In a post last week on corruption in Chicago’s criminal courts I questioned the informal prohibition among today’s journalists against undercover reporting. An article in the Sunday Tribune inspires me to bring it up again.

Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi tells the story of Genevieve Forbes, a young reporter who joined the Tribune in 1918 and was assigned the literary beat but had bigger ambitions. In 1921 she persuaded her editors to send her to Ireland, She intended to return to America posing as an “immigrant girl” and write about her experiences.

Forbes’s series ran in 13 parts. It described a gantlet of abuses and humiliations that began in Dublin, where nurses (when not tipped to be lenient) randomly ordered the heads of women shaved to cow them, and lasting to Ellis Island, where newcomers might be sent to detention on an immigration official’s whim and eventually put on a train chosen at random to take them to a place where they knew nobody. 

Tribune readers were appalled when they read the series,” writes Le Beau Lucchesi. “Within 10 days of the last installment, the Ellis Island commissioner was fired. . . . The U.S. House of Representatives held hearings and Forbes testified to her experiences.”

Early in Le Beau Lucchesi’s account, there’s a sort of disclaimer: “Going undercover with a false identity for a story is a reporting practice frowned upon now as unethical (and in some cases illegal) but it was acceptable then.”

So if your first inclination is to condemn Forbes for the shameless subterfuge that allowed her to put herself through days of misery, horrify readers, and bring scandalous practices to the attention of Congress, cut her some slack.

Back then we didn’t know better.