Opinion: Are American journalism’s ethics really so much better than the Brits’?

By Maggie Jones Patterson

The New York Times recently ran a front-page article by Justin Scheck and Jo Becker exposing questionable ethical practices by two British journalists who had been hired as the Washington Post’s new leaders. The Post, The Guardian, Vanity Fair and others news outlets carried similar exposés. 

According to these articles, both men had engaged in questionable journalistic practices in Britain. While the articles implied that such practices were considered beyond the pale in American news outlets as reputable as the Washington Post, the American public is generally unfamiliar with the nuances of journalistic ethics. They might have been left scratching their heads.

(The story did not play big at all in regional newspapers between the coasts of America, but it raises the kinds of questions that frequently come up in journalism classes and public discussions across the country.)

In describing the new hires’ decades-long association with phone hacking, “blagging” (a British term for creating a false identity to obtain information), and stealing documents, the Times article repeatedly proclaimed that most American news outlets’ ethics codes condemn such practices. The implication was that these Brits – Will Lewis, who is the Post’s new publisher, and Robert Winnet, who was scheduled to become the paper’s editor after the November elections – were hauling their dirty laundry across the sea and potentially soiling the American news outlets’ clean linens. Winnet later said that he withdrew his name from consideration to stay in Great Britain at The Daily Telegraph.

Journalists everywhere have been notoriously bad at telling the public why they do what they do. At this time, more than ever, journalists should be especially careful to explain their scruples and assure the public that their ethics are tightly fastened. After all, the press – and its political coverage in particular – is under heightened scrutiny that will only become more intense in the lead up to the election and beyond, no matter who is elected. 

The recent articles about the Post hires – especially the one in the New York Times – stake a moral high ground for American journalism. For the most part, they are right to do so. American mainstream journalism does not pay for information or tap phones. In Britain, both the tabloid press and the more respectable broadsheets are guilty of those behaviors and more. 

But with ethics, the devil is in the details. The public may have to blink back incredulity to envision the American journalists on the higher road. Already skeptical news consumers may well question whether the American news organizations’ behavior is all that distinctive from that of their British colleagues. 

For example, the word blagging may be new to Americans, but the practice of our journalists pretending to be someone to get information is not. The recent story about what U.S. Supreme Court justices said to filmmaker Lauren Windsor was obtained by methods widely condemned in press ethics codes. Windsor posed as a conservative Catholic at a gala dinner and asked Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts leading questions while secretly recording them. She never told the justices they were speaking on the record before making her edited recordings public. While initially American news outlets widely condemned Windsor’s unethical methods, any hesitation to run her findings at the top of the news was short-lived. 

The New York Times reported that in 2002, Winnet scored a scoop for the Sunday Times of London when he identified members of the House of Lords, a major political donor, and an insurance industry leader as among those British elite signing up to buy a Mercedes luxury car that was being re-issued. The Maybach, which cost approximately £250,000 ($372,000 in 2002), had once been called “The Nazis’ favorite limousine.” The buyers’ names, the New York Times’ investigation showed, were obtained by private investigator John Ford—a blagger—who later admitted he had called a Mercedes dealer, faked a German accent and presented himself as a key fob manufacturer who needed to confirm the spellings of customers’ names. Ford, who describes himself as a “common thief,” said that he used his skills as an actor and mimic to obtain information and records that he turned over to the Sunday Times.

Blagging is illegal under British law, but it can be legally permitted when the public interest is involved. According to the Post, Mark Lewis, a media lawyer who has brought phone hacking cases to court, questioned how much public interest was at work in the Maybach story. On a utilitarian scale, did the benefit to public interest outweigh the harm of the sleazy reporting tactic? Winnet, meanwhile, went silent on his involvement with Ford after accepting the editor position with the Post before he declined it.  

American journalists may condemn blagging by an actor, but reporters themselves have used disguises and deceptions to get a story, and it is a time-honored tradition. Back in 1887, the famed Nelly Bly feigned madness in order to be committed to Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island. She then documented the institution’s abusive conditions for Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World. 

