it's mind-boggling: In Food Lion vs. ABC News, jurors awarded a corporation $5 million in damages in a case where the investigation was so clearly truthful and damning that the company didn't even sue for libel. It didn't matter that Food Lion was disguising old, rotten food and bleaching it to remove its odors in order to sell it to unsuspecting consumers. That's just business. What mattered was that the individual journalists told a lie -- and were therefore damnably immoral.
Maybe I'm sensitive about this particular issue because I have gone "undercover" myself several times in my 10 years as a journalist. I didn't think of it in those dramatic terms, just as a way to take a closer look. On one occasion, I posed as a pregnant woman (carrying a jar of a pregnant friend's urine) to find out how counselors at a fake, right-wing-funded abortion clinic lied to, and manipulated, vulnerable women who walked through their doors. More recently, during the course of writing an exposi of the diet industry, "Losing It: America's Obsession With Weight and the Industry That Feeds on It" (Dutton), I posed as a patient to see whether diet doctors would prescribe potentially dangerous drugs to someone who was not medically overweight. I also pretended to be a client at Jenny Craig and other weight loss centers to get a view of their misleading business practices.
The only reason I went undercover was to get information that I couldn't otherwise obtain. Doctors will tell a reporter they'd never prescribe prescription diet pills to anyone who isn't dangerously obese -- but when that reporter shows up as a patient who's only cosmetically overweight, they're all too happy to comply.
The problem with going undercover is that once the story's out, it's too easy for readers, and viewers, to focus on the journalist herself, and the adventure of going undercover, rather than on the story. Journalists are caught in a bind: The more we do to uncover a story, the more we risk being uncovered ourselves. Is it worth that distraction in order to get people to pay more attention to the real point of the story you're investigating? Usually it is. Sometimes, though, it isn't.
During the publicity tour for my book, I quickly discovered that very few people were interested that I had spent three years knee-deep in documents, doing hundreds of interviews, to investigate the diet industry. They only cared that I had gone "undercover." The story became me -- not the $50 billion industry that feeds on our insecurities, not the obesity researchers who are paid by pharmaceutical companies that make diet drugs to tell us that being 10 pounds overweight is a grave danger to our health. No. The morning TV interviewers were interested in my weight problems, my former eating disorder, and how I felt about my body right now. They couldn't get away from the personal for even a nanosecond to take a look at how an industry with revenues the size of the Gross National Product of Ireland makes women crazy about their bodies. The low point came on the Today Show, when Matt Lauer leaned forward and asked me, "So ... did you binge and purge?"
Of course, I'm partly to blame. In "Losing It," I introduced the book using a personal voice, as someone who has spent too much time of her own hung up on her weight. This personal style made sense, because the issue of weight and dieting is so personal to many people -- which is why diet and pharmaceutical companies can exploit us so handily, making us feel that any failures of their products and services are our own fault. But the personal voice, like the undercover stories, was just a means to an end. The meat of the book was plain old journalism, and had nothing to do with me.
I knew that by going undercover and revealing something about my own history as a dieter and ex-bulimic, I risked being uncovered myself by the people I was investigating. I was prepared for that. What I wasn't prepared for was the ease with which my three-year investigation turned into a four-minute personal drama: How had I pulled off my undercover act, and was I still throwing up? (After that, believe me, I was tempted.)
It's difficult when selling your story relies, to an extent, on how well you sell yourself. It isn't clear, in the end, that it's worth it. In the past, journalists who went undercover didn't have to deal with that problem. From Lincoln Steffens uncovering "The Shame of the Cities," to Jessica Mitford peering into funeral parlors, to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein toppling a presidency, the best investigative journalists have gone to great lengths to get their stories, because both they and the public were devoted to examining great institutions and rooting out what's rotten inside. Those journalists became famous for what their stories revealed, not for how they went about getting them. It's fuzzier now, when we're more interested in the journalists than in what they report on.
OK, maybe PrimeTime Live didn't need to bring in hidden cameras under wigs. Maybe they had plenty of workers who would talk off the record about the food-handling practices there. But the tape made it a better story, and because we are so accustomed to the journalists being a part of the news, the fact of going undercover gave it that personal twist that made it something people would be more willing to watch. After all, the news is competing with Oprah and Ricki.
Maybe this is the real shame. The old dramas of big corporations vs. little people don't seem to interest anyone anymore. Instead, we find ourselves drawn into smaller, and smaller-minded, morality plays about the people themselves, struggling between little goods and evils, truths and lies. Whether because we feel so hopeless and jaded in face of the enormity of corporate greed, or because we're simply voyeuristic, we've somehow arrived at a point where we're much more upset about the little lies journalists told to uncover a story than we are about the horrendous business practices of that company itself. It's as if we can no longer analyze public wrongdoing in any terms larger than those that fit the individual personality. Forget social policy -- let's talk about Paula Jones.
I will continue to defend the rights of journalists to go undercover, simply because the public has a right to know things that corporate public relations people or political operatives don't want to tell us. But the next time I go undercover, I'm keeping it under wraps.
EXTRA! The S'more Theory of Contemporary American Politics
Presidents and Speakers come and go, yet Washington, D.C., continues, inexorably, its slow waddle down the middle of the road, listing right. At a Newsweek-sponsored inaugural bash last week, Republican hired gun Tony Blankly told two intrepid New York Observer reporters the secret to Washington's success: It's very much like a certain lowbrow dessert food. "Washington can absorb better than we'd probably wish it would," he explained. "Washington is like a giant marshmallow. It's hard to puncture the marshmallow. This town's not a gladiator. If you're the conquering hero, it's not gonna challenge you. It plays rope-a-dope with you. You punch away, and pretty soon your arms get tired, and you stop, and the great marshmallow absorbs you, and it goes on. That's the challenge, if you're leading an invasion of Washington: How do you stop being absorbed by the marshmallow?"