With James O’Keefe’s latest video sting taking two scalps at NPR this week, we thought it timely to revisit some infamous recent and not-so-recent journalistic stings. From The Mirage Tavern to, yes, James O’Keefe—we didn’t go back so far as Nellie Bly—we’re checking out what happened in each case, what went down after the sting went public, and then giving our thoughts on just how much merit the controversial deception approach had in each case.
How exactly do we assess such a thing? It’s not scientific. But Poynter’s Bob Steele has ventured in the past to provide a checklist of rather strict guidelines that must all be adhered to if deception is to be justified in journalism. These include: the information obtained being in the public interest; all alternative methods of obtaining the information being exhausted; the story being told fully; any harm prevented outweighing the harm caused by the deception; and all ethical and legal issues being closely considered. With those in mind, and the particulars of each case on hand, here’s our trip down an ethically murky memory lane.
Chicago Sun-Times Moonlights at the Mirage
What happened: In perhaps the most elaborate journalistic sting, the Chicago Sun-Times went into partnership with citizens’ group the Better Government Association to buy a seedy bar on 731 N. Wells Street for a $5,000 down payment. They dubbed it, appropriately, The Mirage Tavern. In a twenty-five-part series that began in January 1978, the paper showed how the bar—manned by reporters, some of whom had taken a bartending course to prepare for their side job—managed to evade building code violations through bribes to city inspectors all under the guidance of Chicago landlord Philip Barasch. According to a Time report on the series, Barasch only advised against bribing the police because “if you pay off a cop, they keep coming around every month, like flies ”
What came of it: The story was a big’n, making international headlines and implicating everyone from the city’s fire and plumbing inspectors to the people overseeing the pinball machine. FAIR reports that “A federal investigation of the inspectors quickly led to indictments for 29 electrical inspectors, while the Illinois Revenue Department created a 12-man ‘Mirage Audit Unit.’”
Our thoughts: Legend has it that Ben Bradlee and Eugene Patterson dashed any hope of a Pulitzer because they convinced the board that a truth-telling enterprise should not engage in deception. I don’t know that we’d be so harsh in retrospect. The reporters surely could have gotten the story by more traditional means—there was a city full of taverns to scour for sources—but it likely would have been riddled with anonymity, and thus lacked the impact it eventually had. It would likely have been less definitive and less immediate. There was a serious story here to be told about corruption and public safety—just look at the indictments. It’s a question of weighing your deceptions: which deception, the inspectors’ or the reporters’, was most offensive.
The ACORN Pimp
What Happened: Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe, two young conservative activists, posed as a prostitute and her friend and visited five Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) offices asking for tax advice. Damningly, the video recordings O’Keefe and Giles gathered—which were released on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website—show ACORN workers telling Giles to list her occupation as “entertainer,” “performance artist,” or “freelancer,” instead of prostitute, and describing how to claim underage girls the pair were trafficking from Central America as dependents on her tax return.
What came of it: The story was huge. Fox News ran wild with it and the mainstream media eventually caught up—the Times public editor Clark Hoyt scolded his own paper for being late to the party. Soon after, Congress voted to cease funding for ACORN and in March 2010 the forty-year-old organization announced it was shutting down.