There has been a tremendous amount of good reporting done on Cambridge Analytica, the shady political consulting firm founded by the (shady) British political consulting firm Strategic Communication Laboratories Group, along with Steve Bannon and Robert and Rebekah Mercer, which helped run the digital operations of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Details of Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of Facebook-derived data on millions of Americans had already been reported by the Guardian and The Intercept, but the story was largely ignored until a whistleblower came forward, leading to major investigations in the New York Times and The Observer.
Then the U.K.’s Channel 4 began airing its own investigation into Cambridge Analytica, a hidden-camera sting in which the firm’s CEO, Alexander Nix, makes a seemingly endless parade of shocking statements about the activities—including crimes—Cambridge Analytica does on behalf of its clients. These videos, in concert with all the prior reporting, have created a major international scandal. The U.K.’s Information Commissioner has announced her intention to seek a warrant to search the firm’s offices and servers, and the British Parliament has summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—who has largely remained in hiding since the story broke—to address a House of Commons committee on “fake news.”
In short, there were three different forms of investigative journalism that brought the story of Cambridge Analytica to light: reports based on documents, probably leaked by insiders or former insiders; stories based on the testimony of a whistleblower who was formerly part of the firm, witnessed the practices detailed in those documents, and was willing to publicly tell the story of what transpired; and a hidden-camera sting that revealed how Cambridge Analytica presents itself, and what it will claim to have done when it doesn’t think anyone on the outside will ever find out.
In the United States, only two of those forms of reporting are considered legitimate and ethical. Almost no major, respected American outlet would’ve performed the Channel 4 sting, because the semi-official position of the professional, credentialed journalist class in the U.S. is that undercover reporting is unethical.
This is a fairly new development. There is actually a long, honorable tradition of undercover journalism in the American press. But as the trade grew into a profession, and journalism became something taught at prestigious universities, stings began to be seen as disreputable and dishonorable. In 1977, in a stunning feat of undercover reporting, the Chicago Sun-Times actually bought a bar and used it to expose a staggering amount of municipal corruption, leading to major reforms. The Sun-Times was the city’s tabloid, of course, not its respectable broadsheet, and so Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee blocked them from winning a clearly deserved Pulitzer.
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Now, when undercover reporting is done in the U.S., it’s generally by the smaller (and more ideological) magazines, as when Mother Jones’ Shane Bauer exposed the workings of our private prison industry (to much acclaim), or when Harper’s had Ken Silverstein pretend to be an agent of a repressive foreign state in order to see what sorts of favors and services D.C. lobbyists would promise to perform for such an unsavory client. Does the premise of that one sound familiar? It was met with howls of protest from journalism’s self-appointed ethics watchdogs, including Howard Kurtz (then at the Washington Post, and now fitting in just fine at Fox News) and Bill Buzenberg, the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, who scolded, “misrepresenting yourself is not a good idea.”
As Aaron Swartz pointed out in a 2008 piece for FAIR, undercover journalism also declined in the United States in part because of a high-profile lawsuit. In 1992, ABC PrimeTime Live had reporters take jobs at a Food Lion grocery store to uncover unsanitary handling of food. The reporters uncovered exactly that, and ABC aired it. Food Lion sued and won a large award, not by claiming in court that anything ABC reported was false, but by suing them for fraud and trespassing. The judgment had a predictable effect on the willingness of American media companies to practice stings on large corporations. (The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals later partly overturned the verdict and threw out the award, but timid media companies had already received the message.)
So undercover journalism is largely seen, at the top levels of the American media, as unscrupulous, disreputable, tabloid-y, and too likely to lead to institutional harm. You wouldn’t know that from watching the American press discuss what Channel 4 found out about Cambridge Analytica. So far, journalists and pundits and anchors have reported and commented on the information obtained in the sting, and treated it as transparently and obviously newsworthy—which it is—without any smarmy moaning (that I’ve seen, at least) about Channel 4's methods.
I’m not really suggesting hypocrisy or calling anyone out. I think it’s an unqualified good thing to have so many people acknowledge what I have always thought self-evident: The undercover sting is a legitimate journalistic tool, that, when wielded responsibly (i.e., not by James O’Keefe, but by actually good and principled reporters), leads to stories of great public import that could not be revealed by other methods. And, having implicitly acknowledged that, I hope that more of our most influential publishers, producers, editors, and reporters stop denying themselves the ability to use this tool out of some warped sense of propriety or, even worse, out of fear of retaliation.
As you watch Channel 4's story, just think of all the great stories we’re missing out on because so many of our journalistic institutions think this kind of reporting is unethical.