Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Cash for Quotes

Like a door-to-door proselytizer or a tax audit, checkbook journalism has once again made an unwanted appearance.

The practice involves paying big bucks for an interview or information. It’s been absolutely taboo at every stop I’ve made along my news career. And for good reason which we’ll get to presently.

It’s not taboo everywhere, however. It is sometimes practiced openly and without apology, especially in Europe. Gossip magazines often pay for access to a “star.”

But each time we learn about an incident involving the mainstream media here in the good old USA, it’s like a large pimple that has suddenly appeared on the end of your nose. It’s ugly and embarrassing.

The latest organization to step on the ethical banana peel is ABC news. According to court documents, ABC paid $200,000 to the family of murdered toddler Cayleee Anthony, whose mother, Casey, has been accused of the crime.

The money went to her legal defense team.

ABC explained, "In August 2008 we licensed exclusive rights to an extensive library of photos and home video for use by our broadcasts,platforms, affiliates and international partners. No use of the material was tied to any interview.”

Court documents showed, however, that ABC News paid for a three-night hotel stay at a Florida Ritz-Carlton for Casey's parents George and Cindy Anthony. And if the Anthonys should run into a a reporter while they’re
enjoying their luxurious accommodations, well, that’s just a coincidence, right?

NBC recently drew the wrath of the the Society of Professional Journalists and others for chartering a jet for David Goldman, who had just won a long custody battle with his Brazilian ex-wife over his son. The network generously flew father and son home to New York.

And who else was a board? If you guessed a reporter, you’d be correct.

NBC News spokeswoman Lauren Kapp said that "NBC News does not and will not pay for interviews.”

But as John Cook wrote on the Gawker website, “It's true, in the same sense it's true that Eliot Spitzer paid that nice lady to come visit him in D.C. and she threw in the sex for free.”

It also raises the question: if it’s unethical to pay for interviews, what is it to create rules then find a way to break them? Is there such a thing as felony dishonesty?

Unfortunately, editors have been writing checks for a long time. The New York Times scooped the world with an exclusive interview with the Titanic wireless operator by forking over $1,000 for his story in 1912.

The Hearst folks paid the legal bills of the defendant in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case to ensure scoops during the trial. David Frost paid Richard Nixon to sit down. Nixon went to Frost after CBS turned down his offer to play for pay.

And in 1978, ABC gave Chuck Colson $10,000 to rat out Watergate co-conspirator H.R. Haldeman. CBS turned around at paid Haldeman $100,000 for an interview in which, to the embarrassment of the network, he said
almost nothing.

Life magazine caused a flap when it paid the original Mercury astronauts for their stories.

So why invest all that time and hard work in investigative journalism? Why not just write a check?

For one thing, people will lie and exaggerate to put a wad of cash in their pockets. A Washington reporter once wrote that he had numerous women tell him they would admit, falsely, that they had sex with President Clinton if the price was right.

Worse, if checkbook journalism becomes widespread, people will withhold information unless they are paid.

And, of course, the credibility of a news organization that has crawled into financial bed with a source hovers somewhere around zero.

As far as I’m concerned, ABC has disqualified itself from covering any aspect of the Anthony trial. They have tainted their judgment by giving money to the defendant and can’t be trusted to report truthfully.

Speaking of television, I was amused that CBS turned down a chance to interview Tiger Woods because he would only answer questions for five minutes.

That’s plenty of time for him to say again and again that his life is in the gutter, that his reputation with his wife, children, peers and the public has been damaged forever and that he only has himself to blame.

How many times do we need to ask him his feelings? How many details of his salacious affairs to we need to know?

Five minutes seems about right.

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