Paying For It
Larry Flynt offered big money for information and brought down a powerful congressman. How secure is mainstream journalism's taboo against purchasing news?
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.
IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST brazen moments in the not-altogether-distinguished history of checkbook journalism. Last October, Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt placed an ad in the Washington Post offering up to $1 million to anyone who could prove a member of Congress or a high-ranking government official had carried on an adulterous affair.
Before the year was over, information turned up by the ad had ended the political career of House Speaker-Designate Bob Livingston. In January, at a heavily attended press conference, Flynt was dishing the dirt on Georgia Republican Rep. Bob Barr.
And this was only the beginning, Flynt promised. Soon, he told the assembled journalists, "all news organizations are going to be paying for stories."
That doesn't seem likely. After all, it's one of the Commandments of Good Journalism: Thou shalt not pay for information. Only the tabloids, of both the supermarket and TV variety, regard news as a tradable commodity.
But, as the Flynt episode suggests, it's not always quite so simple. Once someone goes public with information that was bought and paid for, don't many news organizations simply pick it up? The Livingston story was a no-brainer; the congressman's resignation was news that couldn't be ignored. The Barr disclosures were less clear-cut: Many news organizations made mention of them, although in most cases not very prominently.
Bernard Kalb, panelist on CNN's "Reliable Sources," argued that picking up a paid-for story isn't necessarily bad journalism. "You've got to do the usual legwork on that story, and then maybe you'll go with it," Kalb said on air.
But what about being the first organization to print or broadcast a story based on information with a price tag? If a reporter verifies a story through outside sources, does it really matter if the original tip was paid for?
Politicians regularly pay campaign investigators to unearth dirt on opponents under the rubric of "opposition research." The results are inevitably leaked to the press. Flynt merely cut out the middleman. He hired his own journalists, including investigative reporter and author Dan Moldea, to do the probing.
Press historians say paying for news is not as long-standing a taboo as many journalists think. "A myth of checkbook journalism is no established press has ever paid for a story. The reality is, there is a long history of payments made by the established press when they thought the story was worth pursuing," says Lorna Veraldi, who explored the topic for the book "Contemporary Media Issues," published last year.
The New York Times scooped the competition with an exclusive interview with the Titanic wireless operator by forking over $1,000 for his story in 1912. Two decades later, the Hearst newspaper chain paid the legal bills of the defendant in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case to ensure scoops during the trial. In the 1960s, Life caused a minor flap among journalists when it paid the original Mercury astronauts for their stories.
By the time Watergate rolled around, the television networks got involved. CBS News paid Nixon White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman for his story. Shortly after leaving office, both Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger signed million-dollar contracts with NBC to serve as exclusive "adviser-consultants" in news specials.
Checkbook journalism flourished during the O.J. Simpson saga, with tabloid newspapers and TV shows writing the checks. Even minor players raked in cash for interviews. A National Enquirer editor went on "Larry King Live" with a $1 million check to make an unsuccessful public plea for Simpson friend Al Cowlings to tell his story of the infamous Bronco chase.
"This has been going on quite a long time. It tends to surface during a crisis, like Watergate or O.J. Simpson," says Veraldi, an associate professor of journalism and broadcasting at Florida International University in Miami.
There are signs--with the explosion of news on the Internet and cable and in the tabloids--that the press is entering an era similar to the days when cities had several newspapers fighting vigorously for stories. Today, supermarket tabloids openly solicit stories, as do some tabloid television shows such as "Hard Copy" and "American Journal." With increasing competition, money is again becoming a tool of the trade, and the press might as well stop hiding behind ethics policies, Veraldi argues.
"It undermines the [profession] to pretend they have rules and then find a way to get around them," she says. "Newsgathering is a business. I'm not sure it's unethical to have to pay sometimes for the information to put together, package and sell."
That argument makes media ethicists cringe. Exchanging money for information, they say, leads to questions about whether the source is being truthful or embellishing for the sake of more cash.
"The standard line is news organizations don't pay for information," says Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "The public perceives that the information is tainted by financial motives.... They will discount the value of the information."
Steele, who conducts ethics seminars for journalists, says those in the profession who argue there is a place for paying sources are in the minority. Supermarket tabloids have been getting exclusives with cash for years. That doesn't mean the rest of the media should simply fall into line and abandon the high ground, he says.
Oprah Winfrey resisted the temptation to take a back door to landing the most sought-after interview of recent years. Winfrey's negotiations with Monica Lewinsky's representatives fell apart over a demand that Winfrey turn over the marketing rights to videotapes of the interview to Lewinsky. "I do not pay for interviews, no matter what the payment is called," Winfrey declared. "My feeling was giving up the rights was just someone else paying the check."
(The interview, of course, eventually went to ABC's Barbara Walters, who did not pay the former White House intern anything or barter in videotape rights, an ABC spokeswoman says. The interview aired in March.)
"There will be times where you have to wrestle with a perplexing dilemma," Steele says. "Creative, thoughtful journalists will always find a way to get it without paying for it."
But exactly where checkbook journalism starts and stops can be difficult to pinpoint. Is it just the exchange of cash for exclusive interviews, or does it extend to paying for news tips, background information, still images and video clips?
"That's a hard line to draw," Steele admits. Cash is frequently exchanged for videotape or still images. "That's a time-honored tradition," he adds. "One of the distinctions is who is giving you the information, and are they a party to the story...or a casual observer?"
Paying consultants for their expertise on complex stories is a generally accepted practice among television networks, as is paying news sources' travel fees and other expenses.
CBS' "60 Minutes" ran into trouble in 1995 when a tobacco company executive it had paid $12,000 as a consultant on a previous story came forward as a primary source on a controversial piece about the tobacco industry. CBS denied the previous payment was related to the second story. The piece, which charged the tobacco company knowingly added cancer-causing additives in cigarettes, was killed by CBS lawyers before it aired.
Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, says he used paid consultants three or four times during his 20 years as a print reporter. In each case--like when he needed a civil engineer to consult on an investigative piece involving building plans--the consultant's paid role in the project was disclosed in print. But, he says, paying for help can pose ethical problems.
"Sometimes you could get onto a slippery slope. You have to be careful you are not paying for what you want them to tell you," Houston says. "If you're loose with the term, it's easy for the `consultant' to be a paid informant."
At local news stations, dilemmas over paying informants are rare, says Alice Johnson Main, executive producer at WLS-TV, the ABC affiliate in Chicago. "That has almost never come up. It is not something I have ever had to deal with," says Main, who also edits The Producer Newsletter, a 1,300-subscriber online forum for television news producers (www.scripps.ohiou.edu/producer).
But the issue of paying for tips is open to debate. Is it wrong to pay for them if a reporter is going to independently verify the information, as with an unpaid leak? Law enforcement officials, for instance, regularly offer rewards for information leading to an arrest.
Paying for the information does not make it any less true, but it does muddy the motives of everyone involved. Take Larry Flynt's ad for information on the extramarital affairs of members of Congress, says Bob Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center. "He was acting in a political spirit rather than a journalistic spirit," exactly the image an impartial press wants to avoid.
"This then becomes a judgment call on the part of individual editors, as it should be," Giles says. "And in many cases, standards have been reviewed and strengthened."
Griffin Smith jr., executive editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, says his paper last April reaffirmed its commitment to not paying for news tips. With so many Little Rock-based scandals swirling around President Clinton, the paper published a Sunday editorial, a sort of "note to consumers," reminding them news for cash is not considered appropriate at the Democrat-Gazette.
"I think it was the whole experience of the time" that prompted editors to restate what the paper stood for, Smith says.
Headlined "Checkbook journalism; And why we don't practice it," the editorial said: "Paying for news, like paying for love, tends to cast doubts on the sincerity of the transaction. And on the credibility of those doing the marketing.... Our operating principle is that a story that has to be bought isn't worth the price. So when you read about all that dough the tabloids and television shows pay for titillating stories, please don't confuse the Democrat-Gazette with that kind of paid-for news."
If there is confusion among readers, there may also be confusion among reporters. Few newsrooms have their rules written down. And when the Poynter Institute reviewed codes of ethics at 33 newspapers that do have them on paper, it found only half had meaningful passages about dealing with sources. Few included outright statements that the newspaper never pays sources for information.
To assume a reporter, especially a young or inexperienced one, will instinctively know where to draw the line is dangerous, Steele says. "In the absence of any written standards, it makes it very difficult for reporters and editors to know how to act."
Reporter Pat Chargot says she made those instinctive decisions every day working various beats at the Detroit Free Press, where she started her career in 1971 at age 21. "You can take someone out to lunch or buy them coffee or buy them a beer under the right conditions, but paying for information--no," she says.
Still, things can get blurry. Even with what she considered a clear sense of right and wrong, Chargot found herself in the center of a minor journalism scandal in Detroit in 1989.
In a case still used by the Poynter Institute in its ethics seminars, Chargot and photographer Manny Crisostomo spent a day following crack addicts. Chargot's information became the lead anecdote in "24 Hours: The Drug Menace," a special section, and a photo Crisostomo took appeared on the cover.
During the course of the day, Crisostomo--who was on one of his first big assignments after winning a Pulitzer Prize for photography--bought a Polish sausage and a Sony Walkman from one of the crack addicts for more than $20. The addict used the money from Crisostomo's purchases to buy drugs, which the reporter and photographer watched him use after driving him to a location to make the drug buy.
Chargot says she tried unsuccessfully to stop Crisostomo from buying the items. They failed to tell their editors about the incident until a few days later.
Chargot now considers the episode a major lapse in judgment. She says she knew it was wrong at the time, but minimized the implications in her own mind and chose not to rat out the photographer to editors over a small amount of money.
"I shot myself in the foot," says Chargot, who still works for the Free Press as a writer for Yak's Corner, the paper's new magazine for young readers. (It is also distributed nationally by parent Knight Ridder.)
"Based on my experience, when working with another journalist, you're really responsible for the other person's ethics," she says. "I learned something really important the hard way."
