The Cutline

With recent ABC, NBC exclusives, checkbook journalism takes center stage

Joe Pompeo
The Cutline

When, if ever, is a news organization justified in paying for scoops? And how defensible are other perk-laden deals with sources for access to images and information?

These age-old professional quandaries are back in play among media watchers, thanks to several controversial recent deals in which ABC News and NBC News agreed to pay for high-profile news exclusives.

On CNN's "Reliable Sources" yesterday, ABC's "20/20" host Chris Cuomo (brother of New York governor Andrew), confirmed to Howard Kurtz that his network paid between $10,000 and $15,000 for photos that Megan Broussard, one of the recipients of Rep. Anthony Weiner's tumescent online greetings, sent the scandal-plagued congressman over the Internet.

Along with the racy images, ABC landed an exclusive interview with Broussard, who may not have agreed to sit down with Cuomo had money not exchanged hands.

"Doesn't it make it look like by talking to ABC she's trying to cash in?" Kurtz asked.

"Yes, it does," Cuomo replied. "And that's one of the things we have to deal with in the business. We've talked about this before. The commercial exigencies of the business reaches to every aspect of reporting now."

He continued: "I wish money was not in the game, but you know it's going to go somewhere else. You know someone else is going to pay for the same things. The question becomes what you're paying for. You're paying for these photos. Why? Because they are the key to the exchanges. And this became about photos. This became about things that had to be real, so I needed them. And that is the state of play."

You can watch a video of the segment above.

In today's New York Times, meanwhile, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter, tally up a few other recent examples in which ABC and its rival broadcast network opened up their wallets for access amid heightened ratings competition.

Diane Sawyer, for instance, just landed the first-ever interview with Jaycee Lee Dugard, the 31-year-old California woman who endured 18 years of isolation and sexual abuse after a psychotic couple had kidnapped her at age 11. There was no interview fee, but a source told the Times that the network paid a "six-figure sum" for rights to Duggard's home movies.

NBC likewise lavished pricey perks on David Goldman last year, when the dad, who had waged a very public, tabloid-friendly battle for custody of his son, brought the boy back to the United States from Brazil. NBC also landed an exclusive with a pregnancy-faking teen by funneling money into a trust fund set up for her college tuition, the Times notes.

Executives for both networks insisted that the only official payments they've made came in the form of licensing fees (read more about those over at Adweek) for supplementary content essential to the telling of these various stories. But at least one industry insider is skeptical.

"If you could prove that by spending $20,000 you would make $70,000, O.K., I can justify that," former ABC News president David Westin told the Times. "But I'll be doggone if you could go through any of those payments, trace them through and see if it made any sense."

Paying for scoops has long been a tradition of tabloids and, more recently, online gossip shops like Radar and Gawker Media, which made no qualms about helping sources cash in on bombshell, traffic-friendly stories like the Brett Favre penis photo and a first-person account of a drunken sexual encounter with former Delaware Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. Mainstream media organizations, on the other hand, tend to frown upon the practice.

But even the most traditional news outlets sometimes make exceptions. Reuters, for instance, recently admitted to paying for a gruesome cache of photos depicting three dead bodies from inside the compound in suburban Pakistan where U.S. special military forces killed Osama bin Laden. Paying for the photos was "not inconsistent with Reuters policies," a newsroom source told The Cutline at the time.

The pay-to-play model of news gathering is but the latest indication that the increased competition of the web-driven 24-hour news cycle is blurring the lines demarcating what journalists should and should not do to obtain a scoop. But some journalism watchdogs don't see room for debate.

"This 'state of play' defense argues that it's justifiable to pay sources because the competition is paying them," the Poynter Insiture's Julie Moos wrote in response to Cuomo. "By that logic, competitive advantage trumps ethics."

Last week, Moos went a step further, and suggested that licensing fees, too, are corrupting journalism.

"The corruption can come in two forms," she wrote. "The financial arrangement may encourage a source to say things that are untrue and it may encourage them to dramatize the truth.

"In other words," she continued, "by paying for material like dramatic images, emails and call logs, news organizations are creating a market for them. That market may attract people with agendas who create situations that will lead to dramatic images or materials. That is dangerous, for journalism and society. If you don't pay, you eliminate the market."

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