An undercover reporter has been arraigned in California and charged with ten felonies for secretly recording conversations, and it’s time to revisit how the judiciary and the law can stifle the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press.
The accused, David Daleiden, used standard media undercover techniques to investigate and expose Planned Parenthood’s sale of aborted fetus body parts. While the use of undercover techniques like Daleiden’s is a controversial practice even within journalism circles, Daleiden’s upcoming jury trial has far wider implications for journalists.
Namely, can and should government criminalize undercover reporting, which historically has revealed otherwise hidden wrongdoing of all kinds?
Let’s first put aside that Daleiden, as director of the Center for Medical Progress, is a pro-life activist—which is not a crime. He should have the same right to penetrate the practices of America’s abortion providers and report his findings just as other reporters and publications investigate other matters.
Consider the multitude of covertly conducted investigations exposing threats to public health and safety, racism, and various other injustices, dating back to the dawn of our republic. To mention a few: In a classic case of disguised reporters using hidden cameras, ABC “Prime Time Live” outed Food Lion’s alleged unsanitary food handling practices. “Dateline” NBC deployed decoys and hidden cameras to expose men who solicited sex with minors on the Internet. Vanity Fair had a clandestine reporter join a tour group to the Holy Land to probe then-President George W. Bush’s alleged ties to religious right leaders.
Undercover Chicago Tribune reporters, working from the inside as employees, exposed life-threatening conditions in nursing homes. Another Tribune reporter worked undercover in the city’s election board to reveal widespread election fraud. Chicago Sun-Times reporters, working inside, turned up dangerous practices at abortion clinics. The paper also opened a bar, the Mirage, in a sting using hidden cameras to bare shakedowns by city inspectors.
Jerry Thompson of the Nashville Tennessean infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan to provide a first-person account of its racist practices and beliefs. BBC used clandestine students to describe a “sex for grades” scandal. In Los Angeles, CBSN’s David Goldstein regularly goes undercover.
The criminal case, the one more likely to chill undercover work, was the product of then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris. A judge threw out six of 15 criminal charges against Daleiden and co-investigator Sandra Merritt but ruled that the other counts can go to a criminal trial. Thus, the arraignment. Never mind that Harris violated shield laws protecting reporters by raiding Daleiden’s home and capturing previously unpublished raw journalism materials.