Seven hours before Shane Bauer was to start his 6 a.m. shift at the Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana, his wife shook him awake. “Something’s wrong,” she said. His colleague from the magazine Mother Jones, James West, hadn’t returned from shooting nighttime footage of the private prison where Bauer worked. Had officials there discovered that Bauer wasn’t just a regular guard, but an investigative reporter from San Francisco? That he’d spent the past four months secretly documenting conditions at Winn with an audio recorder and camera hidden in his pen and wristwatch?
When they dialed West’s number, the local sheriff answered. West was in jail, accused of trespassing. Videos of Bauer talking about his undercover gig were all over his camera. Bauer was worried. If his cover was blown, a sheriff’s deputy could be coming to arrest him. Worse, his hard-won notes and recordings could be confiscated. In the middle of the night, Bauer and his wife, Sarah Shourd, packed up his reporting materials and checked into a hotel in another town.
In the morning, Bauer shipped his hard drives home. Then he and Shourd picked up West, who’d been released on bond. The videographer relayed that, while authorities hadn’t mentioned Bauer’s name, they seemed to be onto him.
Sure enough, the next morning, Bauer spotted officers from the prison staking out the hotel lobby. The three snuck out through a side door and drove back to Bauer’s apartment. Frantically, they threw his belongings into plastic bags, flung them onto his pickup truck, and headed to the nearest state border—Texas.
As they sped away, Bauer was surprised to find himself feeling sad. It’s true that the job had burned him out, and the prison had gotten so dangerous it was on indefinite lockdown. But he also had a front-row seat to the troubled world of private prisons, which reporters couldn’t crack any other way. Every day brought the potential for new findings. He’d been thinking about quitting, but also about taking a promotion.
By the time Bauer was sipping an IPA at a Dallas bar, relief set in. He realized how deep he’d gotten into his role, how hard it was to lead a double life, how much he’d been clenching his jaw. It was like leaving an abusive relationship.
Undercover reporting undoubtedly has a dark side. It can take a toll on reporters and imperil the already fraying credibility of media organizations. The ethics of journalistic deception are murky. In the age of reality TV and “fake news,” undercover reporting can quickly devolve into stunt, and political operatives masquerading as clandestine journalists invite even more skepticism. But when done responsibly, it has led to reform of some of the country’s gravest social ills, including slavery, labor abuses, and mistreatment of the mentally ill. For a variety of reasons, enthusiasm for undercover reporting has waned since the 1970s, but that may be changing, and Shane Bauer ’07 has become one of the craft’s most high-profile practitioners. (His investigation of private prisons won Mother Jones a National Magazine Award in Reporting this year.)
Bauer grew up on a lake outside Onamia, Minnesota (pop. 847). His father was a mechanic, and his mother worked as a nurse before taking up horse training and canine massage. At one point the family was too poor to afford a phone. When he was 14, his parents divorced, and he followed his dad to San Leandro, California.
In high school, Bauer was a small, bespectacled kid who loved books, Magic: The Gathering, and punk music. He was constantly bullied and beaten up. One day, a bunch of football players attacked him, and he tried to fight back. He was expelled and ended up being homeschooled for a semester, while they got off scot-free. He was gripped by an anger that didn’t let go.
“That sensibility carried over when I got older, but I made it a motivation,” he says. “The way I related to social issues, racism, and poverty was through anger and indignation, and eventually I channeled that into journalism.”
That calling took root when Bauer made his first trip abroad at 19. He used his savings from a stint working as a welder to travel for a year in Europe and the Middle East. When the Twin Towers and Pentagon were attacked on 9/11, he realized there would be stories to tell in the aftermath. First, he felt he needed to expand his knowledge base and his skill set.
Bauer enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in Peace and Conflict Studies, minored in Arabic, and snuck in documentary photography classes at the Journalism School. The first in his family to attend college, he stretched his student loans by living in an RV he rented for $150 a month. As a sophomore, he studied abroad in Syria and Yemen. He also spent two summers in Darfur, publishing dispatches about the crisis in the San Francisco Chronicle and The Nation. The dangers of crossing into Sudan with a rebel group didn’t daunt him. “Excitement and fear are very closely connected,” he says.
Bauer’s entree into undercover reporting came in Yemen in 2005. He was working for a pro-government, English-language paper when he decided to sneak into a city occupied by Houthi rebels, where no Western journalist had been. Accompanied by a Yemeni friend, he and a British reporter slid through checkpoints by donning a traditional robe and keffiyeh and filling their cheeks with qat, a narcotic leaf widely used on the Arabian peninsula. The ruse failed, and they were arrested on their way back. Bauer and his British colleague were released within a day, but their Yemeni friend was held for a month without charges.
