Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Guilty Verdict for Nellie Bly

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Guilty Verdict for Nellie Bly

Article excerpt

A great era in journalism is passing, I fear. I lament its loss.

It was the era of undercover reporting. It had a glorious history. Our grandchildren will read about Nellie Bly, alias Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who went undercover for the New York World to expose the awfulness inside a mental asylum a century ago.

Or they will read about Upton Sinclair, who went to work in the Chicago stockyards to expose deplorable working conditions. He is best remembered for "The Jungle," a brutally graphic novel that aroused so much outrage it led to the founding of the Food and Drug Administration. Genteel Victorian purists deplored the "sensationalism" of such stunts. But such efforts also told important stories in ways the least educated masses could understand. Undercover reporting also got results. One of my first assignments as an intern in Dayton, Ohio, in the late 1960s, was to pose as an apartment hunter to test local housing bias. Later at the Chicago Tribune I worked undercover as a poll watcher in the 1972 primaries as part of a vote fraud investigation team. The effort led to several convictions. It also won a Pulitzer Prize. But the winds shifted against undercover journalism by 1978 when the Chicago Sun-Times and CBS' "60 Minutes" set up the Mirage, a legal tavern with hidden microphones and cameras. Figuring a Chicago tavern is no less attractive to a city inspector than raw meat to a dog, the Mirage caught several in the act of inviting and taking bribes to overlook code violations. But, instead of a Pulitzer, the Mirage got a lot of criticism from a new wave of ethical puritans like Ben Bradlee, then editor of The Washington Post. He deplored any misrepresentation in pursuit of a story, no matter how beneficial the results might be to humankind. After that, undercover reporting was left to television reporters armed with tinier and tinier cameras. Now even those days may be over. A North Carolina jury has found ABC liable for $5.5 million in punitive damages for a 1992 "Primetime Live" broadcast that accused the Food Lion supermarket chain of selling spoiled food. …

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