On the Ethics of Concealment

and Revelation


By Sissela Bok



Chapter XVI


Investigative Journalism




Limits to Probing?


The press is the most important counterbalance we possess against each of the rationales for secrecy . . . .Without reporters free to probe and motivated to do so, government and commercial and other forms of secrecy would have much less to challenge and restrain them (witness those societies where the media are most subject to control and censorship by the government). The press, along with the other media of communication, has, therefore, a much clearer public mandate to probe and to expose than do, for instance, social scientists or private detectives.

This mandate affects the way in which journalists experience the conflicts felt by all who inquire into what is concealed. It adds legitimacy to their probing of secrets and enhances the allure of the unknown. But reporters invariably encounter claims that much of what they wish to investigate is confidential, be it state secrets or medical or corporate ones. They experience, too, efforts at co‑optation, at including them within a chosen circle of persons in the know who cannot reveal all that they know. At other times, reporters have reason to fear reprisals from those whose secrets they have exposed.

Should journalists recognize limits to what they can legitimately probe and to the means for doing so? Or would such restraints inevitably threaten independent reporting and the freedom of expression? I shall discuss these questions first with respect to prying into personal secrets and private lives, and then in the larger context of the public's right to know; finally, I shall take up the issue of secretive and deceptive means of investigation. These problems have been dealt with at length in the law, though not always conclusively. As the following example shows however, the legal and the moral issues are not identical.


Exposing Private Lives


In 1937, James Thurber unwittingly set in motion what he later described as the most important legal case in the history of the New Yorker magazine and its only conflict ever to reach the Supreme Court. Using the pseudonym Jared L. Manley, he published an essay entitled "April Fool!" about a man once famous as a child prodigy who now shunned every mention of his former feats. The essay brought out the contrast between the brilliant but exploited childhood of William James Sidis and what seemed an undistinguished, indeed shabby and ludicrous, later life.

Almost from birth, the boy was subjected to training sessions, hypnosis, and psychological experimentation by his father, Boris Sidis, a psychologist bent on producing a genius. William learned to read and write both English and French in his earliest years. At five, he had written a treatise on anatomy, and at eight he proposed a new table of logarithms. Boris Sidis reported on each new feat to the press. He wrote a book entitled Philistine and Genius to promote his methods of education. Conventional education, he insisted, turns children into uncritical phil­istines and willing cannon fodder. By stimulating early development, on the other hand, one will "not only prevent vice, crime, and disease, but will strengthen the individual along all lines, physical, mental, and moral." He claimed to be able to speak with authority, "from my own experience with child‑life."

When William was nine, his parents began taking him to nearby Tufts College. At eleven, having transferred to Harvard, the boy gave a stunning lecture before students and faculty on "four‑dimensional bodies." The national press gave front‑page coverage to this event, and editorialists gave favorable notice to the educational theories of Boris Sidis .4 But in the ensuing years, William refused to cater to his father's hopes. Although he completed his college studies, he rejected the future his father had mapped out for him. Finding publicity offensive and mathematical work increasingly distasteful, William turned down all further requests that he display his powers in public. He left graduate school without a degree.

After a brief stint at college teaching, he abandoned academic life for good, severed relations with his family, and took up one menial job after another, only to leave it each time someone discovered he was the same William Sidis who had been so famous as a child prodigy. His childhood feats could not be kept secret or wiped out. They were public knowledge. But his connection to those feats‑this he could try to conceal.

The New Yorker article cornered him. Drawing on the account of an unnamed woman who "recently succeeded in interviewing him," its author exposed Sidis at age thirty‑nine, living alone in an untidy "hall bedroom of Boston's shabby south end." After recounting once again Sidis's childhood exploits, the article focused with ruthless detail on his quest for anonymity and his incongruous present behavior. "He seems to have difficulty in finding the right words to express himself," the author noted, "but when he does, he speaks rapidly, nodding his head jerkily to emphasize his points, gesturing with his left hand, uttering occasionally a curious, gasping laugh."

