Saturday, January 2, 2010


By now, even the most apathetic media consumer among you knows that journalism is in a transitional period. Traditional media is not faring so well – newspaper circulation is at record lows, magazines have folded, network TV is constantly trying to find new ways to keep you tuned it as you gain more and more cable options. The most valuable capital to trade today is information, and the juicier the better. But with the intense competition among news and information outlets, how can anybody be sure to get the juice fastest and first? Well, to paraphrase an old adage – money talks and ethics walks.

It’s called “checkbook journalism,” and it seems to be more and more prevalent, even with old-line networks. As a journalist and a guy who teaches media ethics, I’ve been keeping a close eye on this for a few years now, but last week my eye almost got poked out (figuratively), when I heard that David Goldman and his son Sean were flown back to the states from Brazil on a jet chartered by NBC. If you are not familiar with the Goldman story, click here.

It is no coincidence that David Goldman (below left, pictured on the NBC plane with his son) sat down for a heart-to-heart with the Today Show’s Meredith Vierra just days after his return from Brazil. NBC paved the way with the free plane trip, and whatever other financial arrangements may have been made.
NBC denies it. The network claims its actions have been misinterpreted. The network spin goes like this: Goldman was booked for the Today Show interview before arrangements were made to fly father and son back to the U.S. It so happens NBC already had a jet chartered to bring it employees home for Christmas. A spokesperson for the network told Associated Press that the Goldmans were “invited on [the plane] as guests,” and the gesture had nothing to do with “booking strategy.”

Here’s my professional response to that: Uh-huh. Right.

Just days later, after man-child terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Detroit-bound flight 253, the American public was introduced to Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch airline passenger who reportedly threw himself on Abdulmutallab and averted the disaster. Schuringa appeared on CNN (right) to detail his ordeal. CNN reportedly paid a handsome sum to obtain cell phone photos of the scuffle, and denies that the payment had anything to do with booking Schuringa for his appearance on the network. Uh-huh. Right.

Why does it matter, you might ask? So what if a news organization pays for information? After all, the National Enquirer has been doing it for decades and has never tried to hide it. And do not write the Enquirer off so fast, as many are prone to do. The Enquirer is the publication that broke the whole John Edwards baby-daddy scandal. More recently, the Tiger Woods adultery story first appeared in the Enquirer days before any other news organization picked up the story. Still, is there something inherently sleazy about paying for interviews or information?

In a word – yes. Like anything else, when you grease somebody’s palm for whatever product, service or information they can offer, you have leverage on how they offer it. What you media consumers need is truth. That’s the real business of journalism. But when the source of that truth is paid for information, some media organizations may be prone to persuade the source to tell the story in a way that will garner the greatest readership, viewership of online hits. Then the truth is no longer the truth. It becomes a product that can be shaped, twisted or distorted to suit the media organization’s purpose.

News organizations will tell you they don’t pay for stories or interviews. They will tell you that they do indeed sometimes pay “licensing fees” for the use of photos or videos. Anyone who works in the media industries knows those fees actually buy the story. And the public is now savvy enough to know there is some worth to what they have to offer. After the CNN interview Schuringa made it clear that he would not appear on any other broadcast without being paid. And, as you may have noticed, Schuringa has all but disappeared from view. That is because it came out that CNN had paid a “licensing fee” for the use of the cell phone photo. Then Schuringa became too sticky to reasonably touch, so other media organizations took a pass on using him.

The bottom line: Here is who loses the most when the highly questionable practice of checkbook journalism is employed – YOU. The real truth about the events that happen in your world is harder and harder to decipher, and once seemingly reputable journalists or media organizations start paying for information, that information is instantly sullied, and the truth you need exceeds your grasp.

1 comment:

Joan Eisenstodt said...

I'm offended by checkbook journalism -- it's a gut-check that tells me it's just wrong. This was in the email from the Institute for Global Ethics: