NBC News and the Meagan Broussard interview: Remind me, what's wrong with paying news sources?

Media criticism.
June 13 2011 6:42 PM

The $15,000 Interview

So what if NBC News and other outlets pay their sources? There are journalistic problems with unpaid sources, too.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The New York Times spent 1,200 words Monday fussing over the well-known practice at NBC News and ABC News of paying sources for tabloidy stories like those about Anthony Weiner's Facebook correspondent Meagan Broussard and Jaycee Lee Dugard, the young girl in California held captive for 18 years.

The two networks don't call the payments for stories "payment for stories," of course. They hide behind the fig leaf of "licensing fees," in which they pay subjects for photos, home movies, and whatever else is at hand—and it's not uncommon for these sales, I mean "licensings," to include an interview with the subject.

"[P]roducers at NBC's Today and ABC's second-place GMA regularly end up in bidding wars for deals for candid and exclusive interviews," the Times reports.

Julie Moos at the Poynter Institute writes that networks sometimes pay licensing fees to sources for emails and cellphone records, too.

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As I've written before, the practice of paying sources for information may stink, but it's been around so long that it's hard to smell it. Life magazine paid the Mercury astronauts and their wives $500,000 for their stories ($3.9 million in today's money), according to a 1959 Time magazine article. In 1975, CBS News paid H.R. Haldeman between $25,000 and $50,000 for an interview, defending the deal as compensation for a "memoir," According to Time magazine. Other beneficiaries of the CBS News checkbook included Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lyndon B. Johnson (after they had left office), Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Walter Lippmann, and G. Gordon Liddy. NBC News paid Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, reports the American Journalism Review. It's not an archaic practice, either. Three years ago, filmmaker Errol Morris acknowledged that he paid soldiers who committed offenses at Abu Ghraib to appear in his documentary Standard Operating Procedure.

My thinking about paying for sources hasn't changed much since I wrote that column. The downside of the practice, as we see in the United Kingdom, where tabloids routinely pay for stories, is that it encourages the idiotic and sensationalistic coverage about celebrities and politicians. One ethicist frets that the practice gives the rich a monopoly on news: If the rich are willing to pay the price, they can inject whatever "news" they want into the press and suppress that which they don't want known.

The problem with most of the ethical handwringing is that it rarely deals with the question of who benefits when news organizations don't pay their sources. It's the news organizations, of course, who get something of value—a captive's story, the saga of an adorable set of sextuplets, the titillation of a sexting relationship with a member of Congress, et al.—for nothing. If it's unethical for NBC News or ABC News to purchase, I mean license, somebody's story, why should it be ethical for Little, Brown or Random House to buy the same story, mix it with the labor of a ghost writer, and put it between hardcovers under the byline of the subject?

Poynter's Moos and other ethicists believe that paying sources for information damages the credibility of journalism because it may, as she writes, "encourage a source to say things that are untrue and it may encourage them to dramatize the truth." But money isn't the only thing that can encourage a source to speak untruths or dramatize. Unpaid sources frequently lie, and many love to dramatize for effect. Even "reliable" sources—the usual operators on Capitol Hill, on Wall Street, and at the Pentagon—routinely sell information to reporters, only they don't expect money in return. All sorts of non-cash benefits can accrue to those who provide reporters with information: They can undermine their political or corporate opponents; they can help tip the story to their side; they can win publicity for their causes; and by virtue of appearing as a named source in a story, they increase the chance they'll be called upon later by reporters to provide more information.

One of the Poynter ethicists counsels that if journalists pay sources, they must disclose how much they paid, what exactly they paid for, and whether a source's travel, lodging, or meals were covered. This sounds great to me, but focusing on cash is an overly narrow conception of benefits. To maintain ethical parity, shouldn't reporters also have to disclose how their sources, named and unnamed, benefited by sharing information with the press?

Also, if paid news sources are automatically suspect, shouldn't expert witnesses who are paid for court testimony be equally suspect? Shouldn't the police be barred from paying informants for the same reason? (Well, yes. I inadvertently undermine my own case. Please ignore!)

The taboo against paying sources—and the opprobrium dumped on the news outlets that pay—has more to do with maintaining the status quo for established, old-guard news institutions than it does with protecting journalistic truth. Established news institutions depend on their high status, and the high status of their audiences, to lure and lock up sources. (If you've ever worked a story at the same time and in the same place as the New York Times, you know what I mean.) In practice, old-guard institutions "pay" much more for their stories than the outlets that pay sources directly. The main difference is that the old guard's payments go to their far-flung correspondents and to the institution's stockholders, not to sources. The longer the old-guarders can keep the public convinced that it's more ethical to give the old-guarders information for nothing, the better off the old-guarders will be.

Whether a source is paid or not, the information from that source must be vetted, and as one who has repeatedly been lied to by unpaid sources, I don't see why paid sources should be considered less credible than unpaid ones. In fact, you could make the argument that paying a source increases credibility, because if he gives you lies in return for payment, at least you have the legal leverage to sue him for fraud. If an unpaid source lies to you, what can you do? Pound sand?

Authority has been displaced as the primary arbiter of truth by confirmation, thanks to the Web and, to a lesser degree, the proliferation of cable news. It no longer matters what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says if, to pose a hypothetical, she is contradicted by a wad of diplomatic cables sold to a news outlet that confirms their essential truth. Confirmation is the new, great journalistic leveler.

As a creature of the old guard, I'm made itchy by the prospect of sources nickel-and-diming me for information. But the sanctimony of the ethicists gives me full-body chiggers.

***

Scratch my itch with email to slate.pressbox@gmail.com or pour calamine lotion on my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; 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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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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