So, this morning walking into the office I join paths with a colleague who asks me how I like being SPJ’s president and what I’ve been doing lately. She caught me at a bad time, or maybe a good one because I then had to explain to her how I spend most of my Tuesday afternoon arguing with network people over their practice of paying licensing rights to sources for their exclusive stories. In short, buying news.
SPJ issued a press release Tuesday via its ethics committee condemning ABC news for paying $200,000 to the family and attorney of Casey Anthony, the woman accused of killing her daughter, Caylee. ABC News said it paid this astronomical amount for videos and family photos it used in its coverage of the story. Insiders told me it’s a lot of pay for photos and videos and that amount was intended to secure an exclusive interview. But, that interview never happened and ABC denies they were ever trying to buy a sit-down with the alleged killer. Again, off-the-record comments to me this week suggest that’s not true. In a world where the truth seems to take a back seat to integrity, it’s difficult to say.
But, back to my colleague. Walking into the building and riding up in the elevator I explain all of this to her as best I can in the short time. She looks at me in astonishment. Without prompting she says something very profound. At this very moment I wish every network news director could see her expression and hear her as she says “Oh, Kevin, doesn’t paying for news seriously call into question the very heart of the truth?” Bingo.
She goes on, “I mean how do you measure truth when price is attached? Is there more truth as the price goes higher? This seems very disturbing to me.”
And there you have it. The very point SPJ has been trying to make. Conveyed by someone who knows nothing of journalism but is a consumer of news, she finds this problematic.
When ABC pays licensing rights (or whatever legal term or contorted euphemism they want to attach to it) for an interview, when NBC provides free plane rides to a father and his son from South America to Florida and just happens to land that all-exclusive interview in the process, it taints the very heart of what journalists do. Is a source expected to tell one version of the truth for $5,000 and another if the price is $10,000? I want to know. Certainly my colleague raises the issue.
And here’s the real question network executives have to answer: How long do you think it will take to erode your credibility with the American public if news stories came with tags like “ABC paid $20,000 for this interview”? Or “NBC wants you to know that we provided plane trips, hotel accommodations and other costs to our source on this story?” Not long. Which might explain why ABC sat on its Anthony payout for about two years until it was revealed in a court hearing last week.
I teach my journalism students the very first week that they have a duty to: 1. The Truth and 2. Fairness. Someone once told me after reading a city council story of mine that he thought I got it all right and I did a fair job of presenting all sides in a rather contentious debate the evening before. I tell my students that should be the ultimate compliment for a journalist. You got it truthful and you were fair. Remember that and everything else will fall into place. That night I never had to reach into my pocket and produce $20 bills to get it right or make it fair.
So, when I see money being passed around for interviews or gifts offered I wonder if truth and fairness are being considered or is it simply a network mentality that the only stories worth telling have to come with a price tag.
And lastly, I wonder what the more than 300 ABC employees who might lose their jobs if enough retirements don’t occur must be thinking this week knowing that they can’t keep legitimate journalists on payroll but have $200,000 to toss at a source interview.
That detail, thankfully, I spared my colleague.