For his part, Crisostomo wasn't convinced buying the sausage and radio was wrong; editors had encouraged him to get close to sources by buying them meals and drinks, he said at the time. The photographer, who left the paper and returned to his native Guam several years ago, told editors he turned over the money to the addict because he feared for his safety. And, having just received the Pulitzer, he said, he felt intense pressure within the newsroom to produce for the high-profile project.
Then-Executive Editor Heath Meriwether wrote a front-page editorial telling readers about the situation, then suspended Crisostomo for three days and Chargot for two.
Meriwether, now the Free Press' publisher, says the paper was criticized for being too lenient on the reporter and photographer. But there was a general sense in the newsroom, he says, that the Free Press had refused to cross a line and had taken a clear stand against even the hint of checkbook journalism.
"Clearly this stuff matters," Meriwether says. "I understood at that time it was tricky.... But we had said and we had made a specific point to our staff not to give money to facilitate anything."
But the situation isn't always black and white. "We buy lunches and dinners for sources," Meriwether says. "And foreign correspondents...it's part of the culture almost that you are going to pay people off as a foreign correspondent. It's a business expense."
Indeed, journalists in other countries are less wedded to the hard-and-fast prohibition against paying for information. Checkbook journalism is common among the competitive daily tabloids in London. New Zealand and Israel have both had bidding battles over big local stories in recent years. And correspondents in Moscow reported the Glasnost of the late 1980s and early 1990s brought a new insistence on cash for interviews, with some government and law enforcement officials demanding $100 to $1,000 to allow camera crews to do their job.
In the United States, prices for interviews are not as low as in Moscow, but they've stopped climbing. Among the supermarket tabloids that pay for information in this country, prices have remained fairly steady since the early 1990s, editors say. The Star paid a six-figure sum, reportedly $150,000, for Gennifer Flowers' story during the 1992 presidential campaign. In recent years, the Star paid in the low five figures for the story of the woman who had an affair with Clinton advisor Dick Morris and again in the low five figures to the White House steward who said he saw Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, says Phil Bunton, Star's editor in chief.
During the Lewinsky extravaganza last year, Bunton says, the Star received weekly calls from major newspapers and television news operations. They wanted to find out what was going to be in the next issue so they could get a jump on working their own sources to verify the latest revelation.
Still, the Star's editor says he can't see the day when the tabloids will compete with the Washington Post over who will write the biggest check for the latest exclusive interview with a White House paramour. "I don't think I want it to ever happen," says Bunton. "I'm quite happy with the way it is.... It gives us an edge."
Similarly, David Perel, executive editor of the National Enquirer, says he would like the mainstream press to stay out of the paid-interview market. "I would not welcome that simply because money is a tool we use to get exclusivity," he says. "I think the New York Times and the Washington Post should simply cover budgetary matters and leave the stories of interest to us."
If there was a clear distinction between the tabloid and mainstream press, some say, it has blurred over the last few years. "I don't think it's a bright dividing line," Perel says. "It is my belief, among the networks, [sources] get something of value."
Payment is not necessarily cash, he says. It is free travel, free advertising or simply the image enhancement that comes from appearing with a celebrity journalist.
Echoes the Star's Bunton, "They are finding ways to pay in-kind."
ABC News, for one, has been criticized over the last few years for coming close to crossing the cash-for-interview line. In 1995, the network ran a series of free 30-second commercials for Michael Jackson reportedly worth upward of $1 million. The same week, Diane Sawyer conducted a live interview with Jackson and his wife at the time, Lisa Marie Presley. (ABC officials said the commercial time was swapped for rights to air Jackson's music video.)
In 1997, ABC News was again dancing on the edge when it paid a six-figure sum for video of an Australian landslide that left 18 people dead. "PrimeTime Live" landed an exclusive interview with a survivor, whose agent had sold ABC the videotape. Then, last year, "PrimeTime Live" (which has since merged into "20/20") aired "an exclusive first look at Paula Jones" after her much-ballyhooed makeover. The segment used video supplied by the National Enquirer after the tabloid paid Jones for a first look at her new nose.
ABC denies that it did anything improper in any of these instances. The network does not pay for interviews, and everyone who works there is aware of the rule, says spokeswoman Eileen Murphy.
That's not to say money is never exchanged for information. "Do we pay consultants? Of course we do," Murphy says. Compensation is also given for videotaped footage the network does not own.
Paying for video has become common practice at television networks and local stations since the controversy over who owned rights to the amateur video of motorist Rodney King being beaten by police in Los Angeles, says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. But, she adds, "paying for anything more than video is still taboo."
The issue "is addressed in sort of a broad way" in the RTNDA's code of ethics, she says. The code states broadcast journalists should decline gifts or favors, and should not mislead the public in any way. But it doesn't state outright that reporters can't trade money for information.
"I think it's the idea of not paying for interviews and anything in the news that's widely observed," Cochran says. "I don't think whatever rules Larry Flynt plays by apply" to journalists.
Whether the Flynt episode was a scandal-induced aberration or the new norm remains in the hands of individual editors and reporters, says Steele, the media ethicist.
"The solution is not to wallow with the pigs but to stake out the high ground," he says. "It doesn't mean you will always win. But we must recognize our responsibility to journalism as a profession."