Interviews For Sale
By Jacqueline E. Sharkey
Jacqueline E. Sharkey is head of the University of Arizona Department of Journalism and author of "Under Fire--U.S. Military Restrictions on the Media from Grenada to the Persian Gulf."
Jose Camacho fidgeted nervously on the witness stand, uncomfortable with the prosecutor's questions.
"Did you sign a contract with the National Enquirer?" prosecutor William Hodgman asked.
"Yes," replied Camacho, who said O.J. Simpson had bought a knife in the store where he worked six weeks before the murders. Camacho had accepted $12,500 from the Enquirer after "Hard Copy" had offered him "peanuts." He said he wouldn't be paid until the story was published the following week.
"By virtue of your testimony, we have scooped the National Enquirer," Hodgman said.
Camacho's testimony was a "nightmare" for prosecutors, Washington attorney Greta Van Susteren has said. But it was only one of many caused by the tabloid media in the Simpson case. Others included:
GA key prosecution witness who alleges she saw Simpson driving near the murder scene was dropped from the witness list after she sold her story to "Hard Copy."
G"Inside Edition" interviewed the ex-wife of Brian "Kato" Kaelin, potentially a key defense witness, and portrayed her as contradicting Kaelin's testimony about Simpson's state of mind.
GThe National Enquirer offered Kaelin, who lived in a guest room on Simpson's property, $250,000 for his story. Enquirer General Editor Mike Walker appeared on "Larry King Live" holding a $1 million check the publication was offering to Simpson friend Al Cowlings to tell them what had happened in the Bronco during the June 17 freeway procession.
Prosecutors tried to salvage the credibility of Camacho and the knife store owners, pointing out they had sold their stories after they had testified to the grand jury.
But defense attorney Roy Black, who successfully defended William Kennedy Smith, says that once witnesses sell their story, their credibility is "zero."
Lawyers and journalists agree the practice of paying witnesses encourages them to embellish their stories. "They are being paid because their story is exciting," Black says. "There is always the inducement to make it even more exciting by making up more colorful details."
Representatives of the tabloid media make no apologies for the practice. The National Enquirer talked to Camacho after he testified. "The knife guys, they had already gone to the police, to the prosecution," the Enquirer's Walker says. Bill O'Reilly of "Inside Edition" says he "would not put anyone on the air who he felt would be disqualified as a witness."
Apparently he hasn't talked with attorney Clayton Lance, who defended one of the men accused of participating in the plot to cripple figure skater Nancy Kerrigan earlier this year. Lance was astounded when the defendant admitted he had committed the crime while appearing on a tabloid show.
This certainly compromised his defense, Lance told CNN's Larry King. He couldn't go in front of a jury and say his client was innocent when he had "decided to confess to a crime on national television," Lance said.
Lawyers say these experiences have made them ardent supporters of legislation designed to end the payment of witnesses and other participants in criminal cases before trials.
Checkbook journalism "is not only corroding the culture of journalism," it is doing the same thing to the legal process, says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz.
Prosecutors in the Simpson case agree. Jill Shively testified before the grand jury that she had seen Simpson driving near the scene of the crime like a "madman." But prosecuters decided they shouldn't use her in the future after she sold her story to "Hard Copy," reportedly for $5,000.
Although media reports said Shively shopped her story to the tabloids – "Inside Edition's" O'Reilly said he turned her down because her "price tag was outrageous" – she says the tabloids wouldn't leave her alone. Camacho said the media hounded him at his store after his grand jury appearance. He told them he wouldn't talk, but then decided, "I might as well get something for it," he testified.
Meanwhile, Kaelin's attorney, William Genego, is trying to combat allegations that his client had not been truthful. Kaelin's former spouse appeared on "Inside Edition," saying that Kaelin wasn't being honest when he said Simpson was not upset the night of the murders. Simpson was "livid," the program quoted Kaelin's ex-wife as saying.
Genego says the woman, who did not reply to requests for an interview with AJR, told him that "Inside Edition" had instructed her to use the word "livid," which was "not in her vocabulary." He says she felt this made it appear as if she were saying Kaelin was lying, and that she had not meant that. "Inside Edition's" John Tomlin says, "To my knowledge, we did not tell the lady what to say."
Kaelin has turned down offers of $250,000, according to Genego. But that sum pales in comparison with the $1 million the Enquirer offered to Cowlings on national television, a move that Walker defends. The newspaper is willing to pay such a sum because the interview would be worth that much, Walker explains. People need to remember that the news business is out "to make money," he says, and the cost of Cowlings' story would be offset by increased newsstand sales.
Some journalists worry that the tabloid media are eroding not only proceedings in the courtroom, but proceedings in the newsroom as well. It's hard to tell now whether something has appeared "on 'Hard Copy,' or 'PrimeTime Live' or even '60 Minutes,' " says ABC's Sam Donaldson.
Even as they deride the tabloids for their checkbook journalism, many mainstream media are pursuing the same stories. Instead of money, they're offering sources more air time and high-profile exposure. (See "The Business of Broadcasting," page 56.)
Tabloid journalists view this trend with bemusement. The practice of checkbook journalism "is here to stay," O'Reilly wrote in the New York Times last winter in response to criticism that "Inside Edition" had paid figure skater Tonya Harding for interviews. It's all a matter of survival, he explained. "There's nothing we can do about it."