The Longform Guide to Undercover Journalism

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Sept. 7 2013 7:00 AM

The Longform Guide to Undercover Journalism

Reporting from slaughterhouses, warehouses, and airport security lines.

Cows awaiting slaughter
Cows awaiting slaughter at a slaughterhouse

Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images

Every weekend, Longform shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks, plus features from 70 of the world’s best magazines, including Slate.

The Way of All Flesh
Ted Conover • Harper’s • May 2013

Undercover in an industrial slaughterhouse. (Conover recently discussed this piece, and the challenges of undercover reporting, on the Longform Podcast.)

“Carolina and I are not like most of the other inspectors. This becomes obvious as Herb, our immediate supervisor, sits us down to fill out paperwork. The regulars are putting on their white hard hats, grabbing the wide aluminum scabbards that hold their knives, and heading out onto the floor to begin the day. They are mostly white and mostly from the area around Schuyler, Nebraska, the town we sit at the edge of. I grew up in Colorado but arrived in Nebraska from my home in New York City, which strikes many here as odd. Carolina was born in Mexico, spent her childhood in California, came to Nebraska a few years ago, and became a U.S. citizen in the past year. Still, in certain ways she has more in common with our co-workers than I do, because she has worked in meat plants before—the JBS packinghouse in Grand Island, Nebraska, where she was a quality-assurance technician, and before that a kosher slaughterhouse in Hastings, Nebraska, where she worked on the line—which means she has experience with a knife. Which I do not. That experience, I will soon learn, counts for a lot.”

Confessions of a Car Salesman
Chandler Phillips • Edmunds • Jan 2001

Undercover at a dealership to learn the tricks of the trade, of which there are many.

Advertisement

“What the customer didn't realize was that the poor car salesman or woman was not really the enemy. The real enemy was the manager sitting in the sales tower cracking the whip. Suppose for a moment a customer told us they were ‘only looking,’ and we said, ‘fine, take your time,’ and went back into the sales tower. Now we find ourselves looking up into the steely eyes of the sales manager.

“‘That's your customer out there,’ the manager would say.

“‘But they said they're only looking,’ I would answer.

“‘Only looking? You're going to take that for an answer?’ Foam was beginning to form at the corners of the sales manager's mouth. ‘What the hell kind of salesman are you? Of course they're looking! They're all only looking until they buy. You want them to go across the street and buy a car over there? Because they have real salesmen over there. Now go back out there and sell those people a car. And don't let them leave until they buy or until you turn them over to your closer.’”

I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave
Mac McClelland • Mother Jones • March 2012

Undercover in the online-shipping industry.

“‘You look way too happy,’ an Amalgamated supervisor says to me. He has appeared next to me as I work, and in the silence of the vast warehouse, his presence catches me by surprise. His comment, even more so.

“‘Really?’ I ask.

“I don't really feel happy. By the fourth morning that I drag myself out of bed long before dawn, my self-pity has turned into actual concern. There's a screaming pain running across the back of my shoulders. ‘You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day,’ a woman in her late 50s or early 60s advised me when we all congregated in the break room before work. When I arrived, I stashed my lunch on a bottom ledge of the cheap metal shelving lining the break room walls, then hesitated before walking away. I cursed myself. I forgot something in the bag, but there was no way to get at it without crouching or bending over, and any extra times of doing that today were times I couldn't really afford. The unhappy-looking guy I always make a point of smiling at told me, as we were hustling to our stations, that this is actually the second time he's worked here: A few weeks back he missed some time for doctors' appointments when his arthritis flared up, and though he had notes for the absences, he was fired; he had to start the application process over again, which cost him an extra week and a half of work. ‘Zoom zoom! Pick it up! Pickers' pace, guys!’ we were prodded this morning. Since we already felt like we were moving pretty fast, I'm quite dispirited, in fact.

“‘Really?’ I ask.

“‘Well,’ the supervisor qualifies. ‘Just everybody else is usually really sad or mad by the time they've been working here this long.’

“It's my 28th hour as an employee.”

Ten Days in a Mad House
Nellie Bly • 1887

Undercover in a women’s insane asylum. On an island. In 1887.

“‘Who are they?’ I asked of a patient near me.

 “‘They are considered the most violent on the island,’ she replied. ‘They are from the Lodge, the first building with the high steps.’ Some were yelling, some were cursing, others were singing or praying or preaching, as the fancy struck them, and they made up the most miserable collection of humanity I had ever seen. As the din of their passing faded in the distance there came another sight I can never forget:

“A long cable rope fastened to wide leather belts, and these belts locked around the waists of fifty-two women. At the end of the rope was a heavy iron cart, and in it two women–one nursing a sore foot, another screaming at some nurse, saying: ‘You beat me and I shall not forget it. You want to kill me,’ and then she would sob and cry. The women ‘on the rope,’ as the patients call it, were each busy on their individual freaks. Some were yelling all the while. One who had blue eyes saw me look at her, and she turned as far as she could, talking and smiling, with that terrible, horrifying look of absolute insanity stamped on her. The doctors might safely judge on her case. The horror of that sight to one who had never been near an insane person before, was something unspeakable.”

Undercover as a Juggalette.

“I have infinite shortcomings as a Juggalette, but here are my two main ones: I can't say ‘titties’ with a straight face, even when my face is covered with clown makeup. And I do not have any desire ever to show my own titties to crowds of ravenous young men I do not know. Many women at the 12th annual Gathering of the Juggalos (though not, by any stretch, all of them) are content both to refer to their breasts as ‘titties’ and to show those titties to crowds of ravenous young men they do not know. At times, the reveal involves a monetary exchange. ‘Suck my titty for a dollar’ is a popular hustle, and one girl offers her titties for any purchase of multiple dollar shots from her bottle of tequila. But in general, no money is required. As I walk through a tent area in the early evening, an excited Juggalo runs up to a group of guys in front of us. He has a can of beer in each hand, a cigarette on his lip, and some news: ‘We've got three Juggalettes giving free hand jobs in a tent up here!’

