Investigative reporters sometimes, though probably far less often than readers and listeners suppose, conceal their identities to get stories. But I can't think of a single instance in our area where a newsperson has resorted to blatant impersonation of, say, a doctor, or police officer or some other official, however significant he may have thought the story was. To begin with, it's against the law to impersonate a peace officer. It is fundamental that an undercover reporter be aware of the legal risks to himself. And impersonation is the least ethical of activities in that gray wilderness area of covert reporting.
On the other hand, police officers have sometimes impersonated newsmen. The most recent case, as reported in the Deseret News Tuesday, involved Kootenai County, Idaho, deputy sheriffs posing as journalists to photograph neo-Nazi "skinheads" at rallies in Napa, Calif., and Seattle.-IN UTAH, THE BEST-KNOWN episode involved John Singer. The Singer saga was filled with incredible stupidity by both the law and the fundamentalist and his family.
In October 1978, a state law enforcement officer drove up a muddy lane to Singer's house in Marion. He identified himself as a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. When a van pulled up the "reporter" asked Singer to meet the "news crew" in it. When the van door opened two agents inside seized Singer and tried to shackle him until he pulled his 38-caliber revolver from his belt and told them he would shoot if he were not released.
In the Idaho case, the city editor of the Daily Missoulian in Montana, which one of the officers photographing the Seattle rally purported to represent, complained that the impersonations could create problems for media credibility.
-AND THEY DO. In April the Israelis admitted that police officers posed as journalists before arresting Palestinians. In Arab East Jerusalem, two men in civilian clothes drove a rented car with a "Press" sign in the window. TV film showed them seizing Arabs. Legitimate newsmen say that Palestinians now are suspicious of them. "The impersonation of journalists puts us all in danger and we deplore it," one said.
In our free country the police have subpoenaed tapes and notes from newspeople, and in at least one instance raided a news office to get them. They ought to recognize that the news agencies are not arms of law enforcement.
-MOST UNDERCOVER news work involves mild, or what I have referred to before as passive, deception. For instance, KTVX Channel 4 assigned a producer to pose as a traveler arriving at the Salt Lake airport for a "Consumer Watch" report on cab fares a couple of weeks ago.
The news report said Channel 4 was responding to complaints that cab customers who didn't know our town were being taken for a ride on fares.
A reporter called the cab companies, which quoted a price of $9.75 for a trip from the airport to the Salt Palace. A producer then "spent the day" riding in cabs from the Salt Lake International Airport. Three rides were portrayed. For one, the cabbie charged the producer $9.85; for the others $10.15 and $10.35, which, the station admitted, hardly constituted price gouging.
About the only thing I liked about how this story came out was that the station was willing to air an essentially positive story even though its fare-ripoff hypothesis didn't pan out. One complaint against the TV undercover investigation is that only stories that show malfeasance or dishonesty are reported, while investigations that show upright actions are not.
The story essentially added up to nothing but a stunt, however. Not enough cabbies were shown to prove anything, as the anchor admitted in citing the piece as "unscientific." When the report was repeated on the late evening news it tried to recoup by suggesting cab passengers examine the meter to see if it has the appropriate city inspection stamp, "then if the driver takes a direct route he will know if he is paying a fair price."
-"GEE WHIZ" AND "AW NUTS" ON FUSION: The difference in the tone of the Eastern press' and local media coverage of the Utah fusion findings has if anything been sharpened in the difficult weeks the Utahns have had in defending their work.
Time magazine's cover story, "Fusion or Illusion," in the May 8 issue struck me as slick, snide and supercilious. The weight of the article rested on those who believe the Pons-Fleischmann work had been sloppy and the "phenomenon of science by press conference" disturbing.
Newsweek's cover story the same week, "The Race for Fusion," was, however, much more even-handed, concluding that in any event "Pons and Fleischman have unleashed a revolution in the way scientists think."
But if the Eastern press has inclined toward the "aw nuts" approach, the local press is still tending, perhaps too much, toward the "gee whiz" boosterism approach.
Take the Tribune's Tuesday morning page one headline, "U. Team Unveils New Fusion Facts."
The story was about the U. team's facing critics at the Electrochemical Society meeting in Los Angeles. The focus was more on the questioners than on new "fusion feats." Only one paragraph reported on new results, saying the U. team told of getting impressive bursts of heat from their system. Clearly the headline was out of kilter with the story. The Deseret News headline on the same story that evening was far more apt, "L.A. meeting fails to quiet fusion skeptics."