After graduating in 2007, Bauer again traveled to the Middle East for freelance assignments, then moved to Syria two years before the country’s civil war began. His first major stories investigated U.S. military–backed death squads and Sunni sheikhs being awarded inflated reconstruction contracts in post-invasion Iraq.
On July 31, 2009, everything changed. Bauer was hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan, a relatively calm region, with Shourd ’03, then his girlfriend, and their friend Joshua Fattal ’04 when the three were arrested by Iranian border guards. The two men were kept in solitary confinement for four months, while Shourd remained isolated for more than a year before being released in September 2010. “Solitary confinement is not a head banging against the wall in terror or rage. Sometimes it is, but mostly it’s just the slow erasure of who you thought you were,” Bauer wrote in A Sliver of Light, a memoir the three published. Bauer proposed to Shourd during their detainment, weaving a makeshift ring out of threads from his towel and underwear.
Denied access to an attorney, Bauer and Fattal were eventually convicted of illegal entry and espionage, despite a lack of evidence, and sentenced to eight years in prison. But they were released just over two years after their capture on a half-million dollars bail each.
For weeks after Bauer was free, he felt like his brain was short-circuiting from overstimulation. Others had to order for him from menus. He couldn’t deal with crowds, but sometimes couldn’t stand being alone. He spent months in the darkness of post-traumatic stress. “There was a feeling I carried for a long time of real tension that sometimes felt like too much to bear. I felt like I had this demon inside of me, and I wanted it to go away,” he says.
Bauer found purpose and healing in reporting—on prisons of all places. Seven months into his freedom, he published an investigation in Mother Jones, where he’s now on staff, that showed nearly 12,000 prisoners were in solitary confinement in California, at least 3,800 of them indefinitely. Many had never been charged with serious offenses. Nationally, 80,000 prisoners were in isolation. “The story not only felt relevant to me, but was also helping me through the reintegration process,” Bauer says. After a few years covering criminal justice, Bauer realized that he’d never get a full picture of the correctional system by going through public information officers or writing to inmates. This was especially true for private prisons, which housed 131,000 of the nation’s inmates and often weren’t subject to public records laws.
Bauer decided to apply for a job as a prison guard with the Corrections Corporation of America (now called CoreCivic), the company that pioneered privatized incarceration in the U.S. He was careful not to lie on the application, listing his current employer as the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones. He didn’t expect to hear back, but the company seemed desperate to find someone willing to take the job for $9 an hour. Evidently, recruiters didn’t Google his name. When Bauer convened with his editors, no one doubted that the assignment justified the risks of going undercover. “He was reporting on a piece of public life that’s essentially hidden to most Americans. … Given how hard it is to access prisons in general and private prisons in particular … we felt we were on solid ethical ground,” says Dave Gilson, one of Bauer’s editors.
There are few set rules in journalism, and the guidelines for undercover reporting—when it’s justified, how to do it ethically—are especially murky. Today, many major media organizations regard it with wariness and even outright hostility. In their ethical codes, the Associated Press and The Washington Post demand that reporters never misrepresent their identities as journalists and disclose them when requesting interviews. The New York Times makes room for “a sustained, systemic deception … taking a job, for example,” if higher-ups approve. Most news organizations follow the standard set by the Society for Professional Journalists: Go undercover only if “information vital to the public” is otherwise inaccessible.
The reasons for caution are clear. People generally don’t like deception, and it runs counter to journalists’ avowed occupation as truth-tellers. If a writer lies to his sources, readers may think, why should we trust him? For Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Dean Ed Wasserman, an expert on media ethics, the key problem with undercover reporting is that it violates subjects’ privacy. “Depriving people of control over their words and behavior denies them a very important dimension to their autonomy. It should not be taken casually, the story should be worth it, and there should be no other way to get it,” he says.
Is inventing a completely false identity the same as lying by omission? Wasserman says yes: “I don’t think there’s a moral distinction between explicitly lying and allowing people to assume something that’s untrue…. Deceit is a very big deal.”
But for Bauer, there’s a clear difference, and he has a policy of never telling an overt lie while undercover. “I wasn’t acting like a prison guard—I was a prison guard. I just wasn’t telling people that I was a journalist.” If people asked how he ended up there, he’d say, “I came here for work” or “You never know where life will take you.”
