Paying for News  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

Paying for News   

The lamentable world of checkbook journalism, in full flower. Mon. June 13, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The comeback of checkbook journalism continues unabated.

The most recent instance revolves around the inevitable Anthony Weiner. ABC paid between $10,000 and $15,000 for pictures that Meagan Broussard, one of the embattled congressman's Twitter correspondents, sent to Weiner.

Paying for stories, while popular in Great Britain and with outfits like The National Enquirer, has long been considered off-limits by the mainstream media in the United States. The idea is it corrupts the newsgathering process. If you want someone to pony up serious money, it's only natural to enhance the truth a little. That's hardly good for credibility.

The current round of checkbook journalism comes with a twist. The buyers stress they are not paying for interviews. In the current case, ABC says it's paying "licensing fees" for Broussard's pictures. In other instances, networks have paid for such items as travel on a private plane.

Chris Cuomo, cohost of ABC's "20/20, took responsibility for buying Broussard's pictures, without apology. In an interview on CNN's "Reliable Sources" that aired on Sunday, he explained that the "commercial exigencies of the business reach into every aspect of reporting now."

He elaborated: "I could have said, 'Don't do it.' I don't because it is the state of play right now. I wish it were not. I wish money was not in the game. But you know, it's going to go somewhere else. You know someone else is going to pay for the same things."

Or, as Dr. John once put it, "If I don't do it, somebody else will." Not exactly the most inspiring ethics rallying cry.

The Broussard episode is hardly an isolated event. ABC also paid in six figures for the home movies of Jaycee Lee Dugard, who was held as a captive for 18 years in California, the New York Times reported. ABC announced last week that anchor Diane Sawyer had gotten the first interview with Dugard. Last year the network paid $200,000 to the family of Casey Anthony, accused of murdering her two-year-old. NBC has also paid for various perks for interview subjects.

After details about the Broussard appearance emerged, Julie Moos of the Poynter Institute wrote a good piece in which she called for an end to checkbook journalism. "We can return the genie to the bottle," she wrote.

Moos called for limiting licensing fees to sources who aren't involved in the story, such as eyewitnesses to an event or freelancers.

I'd love to see that happen. But don't hold your breath. As the Times piece today points out, the competition for material comes in the context of the furious battle for morning viewers between ABC and NBC. Barring a huge national outcry, which seems unlikely, those checkbooks are unlikely to be put away.

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