Writing the piece may have had its pleasures of accurate depiction and condescending humor. Reading it may have served for many as a reminder of the downfall of the famous and as a warning against pressing children too far. But for Sidis himself, the article came as a blow where he was most vulnerable. His fragile defenses were penetrated. Not only did the essay shine a hated spotlight once more on the life he wanted to live in obscurity; it also held him up, he felt, to ridicule and shame. His response was to sue for invasion of privacy, claiming that the article


tended to expose, and did expose, the private life of the plaintiff to unwarranted and undesired publicity of a nature unfamiliar and harmful to the plaintiff, and tended to and did hold up the plaintiff to public scorn, ridicule, and contempt causing him grievous mental anguish, humiliation, and loss of rep­utation.


After the case had gone to court, Thurber explained that he had wanted to "help curb the great American thrusting of talented children into the glare of fame and notoriety" by showing how these children suffer in later life. This aim is not evident in the essay itself, the less so as its author did more than anyone else to renew the glare of notoriety for Sidis. What comes across, rather, is a distant and amused contempt for those judged to be doing less than they might, and living boring lives, in one‑room apartments.

Sidis lost his suit and lost again on appeal. Judge Clark, though characterizing the New Yorker article as "merciless," held that it did not constitute punishable invasion of privacy. In the first place, much of what the article had revealed about Sidis's childhood was already public knowledge. People have no legal claim to erase their childhood fame, nor to remain unconnected with it in later life. In addition, courts have held that, once a public figure, one has fewer lawful claims to privacy than other persons. The health of public officials, for example, or their children's peccadilloes cannot legally be kept out of the press in the same way that such information about private individuals might be.

When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Sidis had no further recourse. The courts may well have been right to rule as they did. To have acceded to Sidis's claims could have endangered much reporting about matters of public importance; every shady venture could then try to hide behind similar claims to invasion of privacy.

Nevertheless, Sidis felt violated ¾ and was violated. What for many might have seemed a tolerable exposure touched, for him, on aspects of his identity that he ached to veil in secrecy. Wishing above all to be forgotten, he was condemned to being remembered.9 Much abused as a child, he had developed an exaggerated sense of vulnerability; he now had higher but also more fragile defenses than most. When they were broken down, he felt more injured than most. In 1944, Sidis -- unemployed and destitute -- was found unconscious in his apartment and died without regaining consciousness.

Though unusually hurt by his exposure, Sidis is far from alone in being drawn into publicity against his wishes. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that journalists ought to write only about persons who have given their consent. As I have indicated in earlier chapters, those who use secrecy to cover up for abuses often resort to spurious claims of privacy, confidentiality, or national security. It is important for reporters not to take those claims at face value.

There is no clear line surrounding private life that can demarcate regions journalists ought not to explore. The serious illness of a political candidate or the paranoia of a government leader are surely matters for legitimate public concern. Health professionals should not conceal them, much less lie about them as has so often been done, nor should reporters help keep the public in the dark through misguided discretion. Such concealment helped disguise from the public the mental deterioration suffered by Winston Churchill in his last years, and Hubert Humphrey's worsening cancer at the time when he announced he would campaign to be the Democratic candidate in the 1976 presidential election.

Those who take public positions cannot always complain if they receive scrutiny of a kind that would he intrusive for completely private citizens. Thus a reporter who wrote a story proving that a prominent member of the American Nazi Party was half Jewish was not overstepping the bounds of legitimate privacy. True, the information was of a kind that the Nazi wanted kept secret; but having taken a strong public stance of anti‑Semitism, he could hardly hold the information irrelevant to the public's evaluation of his views. Nor did his death, in what seemed to be suicide, the day after the story appeared render it more invasive.

