Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Stealth journalism

Two events in the colorful annals of Chicago journalism will give you a sense of how undercover enterprise projects have evolved in the last 30 years. Sadly, it hasn’t been for the better.

The first event occurred in 1977, when the Chicago Sun-Times surreptitiously purchased a tavern riddled with building-code violations, so it could document how many city inspectors and fire marshals could be bought off with a stack of $10 bills.

The second event came to light last week, when reporters at the Chicago Tribune revealed that they had produced the winning entry in a Sun-Times contest for the best video opposing the idea of selling the naming rights to Wrigley Field, the ballpark owned by the Tribune Co. (Video here.)

While both projects required exceptional stealth on the part of each newspaper, that’s where the similarity stops.

The tavern investigation, which resulted in the sanction or conviction of several inspectors, as well as promises of improved integrity on the part of city officials, served a clear public interest. The Tribune video, though cleverly executed, was nothing more than a stunt designed to embarrass the Sun-Times.

The investigation at the tavern whimsically called the Mirage was denied a Pulitzer Prize by jurors who believed the Sun-Times had engaged in unethical deception to get the story. The editors of the newspaper, which I joined shortly after the series was published, argued that the story simply couldn’t be obtained without resorting to an elaborate undercover investigation.

By contrast, the Tribune video, which is unlikely to be considered for the Pulitzer or any other award, resulted from deception for the sake of deception.

Before the Sun-Times awarded the prize in the video contest, its reporter called the Tribune intern posing as the creator of the winning video. The Trib intern, who took the call from the Sun-Times while sitting in a conference room at the Tribune, stated that she was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, which is true.

But she left out the part about being an intern at the Tribune. And being dragged along to the taping of the video after it was conceived and scripted by a group of her colleagues, including the paper’s multimedia staff. “I didn't really know what was going on until we were in the car, driving to Wrigley," said Katie Hamilton in an interview with P.J. Hufstetter of the Los Angeles Times.

As a clutch of Tribune staffers listened to Katie shining on the Sun-Times reporter, Tribune features editor Tim Bannon said he felt a twinge of unease about not telling Katie to confess that she works for the Tribune, according to the L.A. Times. In fact, the Tribune didn’t come clean until after the Sun-Times published a page one story proclaiming Katie the winner of the video contest.

Kevin Pang, the Tribune features reporter who originally cooked up the stunt, had no regrets. “We can't underscore enough that we told the truth at every step,” he told the L.A. Times. “If they asked if we were reporters at the Tribune, we would have admitted it then and there.”

So, this enterprising journalist not only deceived the Sun-Times and, by extension, the public. He apparently has succeeded in deceiving himself, too.

Reaction to this post

"Alan Mutter's self-description as a 'Newsosaur' seems right on the mark, an antiquated, Ben Hechtian view of how newsrooms should operate," responds Kevin Pang, the creator of the Tribune video. "The idea that everything we do should have a FOIA request attached is journalism elitism at its most pretentious." His full post is at Poynter Online.


Blogger Howard Owens said...


7:48 AM  
Blogger BobH said...

Geez, lighten up. We wouldn't want newspapers to be any fun now, would we?

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, the Tribune's effort "was nothing more than a stunt designed to embarrass the Sun-Times."
What was the purpose of the Sun-Times contest, if not to tweak the Trib?
If one swallows Newsosaur's hidebound premise, why is a serious newspaper running a video contest about ballpark naming rights, anyway?
Run out of real issues to cover?

9:10 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

The "You're no fun" doofi can show up and throw rocks, but he's exactly right. It was deception for the sake of deception.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Alan, Alan, Alan...what were you thinking with this post? Can this be my former Sun-Times colleague? My former college pal? Have you been absorbed by Body Snatchers?

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Get over yourself.....

9:29 AM  
Blogger young Owen said...

Oh, goodness gracious, the Sun-Times' intent all along was not to commit journalism, but to embarrass the Tribune. I get the need for a staff bête noire, but "Tribune vs. Chicago" as a headline eating up the whole front page? A daily series of stories with that theme -- including an interview with an ailing 99-year-old in his sickbed? You're entitled to your opinion, but it feels to me like your entitlement is the point of this post.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If anything, Pang has done a very vital bit of truth-telling. The Sun-Times, after all, likes to tell the lie that the residents of 435 N. Michigan are a bunch of humorless killjoys out to, among other dastardly things, ruin Wrigley Field. The video disabuses the viewer of this deception quite elegantly, proving that, yes, a lively, subversive pulse yet beats behind those gothic walls. Deception for the sake of honesty, if you will.

The irony is that Mr. Mutter -- who appears to have earned his Dickensian surname -- seemingly longs for the day when journalists are humorless killjoys: transparent to all, relevant to none.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want to know where the Tribune staffers got the cajones to do that video without getting clearance from Sam Zell that he might not appreciate the lampooning, even if it did "punk" the Sun-Times.

I've seen Zell's good-natured comments about the stunt, but given his early demeanor around his news properties and the shaky job security of most journalists, it made me think the Tribune staffers were either incredibly brazen or incredibly dumb.

The perfect ending would have been for Zell to lay off or buy out the video crew.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Richard Klicki said...

Comparing the Zell video to the Mirage investigation? Are we running out of ideas, Alan?
One-upsmanship among the two major Chicago newspapers has been a long-honored tradition since the days of Ben Hecht (and keep in mind that the Mirage series was denied the Pulitzer thanks to some intense lobbying from the Tribune). Frankly, this is the best Chicago newspaper punk since a Sun-Times photog stuck a Zingo-laden S-T in the hands of then Trubune columnist Mike Royko. With all the dire neaws about the industry, it's nice to see that someone still has a sense of humor ... even if it is the Tribune.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

This kind of thing never happened when we were setting type one letter at a time. Now those were the days ...

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh for pity's sake, old man. It is humorless people like yourself that make this business (what is left of it) a living hell. Thanks for nudging me just ever so slightly closer to the door.

3:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

if we accept this (false) analogy, then we might as well note that the sun-times used to spend its financial resources on investigative projects (such as when it bought the tavern), but now it spends its resources on a $1,000 prize for the winner of a silly video contest.

9:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read Pang's response and was with him until the very end. I thought he was telling the Dusty Old Journalist a thing or two about how things are these days.
But then Pang used the word "chortle."
You're fooling no one, Pang. Only newspaper insiders like you and Mutter use "chortle."

1:34 PM  
Blogger Claudia R said...

Hi, I think this week's New Yorker ("Out of Print," including a reference to my old Sun-Times City Editor, Alan Mutter) lays out the REAL issues we journalism types ought to be worrying about vis a vis newspapers. Come on, this video scam is kind of funny, actually. And what the New Yorker really gets home is that newspapers as we know them are DYING. What people want is Perez Hilton style gossip and Huffington Post (and maybe Jon Stewart) style news. I will also plug a blog --and a novel-- that plays endlessly with the issue of deception. Read "Switch," at http://www.MyStoryLives.blogspot.com...

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lighten up old man! The whole point of the video contest was for one paper to poke fun at another. If anything - you should congratulate both papers for finding new ways to get people to look at their sites and buy papers.

10:49 AM  

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