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Journalism Can Do Without Impostors

Jimmy Marks, Spokane’s most famous Gypsy, can be interesting to talk with, if he sticks to topics such as the Gypsy culture, his gambling trips to Las Vegas and the happenings of his large, extended family.

But get him talking about the lawsuit still pending between the city of Spokane and the Marks family and watch out! Marks will tell you, in painful detail, about every event that happened before, during and after the police raids on Gypsy homes 10 years ago.

So there is some justice in the appalling news that David Elton, a self-described political consultant, posed as a reporter and talked to Marks about the case. Turns out Elton was acting as an FBI informant.

The justice is that Elton had to listen to Marks yak for hours about the lawsuit. Elton learned just how tedious a journalist’s job can be.

On a more serious note, Elton’s actions, and the FBI’s awareness that Elton had posed as a journalist, further erode the media’s credibility. The practice should not be encouraged nor condoned by any law enforcement agency. It’s against the law for a journalist to pose as a police officer. But say that journalists could pretend to be detectives. Imagine how these impersonations would mess up the information-gathering process crucial to good police work. The same goes for journalism.

The president of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote a letter of protest to the FBI on behalf of the association’s 13,500 members. “Prospective news sources should not have to ask themselves in granting an interview whether they’re talking to a reporter or a criminal investigator. If they find themselves having to do that, I would guess that fewer news subjects would grant interviews,” wrote G. Kelly Hawes. “And if that happens, the American public will be deprived of insight into the workings of its criminal justice system.”

SPJ is urging the FBI to adopt a policy forbidding its agents or informants to pose as journalists. We hope the FBI considers it, not only because it would help preserve freedom of the press. It would also spare the FBI another embarrassment like David Elton. His involvement in dubious political activities - he was recently arrested on charges that he stole campaign signs - doesn’t help the FBI’s image one bit.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Rebecca Nappi/For the editorial board