The children of those who have sought public attention, on the other hand, often have a stronger claim to be left in peace. Some are pursued relentlessly, the victims of a system of probing and reporting that draws few lines with respect to the invasion of privacy. The Sidis case is marginal from this point of view. On the one hand it was Sidis, and not only his parents, who had been in the public eye. On the other hand, Sidis might have argued that he could not, as a child, have put up sufficient resistance to his father's efforts to publicize his precocity, nor even have known how they would affect him. Should he have to acquiesce in continued scrutiny because his parents had sought to make him famous? The judge in the Sidis case thought so. He held that public interest in Sidis was legitimate because of his earlier brilliance and fame.

The public doubtless had an interest in Sidis; and its interest was legitimate, not only in the sense of attaching to someone already in the public eye but also more generally. It is not wrong to be interested in another person's life, no matter whether that person is famous or not. However, the public's interest in Sidis was not based on any need to know what had befallen him --unlike, for instance, the need to know the whereabouts and employment record of someone running for political office. This difference in need engenders a difference in the degree to which reporters should respect requests for anonymity and privacy. Though readers might well have had a legitimate interest, based on curiosity, to know more about Sidis, they could hardly claim a right to acquire such knowledge against his wishes.

The confusing expression "the public's right to know" is often used to justify all that reporters do to cater to both need and interest on the part of the public, of whatever degree of legitimacy. Thus the 1973 Code of Ethics for journalists holds that "the public's right to know of events of public importance and interest is the overriding mission of the mass media," and states that "journalists must be free of obligations to any interest other than the public's right to know."

To question what is done to satisfy such an all‑inclusive right to know is to risk being accused of making dangerous inroads on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the press. We see here once again a rationale serving the double function of offering reasons and of warding off legitimate criticism. Yet questioning is surely needed.


The Public’s Right To Know


Taken by itself, the notion that the public has a "right to know" is as quixotic from an epistemological as from a moral point of view, and the idea of the public's "right to know the truth" even more so. It would be hard to find a more fitting analogue to Jeremy Bentham's characterization of talk about natural and imprescriptible rights as "rhetorical nonsense ¾ nonsense upon stilts." How can one lay claims to a right to know the truth when even partial knowledge is out of reach concerning most human affairs, and when bias and rationalization and denial skew and limit knowledge still further? And how can one claim a right even to all the limited insights that it might be possible to acquire? Even such limited knowledge can rarely be viewed as a matter of right; indeed, there are realms about which we recognize that we must claim no rights to knowledge: the personal letters others wish to keep private, for example, or their intimate relationships.

So patently inadequate is the rationale of the public's right to know as a justification for all that reporters probe and expose, that although some still intone it ritualistically at the slightest provocation, most now refer to it with tired irony. Yet at the same time the slogan is not given up, for in spite of its inadequacy it is linked to vital public interests and entitlements. I shall examine these links, therefore, in the hope of drawing from the rationale the factors that affect moral choice.

In the United States, the notion of a public "right to know" is closely linked with the First Amendment and its guarantee that "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." This guarantee lends dignity and even sacredness to the function of the press; for many reporters, it suffices to justify almost all they do. But exactly how does the link function? How does the First Amendment connect with the public's right to know?

Some argue that the First Amendment presupposes the existence of the public's right to know. Were there no such right, they hold, there would be no need for the amendment. This view, however, merely states a conclusion without arguing for it. No evidence is offered for the link; and it is not clear why, even in the absence of an underlying right to know, the freedom of speech and of the press would not be thought indispensable. Others argue that the link is so close that it is one of mirroring: we cannot have freedom of the press without having it reflected in a public right to knowledge. Since we recognize the former, we must recognize the latter as well. Each presupposes the other, and justifies it in turn. Thus Laurence Tribe has held that at times the right to know "means nothing more than a mirror of such a right to speak, a listener's right that government not interfere with a willing speaker's liberty. "

Ronald Dworkin has argued, on the contrary, that the right to speak does not entail or mirror the right to know; at most, he holds, it may support a right to listen, and thus not to have the government interpose obstacles to that right between willing speakers and willing listeners. But such a right to listen is "very different from the right to know, because the latter, unlike the former, supposes that those who have the information have a duty and not simply a right to publish it. The Supreme Court has not recognized a right to know as a constitutional right. No one could sue the New York Times for not publishing the Pentagon Papers."

