploma mills. Jones lured a salesman from one such school to a reporter’s house where he was invited to make his pitch. The reporter and the salesman sat at a kitchen table with a microphone hidden in a toaster. Whenever the salesman answered an incriminating question, the reporter used a concealed switch to shut the microphone off. But a hidden camera on the patio captured the answer visually when it included a head nod and the lips clearly forming, "That’s right."
In 1984, Jones finally decided that journalism did not pay enough, and he left the field to become a consultant for newsmakers on strategies for coping with pesky reporters like himself. His first book, also self-published, was related to that effort: "Winning with the News Media: A Self-Defense Manual When You’re the Story." His advice ranged from tips for behaving on camera and the nuances of confidentiality agreements to advice on minimizing the effects of a damaging story by getting all of the facts out with speed and accuracy. He makes his points with fascinating case histories.
Going undercover to get information that would not otherwise be available is an old and honorable tradition, exemplified by Nelly Bly when in 1887 she impersonated a madwoman to investigate an insane asylum for The (New York) World.
I went undercover very early in my career, when I was a student reporting for The Kansas State Collegian. I donned a necktie and sat in the back row at a faculty meeting while a dean compromised academic freedom by instructing his architecture professors to stop criticizing the newer campus buildings. They had been designed by a political appointee. Learning of my presence after the meeting, the dean tried to get the story killed, but Kansas State had a tradition of student press freedom, and my piece ran.
Enthusiasm for undercover methods cooled after the Chicago Sun-Times was denied a Pulitzer Prize for its elaborate undercover work exposing tax fraud and bribery of city officials. The paper in 1977 had opened a bar with the ironic name Mirage and recorded a parade of low-level inspectors and officials seeking and taking illicit payments.
The Pulitzer board that vetoed the Mirage bar award included Ben Bradlee, whose Washington Post reporters would go on to do less elaborate forms of undercover work, e.g. participating as migrant workers. The unspoken rule, it seemed to me, was that simple deception was OK, elaborate deceptions were not. The 1996 ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists clarified things by explicitly allowing undercover work "when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public." It added: "Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story."
In the social sciences, participant observation is considered an honorable and effective technique. It is effective because awareness of the observer could change the behavior of the people being observed. It is honorable when the truth provides a social benefit greater than the embarrassment to those deceived.
That, of course is utilitarian ethics, balancing the good against the harm of every act. Journalists tend to be more comfortable with rule ethics, following the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that the rule is more important than its result. That approach is convenient for those who work on deadline, because it enables quicker decisions.
To follow the utilitarian course responsibly takes tough reporters backed by strong institutions run by people like Jones’s "bosses with balls." While I wait for the new digital media to produce them, this memoir reminds me of what is possible.
Philip Meyer, a 1967 Nieman Fellow, is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of a self-published memoir, "Paper Route: Finding My Way to Precision Journalism."