No question, the renegade doctor was looking at my chest. And that presented a major problem. I was wearing thick glasses instead of my usual contacts. My on-air hair had never looked so disheveled. Even my friends wouldn’t recognize me without my usual television makeup. I was undercover and in disguise. But the doctor’s wandering eyes were making me nervous.
A source had told us this guy was lying to patients about his history as an obstetrician. He’d been hammered with malpractice suits, and lost, time after time after time. But state laws at the time didn’t require him to tell that to potential patients. Back then, to find a doctor’s legal history, a patient would have to search court files, which in some cases were sealed. Our TV news story, tentatively titled Private Practices, would explore whether doctors’ legal histories should be easier to check. We thought the public had a right to know.
What I hoped the “doctor” didn’t know: that tiny cigarette burn hole on the front pocket of my rumpled denim work shirt was actually the opening for a tiny camera lens. (We called it a button-cam.) A thin wire snaked down from behind it, under my shirt, and tucked under my belt. Attached to that, and zipped into my goofy-looking fanny pack, was the guts of the hidden camera. I hoped the lens was pointed at his face. I hoped the tape was rolling in my pack. And I sure hoped Doctor X didn’t realize it.
When you’re undercover and carrying a hidden camera, there’s no room for error. But as investigative reporter, you never know. Would this be the time I got caught?
I silently chanted my mantra. Rule number one of undercover shooting: The target doesn’t know. The target doesn’t know. The last thing this guy figured was that the middle-aged couple sitting in his low-rent office were actually a television reporter and producer posing as husband and wife. But even though what we were doing was perfectly legal, and for the benefit of the public, and on the side of the good guys—when you’re on the reporter side of the camera, there’s never a moment when you feel certain it will work. Every moment is stomach-twistingly tense.
But in television, if it’s not on video, it didn’t happen. And we had to get the video.
He kept looking at my chest. I ignored it. We finished the interview. Bingo. He kept his secret past a secret. And we got outta there.
A few months before, with a fake ponytail sticking out from under a Red Sox cap and wearing a dowdy dress, I had posed as a potential victim at what a source had divulged was a recruitment meeting for a cult organization. A shady group was luring vulnerable young women into handing over their money in return for some “salvation.”
This time, our fancy button-cam was in the engineer’s shop for repairs. But the cult meeting was that night. It was now or never. So I resorted to a more old-fashioned method. And by old-fashioned, I mean risky.
I’d cut a quarter-sized hole in the side of an old purse, and tucked a regular Hi-8 camera inside, using black electrician’s tape to hold the lens against the hole. Then I tied a flowery silk scarf over the strap of the purse. When the scarf was down, the lens was covered. And I’d only have pictures of the scarf. When I moved the scarf aside, the lens would show, and I could get pictures of the cult meeting. Of course, at that point, the lens was also pretty visible.
It was as good as it was going to get.
Out in the parking lot, I pushed the camera’s record button. I adjusted the scarf (and my phony persona), and walked through the door, pretending I was just another guest.
Standing in the back of the room, I assessed the situation, then moved the scarf aside. Rolling with video.
Smiling and soft-spoken girls, looking just out of college, circulated quietly, offering lemonade. One caught my eye from across the room, and I saw her decide to approach me. Closer. Closer. Too close. The scarf went over the lens.
I took the lemonade. I didn’t drink it. I was trying to look like someone who might be vulnerable to being brainwashed, but not too vulnerable. I was a little apprehensive about the lemonade.
The music was loud. The lights were bright. A woman stepped to a podium at the front of the room. I knew my camera was still rolling. I knew the tape inside was only thirty minutes long. Thirty minutes of scarf was not going to cut it.
I moved the scarf aside.
And then—I felt a tap in my shoulder.
I turned. A man in a suit looked at me through narrowed eyes.
“What’s in your purse?” he asked.
In television, you’re only as good as your last story. And, I remember, I briefly wondered if this would be the last story I ever did.
But rule number two of undercover shooting: The best defense is a good offense.
Scarf down. I turned on the charm. I giggled, and in a non-Hank voice chirped, “Yes, my mother always tells me I carry too much stuff.” He looked at me, not quite convinced.
I moved to another tactic. “You’re making me uncomfortable,” I said, making my voice edgier. “Are you supposed to be asking women that?”
He turned on his heel. Outta there.
I hightailed it for the door. Outta there.
The story was a blockbuster. The cult church is no more. And now in Massachusetts, doctors must list their malpractice cases on state-mandated public profiles.
The high stakes and the high-stress. The decisions and the deadlines. And hoping to change the world a bit. After more than thirty years in television, I want my fictional reporter Jane Ryland to show readers the authentic inside scoop on reporting. The good news. And the bad news. And I can say—been there, done that.
Have you ever wished you had a hidden camera? What would you like to get on video? And do you think you’d know if someone were taking your picture . . . right now?
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Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity award-winning author Hank Phillippi Ryan is the on-the-air investigative reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate. Her work has resulted in new laws, people sent to prison, homes removed from foreclosure, and millions of dollars in restitution. Along with her 28 Emmys, Hank has won dozens of other journalism honors. A starred review from Library Journal says her newest thriller, The Other Woman, “[is] a dizzying labyrinth of twists, turns, and surprises. Readers who crave mystery and political intrigue will be mesmerized by this first installment of her new series.”