Dworkin's distinction is persuasive. We cannot legitimately argue from someone's right to disseminate a story to the public's right to the information it contains, much less to any obligation to disseminate it. The entailment by the First Amendment of the public's right to know, therefore, is not tenable, and cannot provide the justification for all that is done in the name of catering to such a right.

If we give up this foundation for the public's right to know, might it not be possible to say that the freedom of the press can, in itself, provide the needed justification for all that reporters do? This is certainly the assumption of many who have begun to doubt the solidity of the right to know. Whatever the errors and abuses by reporters, they argue, the freedom of the press and of speech more generally must be protected against every inroad. Yet this assumption is too hasty. Even in the law, certain excesses are prohibited. And a legal right to free expression cannot do away with the need for moral scruples in choosing what to publish. Consider a derisive and condescending newspaper article about rape victims, complete with photographs and addresses acquired against their will. A reporter might not go to jail for publishing it, but he should nevertheless consider the moral reasons against publication before going ahead. He could not reasonably argue that the public has a right to such information; nor could he legitimately ignore the effects of his story on those already violated.

Some see another kind of link, of a dialectical nature, between the claim to the public's right to know and the countervailing claims to rights of privacy over experiences that the public arguably has no right whatsoever to learn about. 18 In the perennial tensions between concealment and probing, reciprocal strategies often arise. In recent decades, each side has turned to the language of rights. I have previously discussed the spreading use and the frequent abuse of claims to privacy by individuals and organizations. As reporters find growing barriers erected against their probing in the name of such a right to privacy, they have come to turn more often for legitimacy to arguments equally vague in the name of the right to know. (Interestingly, the 1973 Code of Ethics for Journalists . . . made no references to this right in its earlier 1923 version.)

Reciprocal bombast, however, does not make for clarity. Both claims -­ to privacy and to knowledge -- serve increasingly as rationalizations. The more diffusely they come to be applied, the more they blur and delay moral inquiry. The undoubted dialectical relationship between the claims to these rights does not, any more than the First Amendment, provide justification for excesses of reportorial probing.

A third link comes closer to justifying zealous, even otherwise intrusive reporting -- but only for a circumscribed category of information. Here we no longer speak of some indiscriminate and vague public right to know, but of a clear legal right. It is the statutory right of the public to know about its government, expressed by the United States Congress in establishing the Freedom of Information Act. . . .  For the great majority of government records, Congress held, “the public as a whole has a right to know what its government is doing."  Long before such a law was enacted, this right was advocated as a means of limiting executive and legislative secrecy. In 1747, at a time of complete legislative secrecy in England, the London Magazine stated: "Every subject not only has the right, but is duty bound, to inquire into the public measures pursued." And in the American Colonies, where equal secretiveness prevailed, the issue was similarly joined as one of whether the people did or did not have a right to know about government.

Such a right to know does correspond to a duty to reveal: the government has the duty to reveal that which the public has a right to know. In the same way, doctors have the duty not to withhold the information to which their patients have a right. Just as it is wrong to keep certain secrets from individuals, so it is wrong to keep some information from the public -- about the misconduct of a war, for example, or the use of taxpayers' money for an official's private gain. But neither physicians nor governments have a duty to provide indiscriminate disclosure of all possible information.

Unlike the patient's right to information, the public's right to know about government activities can rarely be satisfied directly. To be sure, some can have direct access to certain information, or request it in person; but most people must rely on the media as indispensable intermediaries. As a result, the public's right to know about government does require a free press and access by the press to congressional and other deliberations.

