July 26th, 2011
Thank You, ABC, for (finally) doing the right thing
By Hagit Limor, 2010-11 SPJ President
ABC has gotten a lot of exclusive interviews lately, but frankly, I just didn’t know whether to trust the information. You had to wonder about the motivation of the interviewees, knowing ABC had no problem buying news.
The network paid Casey Anthony $200,000 in 2008, then paid the man who found her daughter’s body $15,000 to “license a photo of a snake” — while, by the way, also providing an interview. There were other payoffs too.
Pay equals potential for the subject to embellish or fabricate information in return for that check. Better make it sound good so the money train keeps rolling.
So I didn’t watch Diane Sawyer’s exclusive interview with Jaycee Dugard. It was a ratings blockbuster but I didn’t want to invest time in something I suspected might involve just another payday. Same for Robin Roberts’ exclusive airing today with the DSK maid. Who knows? Maybe these sources are telling the complete truth. Maybe, they’re just in it for the money. As long as ABC pays some, you don’t trust any.
In all fairness, ABC is not alone. All the networks have participated in an increasing game upping the ante. As Chris Cuomo said last month, it’s become “the state of play.” But that state has something to do with why the public doesn’t trust journalists any more. Truly important information belongs to the public without a cash register ringing.
For this reason, I applaud ABC for its announcement today that it would end this practice, ‘though I worry about an exception they seem to have made to grant licensing fees under “extraordinary circumstances.” Call it a licensing fee or pay; it’s the same thing, and the Society’s Code of Ethics clearly explains that it brings suspicion into a process that should be pure. At the least if they do “license”, one would hope they’d disclose it fully to their viewers. “We paid for this access.”
Still, it’s a good first step. Now, I challenge everyone else to follow suit. There’s no place for checkbook journalism in honest journalism.