Networks Attempt to Justify Paying for Stories

Private jets and $200,000 checks make sense in "hyper-competition," say executives

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ABC and NBC are at war in the mornings. And at times like these, just as in love, anything goes, and network executives are reaching to explain why they've been paying five- and six-figure "licensing fees" for photos and interviews attached to various stories. Journalism ethics watchdogs--and CBS, who've earned the moral high ground lately without even trying--condone neither the practice of checkbook journalism nor the "everybody's doing it" justification that some networks provide. "By that logic, competitive advantage trumps ethics," argues the Poynter Institute. And of the consequences:

The financial arrangement may encourage a source to say things that are untrue and it may encourage them to dramatize the truth […] In other words, by paying for material like dramatic images, emails and call logs, news organizations are creating a market for them. That market may attract people with agendas who create situations that will lead to dramatic images or materials. That is dangerous, for journalism and society. If you don’t pay, you eliminate the market.

The most recent example of checkbook journalism is the now-lucrative market for cell phone pictures of Anthony Weiner in various states of sexy. ABC News ran an exclusive interview with Meagan Broussard, who sent Weiner photos of herself on Twitter, but only after paying Broussard $15,000 for "photo licensing fees." According to the Poynter Institute, the practice of networks paying for photos or videos is neither new nor necessarily unethical. The negotiations for the iconic Zaptruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination are now legendary. Yet as Poynter's Julie Moos notes, "that film was provided by an uninvolved witness, not a source." Furthermore:

The value of paying for photos Broussard sent Weiner is suspect; anyone can send photos to a legislator, what matters to the public is how the legislator responds. In its story about Broussard, ABC noted that the network had also been provided emails, Facebook messages and cell phone call logs that reflected exchanges between the two.

This latest checkbook journalism charge for ABC adds to a list of shady transactions. Last month, the network took fire after agreeing to pay $10,000 for photos of the "Botox mom"--with whom ABC's Good Morning America also ran an exclusive interview. The woman turned out to be a fraud, and the network reportedly cancelled the check. In covering the story of Casey Anthony, a young mother on trial in Florida for killing her daughter Caylee, Good Morning America paid $200,000 for videos of Caylee, a sum that eventually ended up funding Casey Anthony's legal defense. The network also fielded criticism after paying Michael Jackson's family $200,000 for video rights. As a point of comparison, NBC's questionable accommodations to Today Show sources include private jet flights and money paid into a pregnant high school student's trust fund. NBC defended the latter in telling Poynter's Jim Romenesko that they paid only "a nominal fee" for video licensing.

Predictably, some networks insiders point to new levels of "hyper-competition" to explain their six-figure pay outs. “But now we've had a huge management change at NBC, a new news chief at ABC, and changes in producers and the talent lineups of the morning shows," one unnamed employee of a morning show told The New York Times. "That has amped it up."

Chris Cuomo, 20/20 anchor and brother of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, defended his shows use of the paid-for Broussard photos during an interview with Howard Kurtz. Unlike his colleague James Goldston, executive producer of G.M.A. who called licensing "a very small part of the work that we do," Cuomo is unapologetic about ABC's version of checkbook journalism:

The commercial exigencies of the business reach into every aspect of reporting now … It is 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 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. The question becomes what you're paying for. You're paying for these photos, why? Because they are the key to the exchanges. And this became about photos. This became about things that had to be real. So I needed them. And that is the state of play, Howie, I wish it were not. You do too. But it is the state of play. And to say otherwise I think is false.

Awkward wording, Chris. Remember, "the key to the exchanges" that unlocks "things that had to be real" recently led ABC to that straight up false story.

Veterans no longer embroiled in the ratings battle don't see the point. "If you could prove that by spending $20,000 you would make $70,000, O.K., I can justify that," said former ABC News president David Westin. "But I'll be doggone if you could go through any of those payments, trace them through and see if it made any sense."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.