But the public clearly has an equally legitimate interest in matters far beyond the domain of government. Unsafe private housing developments are of public concern fully as much as unsafe public housing; and the marketing of automobiles that are firetraps matters as much to the public as if the government were responsible for them. Indeed, it has become increasingly hard to draw a clear line between government information and information about the private sector. Commercial secrecy and scientific secrecy now blend with military secrecy in ways hardly imaginable by the early advocates of the public's right to know about government. And administrative secrecy now covers agencies and categories of persons and information to an extent equally difficult to foretell.

In addition, many countries have no statutorily guaranteed right of knowledge about government affairs; yet the public in those countries clearly has as great, and as legitimate, an interest in government action as elsewhere, and the press, therefore, as strong a mandate to inform the public. Indeed, quite apart from one's country of residence, societies are now so dependent upon one another's fortunes that the public in each has a legitimate interest in the affairs of all the others. Thus the publics in the many countries without nuclear weapons can hardly be said to have less to lose from the production of such weapons in other states than the inhabitants of these states themselves. When the governments of the United States, the Soviet Union, England, France, and China chose in secret to develop such weapons, not only were citizens in their countries deprived of their right to debate the choices that were to affect their future so profoundly; people the world over were equally deprived of an opportunity to influence their own fate.

For these reasons, it would be wrong merely to cling to a legalistic notion of a statutory right to know about the affairs of one's government. Rather, the role of the press should be to satisfy in the first place the public's legitimate interest in learning about matters ¾ governmental or not ¾ that affect its welfare. The reporting concerning such matters should be forceful; and it should not accede to all the claims we have examined: to privacy, confidentiality, or trade, scientific, administrative, and military secrecy. At times these shields are legitimate; but their legitimacy cannot be taken for granted. The inherent secretiveness of governments and all other institutions calls for the greatest vigilance on the part of the media.

Some hold that the vigilance must be of an adversary nature‑that there can be no truce between politicians and the press. This goes too far, since adversary relations engender so many biases of their own. They lead too easily, as I have shown, to the adoption of quasi‑military rationales that blur moral choice. And the adversary posture of one side only intensifies that of the other. Rather than celebrate such a posture as a model, the media might strive for one of vigilant objectivity with respect both to government rationales and to their own. The cooptation that is an ever‑present danger can come not only from establishment groups but from opposition groups, even from the journalistic fraternity itself.

To sum up: The public's right to know, even where protected by statute, cannot be a right to knowledge or truth, but at best to access to information; and not to all information, but only to some. The public has a legitimate interest, however, in all information about matters that might affect its welfare, quite apart from whether a right to this information can be established. If the press is to fulfill its public mandate, it should provide the greatest possible public access to this broad range of information. In addition, journalists also report on much that is of interest to the public, not because of any need for information, but rather to satisfy curiosity. Such reporting is equally legitimate, but it requires special attention to individual privacy. It is in this respect that the story about Sidis went too far; and though its publication did not violate any law, no public right or need gave moral warrant to carry it through without securing William Sidis's consent.

We cannot know whether Sidis was interviewed without being informed that there would be a New Yorker article about him. Perhaps he did not even know that the young woman from whose interview Thurber drew his details was interviewing him for publication. If so, Sidis had reason to complain, not just about having been made the subject of an article against his will, but about the underhanded means used to acquire the information about him. It is to questions about the means of journalistic investigation that I want to turn next.


Reporters in Disguise


The reporter's role, like all others, masks the individual within and signals caution to outsiders. Reporters know that their very presence at a meeting, if known, alters that meeting. Participants are on their guard; many play to the gallery, and consider how the public will respond to the interpretation of what they do or say. And all who have something to hide are doubly cautious when they talk to journalists. The desire is therefore strong for reporters not to appear as reporters in order to catch those they study off guard, to unmask them or see beneath the appearances, to reach to "real" individuals, plans, and activities.

