In TV News, Payola Is on the Rise

More and more we'll see televised news programs paying to feature momentary pseudo-celebrities to increase ratings

Wherever you look these days, money seems to be changing hands for news. A major takeout in the New York Times recently explored the practice at ABC and NBC of paying substantial amounts for interviews, photographs, and other forms of exclusive access to figures in the political scandal or crime du jour. Before going too far with indignation, it is worth remembering that it has been a time-honored tradition among magazines and newspapers (started in the days when they could better afford it) to purchase book excerpts and personal adventure or survival stories and even, as far back as the 19th century, to mount expeditions into the wilds. These days, documentaries and news films are routinely for sale, and book publishers pay advances, often very large sums, to those esteemed or notorious enough to find themselves in the news. I see no problem in rewarding genuine achievement in a chosen field. Captain Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger's landing of a U.S. Airways 737 in the Hudson made him a deserving national hero, and probably a rich man from books and speeches. Much less admirable was General Tommy Franks, who was principally responsible for planning the build-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, and who retired two months into the campaign as the going turned tough—with a multi-million dollar book advance. It won't take you long to think up your own example of this genre.

The tendency to join the scramble for whatever will draw high ratings is the latter-day stance of televised news

The recent discouraging trend, however, concerns payouts by news organizations to figures whose momentary fame quickly turns into a cash-on-demand transaction. The notion of ABC News paying $15,000 to Megan Broussard, one of the recipients of Representative Anthony Weiner's lewd photos and Twitter come-ons, was especially easy to disparage. While the fact is that the news business and show business have long veered toward each other, the trend in television is definitely on the rise. The increasingly routine competition among news divisions to secure someone briefly in the spotlight because of a tragedy, a sordid revelation, or tabloid-style behavior feels like another drop in standards. A paid "exclusive" doesn't amount to intrepid reporting. ABC, for instance, was apparently prepared to give $10,000 to the woman who said she was giving her eight-year-old daughter Botox shots before beauty pageants, until the story turned out to be a hoax.

Defending the Broussard payment, ABC's Chris Cuomo said he took responsibility for that fee. He told Howard Kurtz on CNN's Reliable Sources:

The commercial exigencies of the business reach into every aspect of reporting now. . . . it's my decision. I'm the anchor of 20/20. I could have said 'Don't do it.' I don't because it is the state of play right now. I wish money were 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.

Cuomo may be claiming the credit, but he surely got approval from ABC higher-ups before the dough went out.

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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