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American Journalism Review
Tabloids Force All To Pay for News  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   September 1994

Tabloids Force All To Pay for News   

Mainstream news outlets pay consulting fees and travel expenses to beat their competition.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     

The practice of paying sources has become so rampant in television that it now threatens the fundamental credibility of TV news. "There is a line but nobody knows where to draw it anymore," says Joe Rovitto, a partner in the news consulting firm of Clemensen & Sheehan and a local news director for 16 years. "The tabloids keep forcing the line to be moved. They're getting involved in major stories in competition with the networks and stations and are willing to shell out big bucks to get the story.''

ýhe recent O. J. Simpson case has taken checkbook journalism to a new low, polluting the judicial system in the process (see "Judgment Calls," page 18). A woman who told a grand jury she saw Simpson in the neighborhood the night his ex-wife was murdered also reportedly sold her story to "Hard Copy'' for $5,000 after trying to get "Inside Edition'' to pay her $100,000. Prosecutors say her credibility is damaged and will not ask her to testify at the trial.

But it's not only the syndicated tabloid magazine and talk shows that pay for news. Network news divisions and local stations, despite their loud denials, also pay in one form or another. Although they may not openly pay in cash, many use consulting fees, travel and entertainment expenses and other such covert arrangements.

Michael Fay, the American teenager who was caned in Singapore for vandalism, was deluged by the networks, tabloid programs and talk shows to get first rights to his story. He chose "Larry King Live'' primarily because CNN is seen in Singapore and the show is not edited. CNN paid for Fay's travel from Dayton to Washington and bought him a meal but Fay says there were no other inducements. However, one network offered to fly Fay's friends to Dayton from around the country for a reunion.

Paying travel arrangements for an exclusive interview is a frequent ploy of local stations. Last March, Pittsburgh's WPXI got an interview with a local woman hospitalized in Illinois after being kidnapped and beaten by her estranged husband by paying forýthe sister's flight – and flying with her – to Illinois. KCRA in Sacramento once chartered a jet to bring an accused murderer in police custody back from Los Angeles. "We never traded a ride on the chartered plane for an exclusive interview,'' the KCRA news director said at the time, "although I'm sure it may look that way to our competitors.''

A few years ago a reporter for Boston's WHDH obtained exclusive interviews and video of a hostage released by Shiite Muslims in Lebanon by ingratiating herself with the hostage's family. She was criticized by competitors for buying the wife of the ex-hostage meals and small gifts, assisting with travel logistics and then helping her get a job at a major insurance company.

"Some of this is distasteful,'' says Rovitto, "but it's difficult to condemn people for doing it because this is a hard, competitive business. It's very tough to walk away from a situation when you know your competition has something you don't.''

Reporter Diana Olick of KIRO in Seattle knows the feeling. While covering the months-long saga of ice skater Tonya Harding she had to watch as Harding bypassed her and other local reporters for exclusive interviews on national tabloid and network magazine shows. When all the hoopla faded after Harding's court case, the ice skater leaked word that she was joining a Seattle rock band called the White Trash Debutantes.

"I thought I'd finally get an interview with her since all new bands in Seattle want to get play on the local news,'' recalls Olick. "So I call the head of the band, who refers me to Tonya's attorney, who refers me to Tonya's new agent, who asks me to fax her a proposal... i.e., how much I'm willing to pay in cash and prizes for a short sit with the ice queen.

"Unfortunately, the tabloids are taking over. Nowadays the toughest journalistic walls to climb are not the technology, the presentation, the writing, the management, the job or the ratings. They're 'Hard Copy,' 'A Current Affair,' and 'Inside Edition.' If you want to play, you're gonna have to pay. At least they're not charging at the scene of breaking news...yet!''

That may be next. The popularity of the home videocamera has thrust the dilemma of checkbook journalism into every local newsroom in the country.

Marci Burdick, news director at KYTV in Springfield, Missouri, and chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, says amateurs are becoming more sophisticated about charging for news footage. "Even at this level, around the 80th [largest] market, it is an increasing trend,'' she says. "People are shopping their home video and trying to get us all in a bidding war.''

In a New York Times op-ed piece earlier this year, Walter Cronkite suggested that broadcasters be required to superimpose on the screen the dollar amount paid to an interviewee. His proposition might not end the checkbook journalism war, but it might help restore some integrity – and honesty – to TV news. l



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