The 5 Ballsiest Acts of Undercover Journalism Ever
As brave as undercover cops have to be to rub elbows with mob bosses and murderers, we submit that there is one group with even bigger balls: undercover journalists.
After all, they wind up in the same terrifying company, under a cover that can be blown at any moment, only without having a van full of fully armed cops who can burst through the door at any moment.
So let's pause to salute ...
Born in 1864, Elizabeth Jane Cochran clearly was launched into a world not yet ready for her. She set her career's course by replying to a sexist article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch in such a fiery way that they saw no way to shut her up but to give her a job.
"This woman hates us, Jenkins! Hire her and maybe she'll have sex with me."
After being assigned the pseudonym Nellie Bly because female journalists didn't get to use their own names, she did a stint traveling across Mexico as a foreign correspondent. Later, she took on an undercover job for Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, doing the kind of work few reporters of either gender have had the balls to even consider.
And she did it all without a bowel disruptor.
She would make history by checking into an insane asylum to investigate reports of cruelty and overall neglect. Yes, as a patient.
You have to keep in mind that in the late 1800s, these homes were basically the attics where people locked up the deformed kids that the neighbors preferred not to know about. To get in, Bly rented a room at a cheap boarding house and started acting crazy -- pestering the other residents, acting afraid of them for no reason, refusing to go to bed, claiming to have no memory of anything she did. As per the system at the time, the logical thing to do was to have her arrested and institutionalized.
Nothing helps sort out crazy people like more crazy people.
Right away she exposed the ridiculous flaws in the system -- several doctors examined her and declared her, quote, "undoubtedly insane" and a "hopeless case" with no chance for a cure. They were so blatantly relying on blind guesses for their diagnoses that multiple doctors couldn't tell the difference between an insane person and a perfectly sane reporter saying, "Oh yeah, I'm totally crazy. You wouldn't even believe it."
The place they dumped her was called Blackwell's Island, and Bly soon found that the ominous name seemed to encourage the asylum to follow every prison movie cliche in existence. Over 10 days she was stuck in a filthy facility that served gruel, broth and bone-dry bread. Showers were buckets of frigid water dumped on her head. Then you have the rotten meat, and the rats, and the nurses who beat the patients who refused to shut up. Bly's stay was less One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and more Hostel.
Bly found that the conditions weren't just a matter of poor funding or a misunderstanding of mental illness but rose to the level of diabolical torture. She describes being made to sit perfectly still and silent on a wooden bench for 14 straight hours, with nothing to read, no one to talk to and completely cut off from the outside world. She spoke to other patients and came to the conclusion that many were perfectly sane but had been broken by the hellish conditions.
Her employers sprung her after 10 days, and the story caused a huge splash. She was eventually asked to assist a grand jury tasked with rolling up Blackwell's Island and to give input on how mental wards should be reformed. All it took was one woman with enormous balls.
Alison Braund, Fredy Gareis and Mark Ebner
Infiltrating an insane asylum is inarguably badass, but what if there was a place that combined completely misapplied psychology and a desire for world domination? Then you'd end up with something both ludicrously bizarre and totally horrifying.
If you know what a Thetan is, you know where this is going. Three journalists decided to find out about Scientology from the inside.
Above: The poopy bowels of Scientology.
Alison Braund, Fredy Gareis and Mark Ebner let themselves be approached in the street and pulled into the storefront offices of the Church of Scientology in Poole (England), Berlin and Los Angeles to get psycho-tested. When presented with the predictable results that they were as good as dead if they didn't let the good Xenu come to the rescue right away, they signed up for classes.
From the moment they walked in, the hard sell would never cease. The usual progression moved from being kind and understanding to pointing out which homemade class or program would cure the particular weak spot the cult's adviser had "identified." Courses turned to essays, essays turned to tests, tests turned into questions and questions turned into outright interrogation. Then it got weird.
In the advanced "Whole Security Check," questions would include: "Have you ever destroyed a culture?" "Did you come to Earth for evil purposes?" and "Have you ever bred bodies for degrading purposes?"
"Er ... Sir, could you define degrading, please?"
As you can guess, all three were presented with the prospect of reaching incredibly high levels of Scientologiness by paying incredibly high amounts of cash, and all were introduced to the workings of the Thetans, etc. But that's just the beginning. Braund describes how as a recruit, you'd never be left alone long enough to clear your head (even being escorted into the bathroom for more questions).