            One way for reporters to disguise their intentions is to appear merely as,anonymous participants. Another is to assume a new and different role. This can be done through a quick lie, as when a reporter gives a false name to secure entry to a gathering of celebrities or to the signing of a peace treaty. It can also be done by means of the most elaborate webs of deceit. Thus a group of reporters for the Chicago Sun‑Times bought and operated a bar -- the Mirage -- in 1977, in order to try to expose some of the payoffs, tax fraud, bribery, and illegal gun and liquor sales plaguing Chicago. With reporters working as bartenders, and others listening in and taking photographs from a hidden room, they gathered so much evidence that the authorities could hardly cope with all the indictments and investigations that ensued. The scandal helped to unseat city officials and brought out countless reports of similar pressures for kickbacks and bribes by police, vending-machine operators, fire inspectors, and others. In this scheme, reporters assumed the investigative role of the police and indeed worked closely with certain police officials.

In justification, those who sponsored the project held that the police could not cope with the pervasive corruption in the city, that the public was injured by not knowing enough to try to stop it, and that the persons who were profiting unfairly from the corrupt practices should be brought to trial.

Perhaps the best‑known and most versatile master of disguise and infiltration for purposes of exposure is the German publicist Giinter Wallraff. He has used every means of deceit and concealment in order to enter and explore secret domains. He has tricked the police into employing him as an informer infiltrating radical student groups, im­personated a guard in an insurance company in Cologne, and acted the part of a right‑wing emissary of Franz-Joseph Strauss offering to arm and finance General Spinola's plot for a coup in Portugal. His books documenting these other probes have sold throughout the world .

Born in Cologne during World War 11, Wallraff approaches his tasks with military precision and carefully mapped strategy. The enemy, for him, is the German state, and the press and bureaucracies and corporations that support it and feed on it. He has, therefore, a much more extensive mission of battle against corruption and coercion than the reporters who manned the Mirage bar in Chicago. He could never, as they did, let police officials know from the beginning about his plans. And to a much greater extent than they, he presupposes plots by the establishment to bring him down and to silence him.

Wallraff s most celebrated foray was the infiltration of the German tabloid Bild‑Zeitung. Having exchanged his glasses for contact lenses, changed his way of combing his hair, bought an expensive suit, and changed his body language to give the impression of an ingratiating but ruthless careerist; he presented himself as "Hans Esser" for an interview with the local editor in Hanover. Hired as a free-lance editor, he saw from within how stories were forced out of unwilling witnesses, exaggerated, given the right political slant, sometimes made up from whole cloth. The macabre, the monstrous, and the titillating were extracted from everyday occurrences; and neither employees nor those interviewed were spared in the pressure for sensational stories. Social criticism was edited out of his articles, sexual innuendo brought in. Wallraff entered so wholly into his role that he made rapid progress. In his diary, he wrote of his constant fear of discovery and expressed his anxiety that he might be turning into the kind of person he portrayed.


What is it really that changes? One goes through something, and there is always a residue, one cannot act as though one escaped completely unharmed... it is as with smoking: one needs at least as long a time of not smoking to return to normal. Here one is also infected in some manner. One needs a long time. But what is it that has changed? Perhaps one is somewhat more coldblooded from now on, more hardboiled, colder toward many, and can feel aloof from things more easily. Much that earlier would have caused horror does not touch one anymore. One says: I don't see the story.


As if to set his books apart from all his dissembling toward others and from the falsified stories he wrote while working for the Bild-Zeitung, Wallraff has gone to unusual lengths to insist on the truthfulness of his reporting. "Of course, " he wrote in the preface to the book describing that experience, “nothing is either invented or fabricated."

