Few stories are more common during election years than controversies surrounding cable news contributors, who are paid to come on air at the beck and call of news organizations.
Fox News let Newt Gingrich go earlier this week as reports surfaced that he may be Donald Trump’s running mate on the GOP’s White House ticket. Social media then erupted Wednesday after a website reported Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, is receiving severance payments from the campaign while being employed by CNN.
The concern is usually that these cable news channels crossed an ethical line by employing people who are either too cozy with candidates or may be considering their own run for office.
But to chastise Fox News, CNN or MSNBC for employing contributors too close to presidential campaigns excuses the fact that these cable news channels are already paying newsmakers for interviews – also known as checkbook journalism.
As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for four years, Gingrich held one of the most powerful positions in the country. As Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski was one of the closest advisers to a person who may become the next president.
Fox News and CNN are guaranteed almost exclusive access to newsworthy information by signing up Gingrich and Lewandowski, respectively, as contributors.
The SPJ Code of Ethics says that ethical journalists should not pay for access to news.
There are a few ethical issues surrounding checkbook journalism. One is that offering payments will lead people to provide information to make a few dollars instead of speaking when it’s in everyone’s best interest. There is also the question of whether the information that is paid for is true or just what the source thinks the journalists wants to hear.
Calling out any news organization for checkbook journalism is a bit futile, because many regularly pay sources. Some offer money outright while others are more inventive. SPJ does point out egregious examples of checkbook journalism from time to time.
Chastising cable news channels and their contributors for being too cozy with campaigns is beyond futile, however. The cries are too late. By the time a former speaker of the house, campaign manager, politician or other newsmaker serving as a paid contributor becomes too close to the news being discussed, the journalism ethics train already left the station.