Although undercover reporting always raised eyebrows and many American news organizations have banished it, the practice enjoys a stellar history – including Shane Bauer working as a guard to expose the deplorable conditions in private prisons for Mother Jones; Neil Henry at the Washington Post, who went undercover as a migrant worker in 1983; and other Post staffers, reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull and photographer Michel du Cille, who won a Pulitzer for Public Service after exposing mistreatment of soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital in 2018. Those Post reporters did not go undercover, but they did not make themselves known to hospital authorities.

Undercover reporting fell out of favor – but not out of existence – after the Chicago Sun-Times was denied a Pulitzer for its compelling 1978 Mirage Bar coverage. The paper bought a corner bar, equipped it with hidden cameras that focused on the various inspectors – fire, health, ventilation, etc. – who came to the Mirage and picked up bribes, which were not explicitly offered to them but rather left on a countertop.

The Sun-Times effort made a huge splash that led to multiple reforms of a corrupt system. 

But when the series came before the Pulitzer committee, some members spoke against those undercover tactics. Eugene Patterson, then president and editor of the St. Petersburg Times, argued that the Mirage series “had an element of entrapment.” Ben Bradlee, former executive editor of the Washington Post, said “We instruct our reporters not to misrepresent themselves, period.” The Pulitzer committee’s rebuke reverberated throughout American journalism, and instances of undercover reporting fell precipitously.

Subsequently, undercover reporting fell out of fashion in journalism, but a few remaining examples were popular with the public – presumably because the public saw that what was revealed mattered and garnered tangible results. In 1992, Prime Time producers falsified job applications to work in Food Lion’s delicatessens and used hidden cameras to document unhealthy food being mislabeled and sold to customers. In 2004, HBO Real Sports used undercover methods to show enslaved little boys forced to ride as camel jockeys in the United Arab Emirates. The boys were subsequently replaced by robots.

Journalists on both sides of the pond cite public interest as the end that justifies illicit means. That argument holds more weight when the stories expose fraud and harmful practices. But when reporters probe the lives of celebrities, or criminals and their victims, the definition of public interest can devolve to merely what piques the public’s interest. 

For reputable American journalists, paying for information is forbidden. The fact that it is stolen not so much. In his recent book, “Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and the Washington Post,” retired Post editor Martin Baron recounts the story of paper’s decision to publish parts of highly classified materials, leaked (considered stolen by some) by Edward Snowden from the National Security Agency. Baron attests to the Post’s careful weighing of revelations about how the NSA was violating Americans’ privacy rights against concern for national security and protection of agents and informants. The questionable way these documents were obtained hardly came up.

At Donald Trump’s recent trial in New York, the public learned that the National Inquirer does pay for stories, which in some cases it agrees not to publish.  Did that public also understand that the National Inquirer obeys its own unique ethics practices and is not a considered reputable or mainstream journalism outlet?

American journalists reported that Winnet and Lewis had worked together at the Daily Telegraph uncovering a scandal about MP’s expense accounts in 2009. They paid £110,000 for a stolen disk containing the politicians’ expenditures, worked for months verifying the information, then published articles detailing MP’s lavish spending of public funds. A major political scandal resulted.

American journalism needs to do a better job of explaining itself to the people it does reports for. Legally, ethically and culturally, American journalism holds to a mantra of transparency put forth by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis over a century ago: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The mission statement of virtually every major news organization in this country pledges its journalism to act in the public interest. When news organizations put that commitment above all other interests, they seldom go wrong. 

But the turning points in ethical decision-making are often subtle and complex. Good journalism sometimes must cause harm to achieve a greater good. It must constantly ask hard questions of itself. It also should do a  better job of explaining itself to its audiences. 

Maggie Patterson is professor of journalism at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, former reporter for the Pittsburgh Press and co-author of four books.

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