When a North Carolina jury took a swipe at hidden-camera television exposes last week, the press mostly circled the wagons and declared it a travesty. But what the Fourth Estate is defending is shoddy journalism, unworthy of the best tradition of investigative reporting.
The jury found ABC liable for $5.5 million in punitive damages for using deceptive research tactics, amounting to fraud, in a 1992 "Primetime Live" broadcast that accused the Food Lion supermarket chain of selling spoiled food. The show's producers faked resumes to get jobs at Food Lion stores and then used hidden cameras to catch workers prettying up tainted meat.ABC's lawyer, Bill Jeffries, says the "Primetime" crew was punished "for being journalists." Nonsense. It was punished for trickery and deception.
Hidden cameras? That's the easiest call. Their growing use by TV news magazine shows, including "Primetime Live" and NBC's "Dateline," is part of a ratings-driven descent by the major networks into the swamp of tabloid journalism. Teaser promos for the programs hype concealed-camera feats to snag viewers who like to watch people who don't know they're being watched. But good journalism is not about sensationalizing how the story was obtained.
The more difficult issue is the use of undercover practices to get a story that might otherwise be difficult to report. So what if a few producers falsified their resumes to land jobs at Food Lion: Isn't this part and parcel of muckraking journalism? Subterfuge does have a long tradition in investigative reporting, but it is a dubious one. The pioneer was Nellie Bly, who in 1887 feigned insanity to gain admission to the New York City Lunatic Asylum.
Bly's report in The New York World on her 10 days in the asylum exposed horrors that spurred needed reforms. But was that the only way to get the story? Probably not. The flamboyant Bly was an artful practitioner of what was known back then as "stunt journalism." She also posed as a prostitute and a thief and was regarded by some peers as a self-promoting sensationalizer and an embarrassment to the craft.
Broadsheet newspapers hyped derring-do disguise feats just as the TV news magazine shows now tout hidden-camera tricks. The headline for a front-page story on Bly's asylum exploit in the rival New York Sun blared "Playing Mad Woman," and the subhead declared, "Nellie Bly Too Sharp for the Island Doctors."
The greatest muckrakers shunned such ruses. Ida Tarbell brought down John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil monopoly by the tireless bird-dogging of court records and other documents - a righteous tradition later upheld by I.F. Stone and honored these days by the crusaders who are following the money to expose the fund-raising practices of House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Clinton. And Fortune magazine didn't need to go undercover for its 1993 report on the exploitation of child labor in garment-industry sweatshops in New York City and Los Angeles.
Indeed, ABC could have done a devastating story on Food Lion without the tricks. Diane Sawyer, the "Primetime Live" anchor, said 70 current and former employees of the chain had attested to unhealthful food-handling practices in on-the-record interviews with the show's researchers. But that wasn't sexy enough, so ABC went undercover to dramatize the tale. A commercial imperative, not a journalistic one, drove this piece.
Many news organizations ban undercover operations. Eager reporters can be tempted to entrap subjects or stage scenes to justify these ventures.
The Chicago Sun-Times and CBS's "60 Minutes" were appropriately criticized for a 1978 project that involved setting up a phony bar, the Mirage, to catch Chicago officials demanding bribes to overlook code violations.
A few years later, a television reporter for an NBC affiliate in Chicago took matters into his own hands when his hidden-camera crew failed to capture a real-life incident of police brutality. A cooperative cop helped him with a dramatization in which the reporter had himself handcuffed, locked into the back of a police wagon and filmed being violently tossed around as the vehicle sped away.
ABC points out that Food Lion sued for fraud, not libel, and so did not challenge the substance of the story. But news organizations should not be untruthful in their search for the truth. The North Carolina jury has fired a well-deserved warning shot. Stunt journalism saps the credibility of the press and makes life tougher for honest snoops.