Such assurances are not unusual among journalists who undertake infiltrative reporting; the stealthier their methods of probing, the more forcefully they proclaim honesty and accuracy in reporting. It is as if they asked to be judged solely by what they say in print, not by what they do to investigate. But when a reporter infiltrates a newspaper, as Wallraff did, and writes misleading stories in order to maintain the disguise, difficulty is compounded. He can no longer draw the distinction between honest writing and deceptive action.  And, as his diary excerpt shows, he feared being changed by the false role he lived, just as one looks at ohers differently once one knows them to be smooth and experienced liars, so one's view of oneself may alter. For purposes of self‑respect, it may then become especially important to set aside some aspect of one's work or some relationships in which one holds oneself to the highest standards.

To escape from the pressure of impersonating Hans Esser, Walraff would take a few days off now and then, and spend time with friends in whom he confided and with whom he could be himself. He knew, he wrote, that many of them conveyed the secret to still others in spite of promises of confidentiality, and was pleased that, "during four months, nothing came out to the other side, that no one betrayed me for money or advancement."

Abruptly, his cover was broken. A friend warned him that a small left‑wing magazine was about to publish the news that Gunter Wall­raff was working for the Bild-Zeitung under the name of Hans Esser. Wallraff failed to show up for work the next day, and the newspaper chain, accusing him of a warped personality and "crypto‑Communism," brought suit for "false impersonation and unauthorized use of title." The suit was lost, but the debate over Wallraff s methods continued in the media. Were they justified? And did the justification depend in part on one's view of what Wallraff meant to expose?

Wallraff goes to unusual lengths in answering such questions in his book. To begin with, he dismisses criticism from his opponents, arguing that they have forfeited all credibility in complaining about his deceptive methods. They are themselves so steeped in deceit and coercion, he holds, that they can hardly object to his dissimulation without the most contemptible hypocrisy. But by itself, this argument does nothing to justify his methods; certain critics may have ruled themselves out as credible judges by their own behavior; but Wallraff must, if he is to justify his methods, confront also the standards of persons he would recognize as more objective.

A second argument is meant to do so; it points to the disparity between his own small deceits and the vast conspiracies of coercion and manipulation they are mustered to combat. “I decided to conspire in order to take a look over the wall of camouflage, denials, and lies. The method I adopted was only slightly illegal by comparison with the illegal deceptions and maneuvers that I unmasked," Wallraff argues. His job was "to deceive in order not to be deceived‑to break the rules of the game in order to disclose the secret rules of power."

By itself, this argument is also insufficient. No matter how deceitful or lawless the powers that Wallraff hoped to unmask, he might well agree that ordinary reportorial means should be preferred whenever possible. A third argument comes to the support of the preceding two: it claims necessity. Because his opponents are so powerful and so closely linked in a vast conspiracy with state, industry, and the military, no alternative method, according to this argument, can succeed. Anyone who is serious about the mission of unmasking must therefore use disguise and deceit. A sense of urgency comes to underline the need for such methods. The social crisis requires rapid action, by whatever means.

This argument resembles those made for deceit in war. Ordinary channels of correction and control have broken down; law and morality cannot be counted upon; more primitive principles come into operation, justifying actions with claims such as "All is fair in love and war. " Such an argument requires for its effectiveness a sure belief in the hostility of those one combats and in the depth of their evil. And it explains the constant use of military language even in schemes that are not otherwise of a military nature.

Arguments of this kind are sometimes to the point, but they are peculiarly likely to function as rationalization. They obscure reasoning and invite bias of every kind. They often exaggerate the crisis at hand and the conspiratorial nature of opponents, and they underestimate the adequacy of other methods of investigation. Wallraff could not, in effect, demonstrate either conspiracy or crisis in the newspaper he was investigating, nor show why the many shabby practices that he uncovered could be exposed only by means of infiltration. For journalists as for social scientists and other probers, the infiltrator is often seeking a shortcut for which the more experienced have no need.