Gareis writes about how a few 19-year-old girls used their natural charms to bully him into not just signing up for classes but "employment," meaning a 52-hours-a-week job recruiting new members himself. Gareis said that when he used the "skeptical girlfriend" defense, they tried to break up his relationship by trying to lure his girlfriend into HQ to "handle" her. Failing that, they hinted that she probably cheated on him anyway.
Berlin HQ. The sign says "Open House Today." It says that every single day.
Ebner, on the other hand, was offered a regimen of daily five-hour sauna sessions and oral shots of olive oil to help him quit smoking (this has caused people to collapse half-dead before).
Gareis and Ebner eventually just dropped out, leaving their phones to ring ... and ring ... and ring. Hundreds of times. Ebner expected that once his tell-all book hit shelves, the cult would use everything it had on him thanks to the long interrogation sessions. Scientologists call it assembling a "dead agent pack," which essentially means ruining you by spreading all those little secrets to everyone who has no business knowing them. Which is why he simply published them first.
L. Ron Hubbard: "The technique of proving utterances false is called 'DEAD AGENTING.' It's in the first book of Chinese espionage. When the enemy agent gives false data, those who believed him but now find it false kill him -- or at least cease to believe him. So the PR slang for it is 'Dead Agenting.' "
Meanwhile, Braund called her family back in Oz to warn them they might be approached. As it turned out, they already had been -- first under a pretext, then openly -- and given a warning that this shit better not hit the airwaves. Someone had also turned up at her old high school to plunder her school records.
They're all looking over their shoulders to this day. The Church of Scientology doesn't forget.
Gunter Wallraff is a German journalist who smuggled his notebook into just about every setting possible, usually getting sued for his troubles. And usually winning in court. He was all about exposing working conditions, and he cut his teeth by publishing reports on the companies he'd worked for from the inside. As a result, HR people in the 60s were always on the lookout for him, keeping what they called "Wallraff Wanted" posters to make sure they'd recognize him. Alas, they never did, because he kept changing his appearance.
The Many Faces of Gunter.
In the 1980s, he landed the coup he's most famous for: Ganz unten ("The lowest of the low"). The "low" people he's referring to in the title are the immigrant workers in Germany who, because they have nowhere else to go and risk deportation at any moment, basically get shit on 24 hours a day. If you're thinking we're just talking about low wages and long hours, hang on to your ass ...
Wallraff donned dark contact lenses, blackened his hair and mustache and played the part of a Turkish immigrant named Ali, working several low-level jobs. At one point he worked for a construction company and was sent into a building to clean it up ...
It's like Borat, except it makes us want to cry.
In his words, "Several fire engines approach, also the police. Ali is sent with several other colleagues onto the still smoldering roof to clean up. The soles of his sneakers begin to scorch; a few times burning beams crash below him. A group of police officers and firefighters stand next to us and watch how we throw smoldering things down into the builder's yard. We're clambering around in front of them, without protective clothing ... But they say nothing."See, the protective clothing was
Above: German firefighter in protective lederhosen.
At one point, he was employed with a subcontractor who worked him 72 hours straight, and then kept his paycheck. Later, he worked for a pharmaceutical company ... that put him to work as a human guinea pig to test the side effects of drugs.
But here's the best part -- while the first two investigators on our list spent a couple of weeks in their nightmarish assignments, Wallraff kept up this dangerous disguise and brutal routine for two freaking years. Of course, the people he was trying to help do it their whole lives ...
And with much shabbier mustaches.
And just how bad was it for the Turks there? At one point, the reporter (again, playing a Muslim) asked a priest to baptize him. The priest turned him down.
By the way, just digging up dirt while trying not to fall into a vat of molten steel wouldn't satisfy this man. So, in 1989, he hid his friend Salman Rushdie for a bit while Ayatollah Khomeini commanded the Muslim world to murder him at any opportunity. Where did he hide him? In his apartment in Germany, of course, in a district bustling with Muslim immigrants.
Norah Vincent already was a well-established New York journalist when, in 1999, she found herself "undergoing a significantly delayed adolescence, drinking and drugging a little too much, and indulging in all the sidewalk freak show opportunities that New York City has to offer."
What a town.
How this differs from the normal New York experience we have no idea, but we can say that for fun, she decided one night to hit the bars in full-on drag. What surprised her was that nobody noticed she wasn't a man.
