The task: You can’t tell them you’re reporting on this subject, of course. But try not to lie.
These were the instructions for an undercover reporting assignment in Ted Conover’s senior seminar called — rather obviously — Undercover Reporting.
I met Conover before the course even started in the fall of 2014, virtually, that is. I wasn’t even supposed to enroll in the class, as I had not yet taken all of the prerequisites, but after talking to my counselor, I sent him an email, providing some information about my background when he asked about my journalism experience. “Great. You’re in,” he replied. “Look forward to seeing you in the fall.” By some grace of the fall enrollment gods and Conover’s blessing, I had sneaked onto the attendance sheet for one of the most enriching courses of my college career.
We huddled into the library at 20 Cooper Square, a small conference room with a table with just enough seating for our class of 12. Conover is an unassuming individual, yet unforgettable. His actions are gentle, from the way he walks to his general posture. But his words and tone are deliberate. It’s odd, and when you first hear about Conover’s undercover assignments, you’re shocked. You think, “Really? You don’t look like an undercover reporter.”
And then you hit your face with your palm because you realize it — that’s the whole point.
That’s why he has been able to cross the Rio Grande and United States border. And he was able to become a driver in Aspen, Colorado, playing a chauffeur to the rich and famous. And he was able to ride the rails with homeless men and women in Missouri. And he worked as a meat inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And he was able to work at Sing Sing prison in Upstate New York.
Conover’s countenance is just average enough to allow him to accomplish above-average feats, for any reporter. For any person, really.
My classmates and I stopped scratching our heads over Conover’s accolades after that first two-hour session. We left the room floored at his life experiences and humble demeanor.
He engaged us in classic examples of undercover reporting, from John Howard Griffin’s account of posing as an African-American during the ’60s to Kim Wozencraft losing sight of her assignment and becoming addicted to drugs in “Rush.” I was enthralled. These were the stories I wanted to read. And Conover relished the debates we started in class over whether revealing the real name of a character was “just” or not. In a sense, the undercover reporter is a character in their own story. They must maintain two personas — the half truth and their real self.
Conover’s coyness and guidance never faltered throughout the semester, especially when we all were tasked to embark on our own undercover reporting assignments or “Assignment X.” Though I won’t delve into my Assignment X, I remember feeling uncomfortable at times then completely in my element at other moments, from the reporting to the writing. I would often pause and ask myself, “How should I go about this? What do my morals tell me?”
Conover, while emphasizing our writing techniques and attention to detail, praised effort over word choice. He desired reflection, care, thoroughness and (somewhat ironically) honesty. If ever a class about juxtapositions and dichotomy existed, it was Undercover Reporting.
It wasn’t until I started writing this that I truly realized that Professor Conover wasn’t solely teaching us about reporting. He was asking us to reconsider what morals are — what they meant and to whom. And more importantly, why or why not.
There’s a fine line between telling the truth and telling the whole truth. For that semester, Conover helped us find that line, and he guided us as we walked along it.