‘Posing’ A Question


Should a journalist ever misrepresent his/her identity in order to get a story? Ever since the ABC News/Food Lion fiasco, the answer has been obvious to me. Of course not. It’s unethical.

But what if you’re a political satirist and activist trying to prove that the person you’re calling is a bad guy? Is that OK?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself in the wake of the blogger and Democratic operative from Buffalo pretending to be wealthy conservative benefactor David Koch in a telephone call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The blogger basically got Walker to admit that his intent in proposing the recent controversial legislation is to break the public-sector unions — no big surprise there.

Some are likening this episode to the escapades of the activists who posed as potential clients for ACORN and Planned Parenthood and got employees of those organizations to say embarrassing things. And I think there is some validity to that. The Fox News types who applauded those moves now profess to be horrified at what the Buffalo Beast did to Walker. Conversely, liberals who complained then consider the blogger a hero now.

But there are a couple of important differences. The right-wing activists were impersonating fictitious characters during in-person visits. The Buffalo blogger was impersonating an actual prominent person and taped the phone conversation without the consent of the party he was calling. The latter is a crime in most states. In addition, illegal wiretapping could expose the caller to civil litigation. The question of fraud is another matter entirely and, I am told, is less clear.

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8 Responses to ‘Posing’ A Question

  1. Richie says:

    Terry, that is an important distinction in that some are impersonating a real people and others are not.However, I think whenever decpetion plays a role in disarming people to say something they would keep to themselves amongst mixed company, it is wrong and lacks credibility.

  2. Terry Cowgill says:

    I agree. Would you say the same about the ACORN/Planned Parenthood interlopers? As we say on our private FB thread, I'm just looking for clarity.

  3. Terrence McCarthy says:

    When I was a newspaper reporter, I got a phone call at my desk. I can't remember exactly how I answered. I was on deadline. But I do remember what the guy at the other end of the line said right off the bat. Or at least I thought I knew what he said. I thought he said, " This Terry? "I said yes. Then the guy started telling me things I couldn't believe he was telling me. The guy was part of a story I was covering. He wasn't one of my sources. Far from it. He was aligned with some politicians I covered. What was going on here? A few minutes into the call the guy realized who I was and I realized what was happening. I thought he'd said, " This Terry? " What he had said was, " This Jerry? " Jerry was a top gun in city politics, a guy I had been trying to extract information from on a story for months. To no avail. And here I was, getting all kinds of information from this guy who thought he was talking to the guy who'd been stonewalling me.Here's my question, and if I were a journalism professor, I would raise it in class.What was the right thing to do? Use the information I got from the guy? I wasn't misrepresenting myself. I thought he thought he knew who he was talking to, and he didn't say this is off the record.

  4. Terry Cowgill says:

    Wow Terrence, that's a fascinating question about journalism ethics. I would say that, since you did not misrepresent yourself, what that public official said is fair game. If, however, he had mistakenly thought you were his shrink and started spilling his personal problems to you, then I would not print it.On 60 Minutes tonight was a story about a doctor selling expensive and phony stem cell treatments. The producer got some real MS sufferers to pose as potential patients and gave them hidden cameras. Is that ethical?

  5. Terrence McCarthy says:

    Re your 60 Minutes reference. I think what CBS did was, above all, lazy, and done that way to dramatize the segment. CBS must have had the goods on this doctor, documented evidence, etc. But just holding up papers in front of the camera isn't good television. Hence the undercover patient approach. I would rather have seen it done the 60 minutes old fashioned way. Just show up at the door, barge in and start questioning the guy, with the evidence in the reporter's lap. Using patients seems, at least to me, the wrong way, not the right way, to do it.

  6. Terry Cowgill says:

    Agreed. It was done for the visual. But I must confess that I found it very compelling.

  7. Terrence McCarthy says:

    They are good at that. And lest we forget, it's all about good visual, entertainment and drama. Journalism? That, too.

  8. Fred Baumgarten says:

    STOP THE PRESSES! I actually agree with you for the most part, Terry. Knock me over with a feather.To me the striking part of the "Koch" hoax is (a) that the so-called liberal press (but not really liberal, but that's another story) has used this as some sort of "gotcha" moment — when what was "revealed" was, as you say, no big surprise. It's not as if this was some earth-shattering "expose"; and (b) the silliness of it all, including, how does someone in a position of power pick up a telephone and simply assume that the person calling is "David Koch" if he says he is? And I'm the Easter Bunny LOL.I don't totally object to the use of subterfuge, I must say, as with the "Yes Men" or "Ali G" — who really did expose much larger ethical lapses and hypocrisies on the part of their targets.

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