Ted Conover, a journalist who chronicled his 10 months spent working undercover as a guard at New York’s Sing Sing maximum security prison in the 2000 book, Newjack, also makes a distinction between false impressions and outright lies. “Deception exists on a continuum,” he wrote in an email. “There’s mild deception … and then there’s active, fabricating deception where, say, a reporter invents a false story about himself instead of just leaving people to guess. Generally speaking, the less deception used, the better.”
Conover, who calls undercover reporting “the nuclear arrow in the writer’s quiver,” shares his personal guidelines for doing it ethically in his new book, Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep: Try not to break the law. Don’t report from a subject’s home. Don’t get involved intimately. Don’t report from therapeutic groups, such as AA meetings. “Maintain what I call the Pure Core, the self you’ll be living with when it’s all over,” he writes. The advice draws on Conover’s decades of immersion reporting. In his long career as an independent journalist and author, he has jumped trains with hoboes, crossed the border with undocumented Mexican migrants, and gone undercover as a federal meat inspector.
Precisely because such rules are arbitrary, Bauer swears by the importance of making his process transparent to readers. He insists on reaching out to sources before publication and not using real names without permission, unless someone is a public figure or personally responsible for grave wrongdoing. After leaving Winn, he continued reporting and checking facts in the months before the story was published.
These practices distinguish his work from the “gotcha” stunts of someone like James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who has made a name for himself with various undercover exploits. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, his group, Project Veritas, released video purporting to show Democratic operatives discussing how they disrupted Trump rallies by recruiting paid protesters. In another infamous ruse, O’Keefe posed as a pimp and—in selectively edited hidden-camera footage—showed staff of ACORN, a nonprofit group partially financed by the government, advising him on how to break the law. The organization ended up losing millions and shutting down. “O’Keefe is a new kind of media creature, empowered by the Internet,” Conover observes. “The difference is, Mother Jones practices journalism. They do fact checking. They seek responses from those they criticize. They do not appear to engage in personal vendettas, specially targeting their critics.”
In some ways, Bauer argues, undercover reporting can be more honest than its traditional counterpart. In undercover situations, it’s harder for the journalist to cherry-pick characters to fit his worldview, and the people he’s writing about aren’t changing their behavior because he’s there, notebook open, asking questions. Done well, immersion reporting also helps convey people’s humanity and complexity. When you’re writing from a distance, he explains, it’s easy to demonize people, especially if they’re part of a system that’s problematic. It “creates that illusion that these people are fundamentally different from us, which ultimately doesn’t serve anything,” he says. In his story in the July/August issue of Mother Jones, Bauer revealed how both prison guards and inmates were victimized by chronic understaffing and corporate profiteering. (One guard even told Bauer he wished an investigative reporter would look into the prison.) Readers flocked to the 35,000-word piece. And it seemed to get results: Two months after the article appeared online, the Justice Department announced it would phase out private prisons.
Undercover reporting has a long history of sparking social reform in the United States. In the 1850s, writers for the New York Tribune posed as rich plantation owners or Western travelers to report on pre–Civil War slavery. In 1887, Nellie Bly famously got herself locked up in a mental asylum to expose conditions there for New York World. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel about the exploitation of workers in the meat-packing industry, was based on research the author gathered while working incognito in the Chicago stockyards. In 1959, John Howard Griffin, a white journalist, controversially dyed his skin darker to report on life as an African-American man in what eventually became the book, Black Like Me.
While undercover reporting never disappeared, many publications soured on it after the late 1970s. An oft-cited culprit was the Chicago Sun-Times’ elaborate 1978 sting, in which the newspaper built a fake bar coyly named the Mirage Tavern in order to expose corruption among city inspectors. When the story failed to win a Pulitzer that year (the prize board decided the reporters’ methods were too deceptive), it was a signal to many that the practice had gone too far. Another cautionary tale comes from 1996, when a jury ordered ABC News to pay $5.5 million in damages to Food Lion after it ran an exposé of the grocery chain’s unsafe and illegal practices. The network’s reporters had used fake résumés to get jobs in the stores, then smuggled in hidden cameras. (An appeals court later reduced the judgment to two dollars.) More recently, in 2007, Ken Silverstein, then an editor at Harper’s, posed as a foreign executive to expose D.C. lobbyists’ willingness to represent one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes. Some (including Conover) think Silverstein’s ends justified the means, but the piece was criticized by, among others, Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz, who wrote that “lying … raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.”