The Things He Carried
Jeffrey Goldberg • Atlantic • November 2008

Undercover going through airport security.

“I could have ripped up these counterfeit boarding passes in the privacy of a toilet stall, but I chose not to, partly because this was the renowned Senator Larry Craig Memorial Wide-Stance Bathroom, and since the commencement of the Global War on Terror this particular bathroom has been patrolled by security officials trying to protect it from gay sex, and partly because I wanted to see whether my fellow passengers would report me to the TSA for acting suspiciously in a public bathroom. No one did, thus thwarting, yet again, my plans to get arrested, or at least be the recipient of a thorough sweating by the FBI, for dubious behavior in a large American airport. Suspicious that the measures put in place after the attacks of September 11 to prevent further such attacks are almost entirely for show—security theater is the term of art—I have for some time now been testing, in modest ways, their effectiveness. Because the TSA’s security regimen seems to be mainly thing-based—most of its 44,500 airport officers are assigned to truffle through carry-on bags for things like guns, bombs, three-ounce tubes of anthrax, Crest toothpaste, nail clippers, Snapple, and so on—I focused my efforts on bringing bad things through security in many different airports, primarily my home airport, Washington’s Reagan National, the one situated approximately 17 feet from the Pentagon, but also in Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (which is where I came closest to arousing at least a modest level of suspicion, receiving a symbolic pat-down—all frisks that avoid the sensitive regions are by definition symbolic—and one question about the presence of a Leatherman Multi-Tool in my pocket; said Leatherman was confiscated and is now, I hope, living with the loving family of a TSA employee). And because I have a fair amount of experience reporting on terrorists, and because terrorist groups produce large quantities of branded knickknacks, I’ve amassed an inspiring collection of al-Qaeda T-shirts, Islamic Jihad flags, Hezbollah videotapes, and inflatable Yasir Arafat dolls (really). All these things I’ve carried with me through airports across the country. I’ve also carried, at various times: pocketknives, matches from hotels in Beirut and Peshawar, dust masks, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, nail clippers, eight-ounce tubes of toothpaste (in my front pocket), bottles of Fiji Water (which is foreign), and, of course, box cutters. I was selected for secondary screening four times—out of dozens of passages through security checkpoints—during this extended experiment. At one screening, I was relieved of a pair of nail clippers; during another, a can of shaving cream.”

The Master of Spin Boldak
Matthieu Aikins • Harper’s • December 2009

Undercover with Afghanistan’s drug-smuggling border police.

“‘Oh, Matthieu,’ he said mournfully. ‘You are a big problem.’ They had planned to avoid formalities by smuggling me across the border; now, because of the explosion, the guards would be on high alert. A few more of Sikander’s friends came over to the car, and as they began to discuss a plan, Jahanzeb turned to me occasionally to ask questions in English. Do you want to go back? Do you want to go across on a motorcycle? I didn’t want to go back—it had taken me weeks of hanging around Quetta to arrange the trip—so we decided that Sikander and Jahanzeb would go ahead and send for me later.

“After a few tense hours in Chaman, a white Corolla with a gold plastic armani air-freshener on its dashboard arrived for me. The driver, tall and clean-shaven with a gap-toothed smile, looked me over as we accelerated north. ‘Do you speak Pashto?’ he asked me. I shook my head. ‘Urdu?’

“‘I speak Persian,’ I offered in that language.

“‘Then just don’t say anything,’ he muttered in Dari, the Afghan dialect of Persian. He examined my half-Asian features and wiry beard, which together gave me the look of an Afghan from the north—an Uzbek or Hazara, perhaps—and then placed his red embroidered cap, a typical Pashtun accessory, on my head.

“At the checkpoint, cutting into a side lane, my driver wove, honked, and waved his way past the black-clad Pakistani and camouflage-clad Afghan guards. They waved back in recognition. We drove around the arch and onto a wide, rough-paved highway swirling with dust and traffic. ‘How are you, my dear?’ the driver asked in Dari, grinning widely. ‘This is Afghanistan!’

 Fast Times at Ridgemont High
Cameron Crowe • Playboy • September 1981

Undercover in high school.

“The strange saga of Mr. Hand had been passed down to Stacy Hamilton by her older brother Brad. Arnold Hand, Ridgemont’s U.S. history instructor, was one of those teachers. His was a special brand of eccentricity, the kind preserved only through California state seniority laws.  Mr. Hand had been at Ridgemont High for years, waging his highly theatrical battle against what he saw as the greatest threat to the youth of this land–truancy.

“Mr. Hand’s other favorite activity was hailing the virtues of the three-bell system. At Ridgemont, the short first bell meant a student had three minutes to prepare for the end of the class. The long second bell dismissed the class. Then there were exactly seven minutes—and Mr. Hand claimed that he personally fought the Education Center for those seven minutes—before the third and last attendance bell. If you did not have the ability to obey the three-bell system, Mr. Hand would say, then it was aloha time for you. You simply would not function in life.

“‘And functioning in life,’ Mr. Hand said grandly on that first morning, ‘is the hidden postulate of education.’”

Have a favorite piece that we missed? Leave the link in the comments or tweet it to @longform. For more great writing, check out Longform’s complete archive.

Max Linsky is a founding editor of Longform.org.