A Timestory from 1975 reports that NBC purchased the rights for interviews with the parents of the Fischer quintuplets, and that the network gave money to "German tunnel diggers for the right to film refugees escaping from East Berlin," and that Watergate defendants H.R. Haldeman and G. Gordon Liddy were paid by CBS News for exclusive interviews. According to the AJR, Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger won lucrative contracts with NBC News for their services as "adviser-consultants" to news specials. And just two years ago, Errol Morris confirmed that in making his film Standard Operating Procedure, he paid some of the soldiers who were convicted of abusing Abu Ghraib inmates.
One dodge that the TV networks and pop magazines like Peopleavail themselves of is giving sources cash for photos or videotape and bestowing trips and hotels on them. Just last month, court proceedings revealed that ABC News paid Casey Anthony $200,000 in August 2008 for photos and video after her daughter disappeared. Shortly after the payment, authorities later charged Anthony with the murder of the child. The network never disclosed the payment in its reporting, even when it aired the bought footage.
The strongest case against paying sources can be found in Britain, where the tabloids routinely pay for information. British critics complain that payments tend to generate idiotic and sensationalistic stories about celebrities or reckless pieces about politicians and other public figures. In his book Ethics for Journalists, Richard Keeble notes that paying sources may lead to a monopoly on the news by the rich. By virtue of their wealth, the rich can inject whatever "news" they want into the press or, by depositing money in the right hands, suppress it.
Who benefits when sources aren't paid? If a whistle-blower gives me a hot scoop for free, I might get a raise or even a book contract out of it. My publisher may sell more ads. Everybody up and down the chain will profit except the source. Is that right? Is that ethical? If the source were really smart, he'd take his whiz-bang material to a book publisher himself. There, selling your story isn't unethical. It's business as usual!
Established media organizations also benefit when no money changes hands. As long as newspapers and magazines don't pay for information, sources will continue to give their best tips to the outlets that will provide the biggest bang, like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. The ethical prohibition against paying for news largely punishes media organizations lower on the editorial food chain while rewarding the ones on the top.
Although Gawker Media boss Nick Denton loves to play the role of the journalistic gangster, he has paved a fairly ethical path in the reporting of his iPhone story. His publication disclosed what it paid for the "found lost" device and gave the phone back to its rightful owner, Apple (after tearing it apart for as many technical details as could be gleaned). Especially if Denton's Gizmodo editor stays out of jail, we should expect more sources demanding and receiving payment for info.
I can't condone Gawker Media's conduct for the common-sense reasons I've pointed out. But compared with ABC, Gawker looks like the Gandhi News Network.
Wired.com's "Threat Level" blog has identified the dinkus who sold Gizmodo the prototype. In the future, by which I mean tomorrow, will journalists rely on Pay Pal to report stories, or will they pay sources with their cell phones? Let me hear from those of you with lots of cash and no ego needs at firstname.lastname@example.org. For the time being, my Twitter feed is free. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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