ABC Abandons Checkbook Journalism, Almost

Embarrassed, the network says it's putting the brakes on paying big licensing fees

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After vehemently defending the practice, ABC says now says it's getting out of the bidding war for exclusive scoops. The network's habit of paying huge sums of money for photo or video licensing fees that often led to exclusive stories has been largely criticized lately as "checkbook journalism." Sometimes ABC's been transparent about paying licensing, and sometimes it has been more secretive. But until now, network executives have defended the practice. 20/20 anchor Chris Cuomo last month said that paying sources for exclusive rights was "the state of pay right now," and Good Morning America producer James Goldstein said that paying sources was "a very small part of the work that we do." Without so much as a press release, though, ABC says it reversed that policy on Monday.

"We can book just about anyone based on the strength of our journalism, the excellence of our anchors, correspondents, and producers, and the size of our audience," ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast. "These licensing deals had become a crutch, and an unnecessary one."

Kurtz, however, almost sneakily slips in a disclaimer just after the above comment: "The new approach is not an absolute ban, but network sources say it would take an extraordinary circumstance to allow a licensing fee--perhaps once every couple of years--that would require approval at the highest levels."

It tough to say what stories would be considered "an extraordinary circumstance," as it seems that the alleged change of policy at the network is more of a change of process. In 2008, ABC paid a total of $200,000 to Casey Anthony for videos and photos of her murdered daughter. After denying that money exchanged hands, an ABC executive revealed to The New York Times that the network had paid a six-figure sum for rights to the first interview with Jaycee Lee Dugard, the woman kidnapped and held captive in California for 18 years. This May, the network embarrassed itself by agreeing to pay $10,000 to a woman who claimed she gave her beauty queen daughter Botox treatments, only to discover days that the entire story was a hoax. These payments were all allegedly signed off on at a relatively low rung on the management, and according to their recent statements, ABC will give more oversight to such payments in the future.

Perhaps with the exception of the Botox mom, the Dugard and Anthony scoops were major national news stories so it's hard to say where ABC will draw the line in the future. The network did point out that it recently scored an interview with Dominque Strauss-Kahn's accuser, Nafissatou Diallo, with paying a cent. "We've shown over a very long time, and as recently as this weekend, the gets are gettable and the interviews are achievable through good journalism and good work," Schneider told the Poynter Institute.

Kurtz wonders if other networks will follow ABC's lead and get out of the bidding war, too. That seems a lofty expectation until ABC actually vows to stop paying sources.

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