The unmasking of Newsweek's Joe Klein as the author of "Primary Colors" could open a broad discussion of lying and deception in the practice of journalism in America. I don't think that is likely to happen, but it might be fruitful because lying and deception have frequently played an important part in our work.
These practices, as Klein is discovering, provoke outrage in the community of journalism when we are the victims. In denying for months his authorship of the novel, he is said to have fatally damaged his own credibility and the credibility of journalists in general. But there tends to be more tolerance of lying and deception in journalism when it is not our ox that is being gored.
For many years some journalists, stymied in their investigations and faced with competitive pressures, have lied about who they are and what they are up to. Janet Malcolm of the New Yorker was moved to write in 1990, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."
That is too sweeping, too harsh. There is as much integrity among journalists as among doctors, lawyers, academicians and politicians. But our deceptions are frequent enough to be of concern. We have ingratiated ourselves with people we wish to harm. We have passed ourselves off as cops, medical examiners, loonies, convicts and derelicts in the pursuit of stories and exposes.
Television "news magazines" use sophisticated technology for similar purposes. Producers and reporters are sent out from these shows armed with hidden cameras, microphones and false identities to find and punish suspected miscreants wherever they may be found. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post in 1992 described what is going on. The CBS program "60 Minutes" is cited among others:
Leslie Stahl dons a black wig and poses as a prospective client to expose the practices of a Romanian adoption agency. Ed Bradley goes to China posing as a businessman in order to expose the abuse of prison labor. A sound man poses as a cancer patient to infiltrate a cancer clinic in California.
When Kurtz asked the program's executive producer, Don Hewitt, about the ethical implications of these deceptions, Hewitt replied: "Does it trouble me? Yeah. . . . It's the small crime versus the greater good." His colleague, Mike Wallace, said, "You don't like to baldly lie, but I have. It really depends on your motive. Are you doing it for drama, or are you doing it for illumination? Each one has to be weighed separately as to the cost-benefit."
He got into trouble with CBS only after lying to a journalist he was interviewing. He agreed not to film the interview, but did so surreptitiously with a hidden camera. Journalists, he learned, were not fair game for lying. But other deceptions by CBS met with the approval of the network.
The problem, as the philosopher Sissela Bok has written in her book, "Lying," is that when lying and deception, whatev\er the rationale, become routine and the moral issues involved are ignored or inadequately considered, "the accepted practices may then grow increasingly insensitive, and abuses and mistakes more common, resulting in harm to self, profession, clients and society. There is always an interweaving of self-serving and altruistic motives in such practices. One benefits by cutting corners, no one person seems to be too much harmed thereby, and the benefits one can bring about often seem important."
Doctors sometimes lie to dying patients about the imminence of death. Lawyers sometimes lie to advance the interests of clients. Policemen sometimes lie to gain convictions. Presidents sometimes lie out of a perception of the national interest or a perception of self-interest.
The journalistic heroes of Watergate, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, described in their book "All the President's Men" lies and deceptions they had used in pursuing the story. Bok writes of that episode: "The situation was one of mounting crisis for the nation and potential danger for investigating journalists who came too close to revealing the facts. . . . It is certain, too, that there was great pressure to be first with the revelations; the desire to advance professionally and to gain fame formed no small part of the undertaking. . . . The two journalists told more than one lie; a whole fabric of deception arose. People being interviewed were falsely told that others had already given certain bits of information or had said something about them. One of the reporters tried to impersonate Donald Segretti on the telephone. The other lied to Deep Throat in order to extract corroboration of a fact. . . .
"It can be argued that, in order for this exposure to be possible, deception was needed; but what is more troubling in the book than the lies themselves is the absence of any moral dilemma. No one seems to have stopped to think that there was a problem in using deceptive means. No one weighed the reasons for or against doing so. There was no reported effort to search for honest alternatives."
It was a difficult time, a unique time in which alternatives are not easily imagined. But the fact that lying and deception were elements in the Watergate tale is not license for journalists to lie or deceive casually or as a matter of course.
Joe Klein, in the end, lied for money. His anonymity was part of the publisher's marketing strategy, which Newsweek tells us has earned him $6 million thus far. By exorcising Joe Klein, howev\er, the journalism establishment does not clean the slate. Until it deals honestly and openly with the ethics and morality of what we do and how we do it, nothing much will change.