Here is a tale of two breeds of undercover journalists. One has been celebrated by the national media and journalism organizations. The other has been shunned. One has champions in Congress. The other is facing litigation.
Both engaged in sting operations with secret cameras catching their targets on videotape. Both were deceptive about their true identities and life circumstances. Both exposed their targets' aggressive methods and law-subverting recruitment tactics. But you've probably only heard of the efforts of one of these breeds. You'll know why in a moment.
Over the past several years, local and national news outlets have conducted stings on military recruiters. Last week, a Tennessee station in Nashville set up hidden cameras and reported that it had caught Army recruiters telling an undercover producer posing as a recruit that taking medication for depression would not disqualify a recruit from serving. The Democrat chairman of a House Armed Services subcommittee is now urging an Army probe of recruiting practices and the mentally ill based on the TV station's report.
Last fall, ABC News and New York affiliate WABC enlisted students to help them in a similar gotcha game with recruiters. They armed the kids with hidden video cameras for visits to 10 Army recruitment offices in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The journalists accused the recruiters of misleading the students to get them to enlist. The ABC News sting came on the heels of a Colorado student's undercover operation in Denver in 2005. David McSwane, a high school honors student, posed as a dropout and druggie. "I wanted to do something cool, go undercover and do something unusual," he told the Rocky Mountain News. McSwane deliberately failed a high school equivalency test, caught recruiters on tape driving him to purchase a detox kit, and reported that they urged him to obtain a phony diploma. A local CBS station picked up the story -- prompting the Army to shut down its recruiting stations nationwide for ethics training.
McSwane earned a "laurel" from the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review "for conduct most becoming" and announced he was headed to journalism school. His reporting garnered attention from the New York Times to Editor and Publisher -- and spawned copycats like those at ABC News.