In 2003, her one-night drag-a-thon came back to her, and she decided to go paddle across the gene pool to dive at the deep and rather murky end that is Man. This time, though, not just for a night, but for 18 months.
This is her.
Even though her photo indicates she could easily pass for the love child of Judd Nelson and Rob Lowe, some more preparations were in order to pass at close inspection, and we mean close. The drag king who'd first introduced her to the scene helped her fake convincing stubble, because everyone knows the manliest men, from George Michael to Colin Farrell, all have stubble. She also lifted weights, tied down her boobs and bought a false dick to add some anatomical realism (for some reason, rolled-up socks don't tend to intimidate the other males enough).
We recommend kielbasa -- it doubles as lunch.
Then she went all-in, joining an all-male bowling club as well as a men's therapy group under the name of Ned. While she'd always been considered rather a ballsy broad, many people now thought "Ned" was probably gay.
Other places of manly tradition she infiltrated were strip clubs and a Catholic monastery. We can only imagine what the men in there were thinking of Ned, but if they made a pass, she certainly would have had other company on her mind. Like the girls she contacted on dating sites and went out with. Fortunately, she made it a point to reveal herself no later than the third date, so it's only slightly rude. At least the ladies got two free meals out of it, and possibly an interesting story for the grandkids someday.
Though the experience would mix things up for Vicent mentally a bit (and who can blame her?), she wound up writing a book based on the experience called Self-Made Man. Meanwhile, it took her a whole year and trips to three different hospitals to get Ned out of her system. That's the part they never portrayed in all those 80s comedies on the subject.
Antonio Salas started out badass enough as an undercover documentary filmmaker covering the Basque ETA guerrillas and then a ring of human traffickers. Eventually, whizzing across the Mediterranean on a speedboat full of illegal African migrants only left him craving more. Clearly, he needed to meet some terrorists.
And not the conspicuously European terrorists we get from Hollywood.
It came to him in March 2004, when Islamist terrorists attacked the Madrid train system and killed 191 people. That's when he knew where he had to go. The problem is, unlike some of the other people on this list, he couldn't just slap on a wig or get a fake ID to fool the targets. He needed to fool everybody. He couldn't play terrorist; he'd have to become one. Everybody needed to think he had gone to the other side.
It took him five years.
Which is slightly less time than we've devoted to our impressive bedsore collection.
He developed an elaborate backstory, learned Arabic, converted to Islam and carried around a copy of the Quran that he copied by hand. Then he started publishing articles in support of jihad, getting them accepted by publishers who would go for that kind of thing.
Of course, getting published is the easy part.
At one point, he got invited to a bath house. This was an issue since he wasn't circumcised, but the man he was playing would be. So he made an appointment with a man with a knife. Yes, Salas sacrificed part of his dick for his job.
Finally Salas wound up in contact with the younger brothers of terrorist legend Carlos the Jackal himself. You may remember the guy as the real-life terrorist who inspired the Bourne Identity series and whose history of kidnapping and killing earned him the spot as the world's most-wanted criminal -- which he kept even after being put away for life -- until Osama came along.
Sorry, Carlos, but there's room in our hearts for only ONE terrorist mastermind.
Eventually, Salas got so deep that he got a job as Carlos' personal webmaster. Being the webmaster of personified evil required updating the site from a different cybercafe every day -- ideally from a different country every day -- to shake off the various intelligence services constantly zeroing in on him. Also, he received enough jihadist training to be able to (in theory) commit major atrocities.
That's what you have to keep in mind: His cover was so deep that he was equally in danger of being killed by pro and anti-jihadists -- by the former if they found out he was an infidel in disguise, and by the latter if they thought he was part of a planned terror attack.
He survived, though, and wound up publicly sharing his experiences. Thanks to his book, he was able to share groundbreaking insights into organized terrorism. And the fact that he published it under his real name ... well, they just don't make pants with crotches big enough.
Oh no! Floating machine guns have attacked the Arab White House!
When not writing for Cracked, Conny Appin gets himself all worked up as Secretary General of NATHO.
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To learn about some unscrupulous journalists, check out The 5 Most Ridiculous Lies Ever Published as Non-Fiction. Or discover that, yes, there are badass spies out there, in 5 Spies with Bigger Balls Than James Bond.
And stop by Linkstorm to discover which columnist won't quit dressing in drag ... despite his assignment being over for a long time.
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