TCS Daily

The Market for News

By Sidney Goldberg - March 4, 2003 12:00 AM

"Checkbook journalism." The phrase reeks of sleaze and unethical behavior. The stench sends the optimates of journalism - in newspapers, TV studios, and the halls of academe - to holding their noses. How dare a person in the media pay someone for information!

And what is "checkbook journalism?" The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Copyright 2000 by Houghton Mifflin, defines it: "Journalism that involves the payment of money to an informant for the right to publish or broadcast a news story." That's simple enough, and yet it encompasses enough gray area to keep journalistic ethics seminars in business for years.

An "informant" who has a staff job for a newspaper or magazine, or TV broadcaster - or who has a working arrangement with one of them as a free-lancer - is called a "reporter" or "commentator." An informant who does not have a media job or association is simply that, an informant, or source.

If you have a job with the media it's perfectly honorable to be paid a salary or fee. If you don't, and someone within the media pays you for your information, then both the payer and the payee are violating the journalistic code of never paying for information.

Of course, if the payee informant has the skill to organize his information into an article, he can sell the article to the newspaper or magazine and be in conformity with the ethical code. If he doesn't have the skill to write the article, then of course he is stuck with his information - either give it away for free to someone in the media (the "honorable" thing to do) or forget about it.

The bottom line in all of this is that the media wants its product - news and features - for free. It tries to make individuals feel guilty if they withhold information from a newspaper, wire service, or TV news show. After all, the public has a "right to know," and the possessors of information shouldn't withhold it from the public. Of course, the intermediaries - the print and TV journalists - get well paid for prying this information from the "civilians," and imparting it to the public. They don't see the ethical disconnect.

The whole concept of "checkbook journalism" is silly. An "informant" who wants to get paid for his information by a journalist and is refused can turn around and sell the information in book form - with a ghost writer if need be - and be within the pale. The book can get great reviews and no reviewer will revile the author and/or ghost for getting paid for it by the publisher.

The rationale for condemning checkbook journalism is that the individual might be tempted to embellish his story because he's getting paid for it. That might be so, but what are editors for? They're supposed to check out their sources, whether or not the sources are paid for their information.

And who is more likely to embellish a story: the person who by accident of history is in possession of interesting or important facts - his survival from a shark attack, let's say - or the person whose career is based on obtaining scoops or giving new dimensions to a story. The quest for a Pulitzer or other journalistic prize is an important inducement to reporters and commentators to make an impact in their profession and perhaps get a raise or bonus for it. There are many examples of newspaper series that have run into thousands and thousands of words, not to satisfy reader demand but to win the attention and approval of awards committees. The "civilian" who wants to sell his information to a journalist is not motivated by this goal; his goal is money, unglamorous but, albeit, honest.

There have been many, many cases of media staffers embellishing the news in recent years. Last November, The Associated Press had to institute a new policy of telephoning every source cited in an AP story to verify that the source actually exists - because an AP reporter had fabricated sources in more than two dozen stories over a two-year period. The New Republic, The Boston Globe, and other publications also have had to deal with fabricated stories - the same problem these publications would face in dealing with "civilians" who make up stories. Again, the solution is for the industry to
police itself better.

One of the great - some would say the greatest - journalists of the American
South was William Bradford Huie, of Hartselle, Alabama. Huie was berated by his colleagues for paying his informants (just as the FBI pays informants, Huie would explain). His most famous nonfiction book (he also wrote several novels, among them "The Revolt of Mamie Stover," about a Hawaiian prostitute) was "The Execution of Private Slovik," which, as a TV movie, had more viewers than any other TV movie in 1975. (It's the story of the only American to be executed for desertion in World War II.)

Huie in 1956 paid the two murderers of Emmett Till $4,000 after their acquittal. His colleagues were furious that he paid the money, but it was the only way to get the story, which he wrote up in Look Magazine. (Till was horribly murdered, in Money, Mississippi, by these two guys because he had been caught whistling at a married white woman.) Huie did it again in 1968 when he paid $40,000 to James Earl Ray for his account of his assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Huie was surrounded by controversy because of all his payments, but how would we be better off had he refused to pay and the stories had never come to light?

It all comes back to the media wanting to get their product - news and features - without paying for it. It has nothing to do with ethics; it has everything to do with business. There is nothing wrong with that, and if you can persuade an individual to give up an asset - in this case, valuable information - then go ahead and do it, but be straightforward about it. Don't dress it up in a lofty ethical code.

Sidney Goldberg is a frequent contributor to A New York media consultant, he was Senior Vice President of United Media for Syndication. United Media syndicates and licenses Peanuts, Dilbert, and many other graphic and text properties.

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