But acceptance of the deception that undercover reporting requires may be growing, at least when it’s done judiciously. When Dana Priest and Anne Hull of the Washington Post reported on the maltreatment of Iraq war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007, they visited the facility without telling officials they were reporters or brandishing notebooks or recorders. The resulting exposé won a Pulitzer Prize and immediate reforms. Brooke Kroeger, a journalism professor at New York University, highlights this example in Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception, her 2012 clarion call for a renewed embrace of the practice: “… over and over again, ‘going undercover’ has proved to be an indispensable tool in the high-value, high-impact journalism of changing systems and righting wrongs.”
Whatever the pros and cons of undercover reporting, the practice may become more commonplace out of sheer necessity. At the dawn of an administration that has signaled its disdain for transparency and outright hostility toward the press, it seems likely that more reporters will have to resort to gumshoe tactics to keep tabs on government. The day after Thanksgiving, Bauer blends right in at Farley’s East, a hip café near his apartment in Oakland. He’s shaved the goatee he grew for the prison guard job and reinserted black plugs in his earlobes. Instead of a company-issued baseball hat, he’s wearing a gray newsboy cap with a charcoal T-shirt and chinos. He goes unnoticed by the bearded man at the next table, who had just been looking at a partial portrait of Bauer dressed in camouflage and holding a rifle while leafing through the November/December 2016 issue of Mother Jones.
The article told the story of Bauer’s latest undercover feat: infiltrating a border militia. As Motown tunes blare in the background, Bauer tells me how he penetrated militia networks online by opening a new Facebook account, using his real name and a Don’t Tread On Me icon, “liking” militia pages, sending friend requests to their members, and sharing posts about American flags or threats from Syrian refugees. In the course of reporting, he spent three months training with a group in California before accompanying the Three Percent United Patriots on a week long “operation” in Arizona. Recording was easy, since everyone had to wear body cameras.
Once again, ethical questions arise. After all, border militias aren’t public institutions, and many members and ex-members are eager to talk about their activities. Any wrongdoing Bauer uncovered was more potential than actual. So, did the story justify deceptive measures, even if Bauer didn’t lie outright?
Bauer, who comes across as thoughtful and focused, with a deep well of quiet resolve, says yes. “You can do interviews with these guys … but I wanted to see how the Border Patrol relates to them. I wanted to see beyond their publicity front … and show the world from inside.” Indeed, he found a disturbingly cozy relationship between federal agents and the militia—a group that was armed to the teeth and, as one member put it, out “hunting Mexicans.”
Mother Jones editor Gilson pointed out that the reporting was done on public land and, more importantly, was in the public interest. “When you have an armed group … acting in a role that most people assume belongs to law enforcement and the military, I think there are legitimate questions about what their intentions are and what they’re actually prepared to do,” he says.
For their part, both Wasserman and Conover thought it was less clear-cut whether the border militia story warranted the same surreptitious approach the private prison story had, but on balance they thought it was justifiable because it exposed the chummy relationship between the militia and border officials.
As for James O’Keefe, he sent a tweet to Bauer after the story ran: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. But your article is selectively edited, FYI. (Note: that was irony).” Bauer’s reply: “Your video splicing isn’t journalism. No person in my stories have [sic] challenged their accuracy. That’s because they can’t.”
Shortly after the presidential election, Bauer gave a talk at the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter, which honored him as Journalist of the Year. He displayed two graphs. One showed the stock price of CoreCivic plummeting in August 2016, after the Justice Department announced its plan to close private prisons. The other showed the company’s shares skyrocketing, more than any other stock on the market, the day after Donald Trump’s win.
“It symbolized the sense that … a lot of changes are just being wiped away…. It’s not a time of reform; it’s just putting out fires,” Bauer says.
At a moment in the country’s history when facts didn’t seem to matter, he told the crowd, he’d started wondering, What’s the point of being a journalist? His angst didn’t last long, however. “A lot of people are going to be looking for some kind of truth and relying on journalists to expose what’s going on in this new national framework,” he realized.
For now, Bauer is busy working on a book about private prisons. After that, he says he wouldn’t hesitate to go undercover again. He doesn’t fear he’ll become too recognizable: After all, most Americans don’t read Mother Jones, and his guises have always been susceptible to Google searches.
Bauer saw his SPJ award as a referendum on the future of undercover reporting: “It felt like an acknowledgment that we as journalists should not be giving institutions the last word. If they say ‘you don’t get access’ or ‘this is what we’ll give you,’ that’s not necessarily the end. Sometimes, extraordinary means are called for.”
Katia Savchuk is a frequent contributor to CALIFORNIA.