There are nevertheless cases of abuse so serious, and kept so secret, that few methods short of deceptive ones would be capable of the exposure that is clearly needed. Exploitative migran-labor camps or substandard homes for the aged may exclude all investigators save those who gain entry under false colors. Can reporters claim to be justified, at such times, in presenting false papers of employment and identity in order to witness the abuses from within?

Even in such cases, while it may be true that reporters have no open means of investigation, public authorities do. Because journalists lack means such as subpoenas or search warrants, they may be tempted more often to resort to deceit. As a Los Angeles Times reporter is said to have remarked after posing as an animal keeper in a zoo, an employee in a juvenile detention facility, an oil pipeline worker in Alaska, and a doctor in a hospital emergency room:


I'm a great believer in the reporter as observer. First‑hand observation is the ultimate documentation. A reporter doesn't have a badge or subpoena power or . . . wiretap authority. He has to use his . . . wits. That's what I try to do . . . . Almost every big story I've done, I've had to impersonate someone.


So long as the police or other public authorities are coping with the problem, it is not enough for journalists merely to show that they do not have methods of entry as satisfactory as infiltration. If the police can investigate openly what journalists must ferret out in disguise, the former have to be preferred. And even police undercover agents -- though their methods are dangerous in their own right -- are subject to more stringent regulation than the swarms of other investigators engaged in similar pursuits.

At times, however, the police either cannot or will not take part in the investigation. The government itself may be corrupt, or the police inefficient or overworked, sometimes even prevented from investigating a problem. In the Watergate affair, for instance, it would have been useless for journalists to seek police cooperation. When the government itself is at fault, or high officials within it, the justification earlier inferred from the public's right to know comes into play once again; the press's role as intermediary must then give way to a degree of probing and of suspicion ordinarily excessive.

If a group of editors and reporters have concluded that they see no alternative means and no alternative agencies of investigation to whom the probing of a particular problem can safely be left, they must still weigh the moral arguments for and against deceptive infiltration or other surreptitious methods. Knowing that such means are morally questionable, they must then ask whether their goal warrants the use of such methods. This would not be the case with respect to minor infractions. But once again, in the case of the Watergate investigation by the Washington Post, the issue was obviously of the highest importance. The reporters in that case did not use infiltrative means, and it is doubtful whether these would have worked, but they did resort to deception at times. Their book reveals no soul-searching on this score, and we cannot know whether the deception was necessary to uncovering the story. If such a necessity could be shown, then the case would offer persuasive grounds for using limited deception.

Another consideration that newspaper or television editors should take seriously before going ahead even with clandestine investigations they consider important has to do with the effect on their own credibility and that of the media in general. They know that public confidence in media reliability is already low, and they recognize the existing pressure for rushed stories, forever incomplete, all too often exaggerated or mis­interpreted. If the public learns about an elaborate undercover operation such as that of the Mirage bar, many may ask why they should have confidence in the published stories based on information acquired through such an elaborate hoax. The press can hardly afford to saddle itself with more grounds for mistrust; and this consideration should form part of editorial decision‑making, even if it leads to the curtailment of an otherwise dramatic cover story.

The press and other news media rightly stand for openness in public discourse. But until they give equally firm support to openness in their own practices, their stance will be inconsistent and lend credence to charges of unfairness. It is now a stance that challenges every collective rationale for secrecy save the media's own. Yet the media serve commercial and partisan interests in addition to public ones; and media practices of secrecy, selective disclosure, and probing should not be exempt from scrutiny.

Without to know will combine with the fierce competition in news reporting to deflect questions about limits to what reporters and editors can do in pursuing their professional goals. And without such scrutiny, we shall see perpetuated the media's uneasy alliance with other forms of institutional secrecy ¾ the dependency by certain insiders on favors granted by corporate and government executives, the over‑reliance on leaks and on secret sources, and the silence about politically or commercially "sensitive" topics. Because the task of reporting the news is both an indispensable public resource and big business, and because of the great power now wielded by the media, a commitment to openness and to accountability is more necessary than ever.