Put paid-for news in the open

Since networks are buying, we might as well see the bill

If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, there’s a counterintuitive case to be made for broadcast networks giving up their silly tap-dance and shelving the ban against paying for interviews.

In this, broadcast news has a great deal in common with major collegiate athletics, which has been wracked by its own series of scandals. Because in each big-money institution, the existing system creates incentives to tiptoe around rules or ignore them — that is, to cheat. Bringing payments out into the open wouldn’t make the process of gathering TV news or corralling recruits less unsavory, but it would make the whole thing less dishonest and corrupt.

Like the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., which governs college sports, the broadcast nets have stubbornly defended their own flawed framework. In fact, after being embarrassed by coverage of its payments to various in-the-news parties — including accused and acquitted murder suspect Casey Anthony — ABC News backed away, saying its policy going forward would severely limit such payments.

If other networks acted smug about this retreat, most of them shouldn’t. For years, TV news operations have artfully circumvented direct payments by couching such transactions under the cover of licensing video or photos. They also have been generous in offering interview subjects other forms of compensation, such as hotel stays and transportation. In 2009, NBC News picked up a chartered flight from Brazil for David Goldman, who was battling for custody of his son.

Shockingly, Goldman repaid the network’s generosity with an exclusive chat. When the Society for Professional Journalists cried foul, the network insisted, “NBC News has not and will not pay for an interview.”

Not directly, no — and therein lies the problem. As with college athletics, deftly sidestepping the rules has become its own art form. And like any arms race, even those who would like to adhere to higher standards are disadvantaged competitively against rivals willing to cut corners.

So pay the athletes, and pay interview subjects. Not a huge amount, but enough to justify their participation. After all, universities and networks stand to make millions of dollars off blue-chip players or must-get interviews like Jaycee Lee Dugard, whose story of kidnapping and abuse translated into nearly 15 million viewers for ABC’s Diane Sawyer-hosted special.

Admittedly, paying interviewees is unsavory and runs counter to basic tenets of journalism, just as compensating athletes undermines the spirit of amateurism. But in many respects, TV has long practiced a different form of journalism than print outlets, especially in recent years, as networks increasingly take their lead from tabloids and TMZ — outlets that do pay sources.

Establishing clear public ground rules regarding payment for interviews would at least eliminate the second-guessing that will continue to dog such “gets” — such as whether benefits were extended to the accuser of Intl. Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or whoever qualifies as that week’s avidly pursued golden goose.

Instead, the networks play at being holier than each other. NBC News responded to ABC’s policy shift by telling Adweek, “We welcome them back to the practices that we work hard to uphold.” An ABC source shot back that NBC is guilty of “recurring hypocrisy,” and indeed it is.

Then again, that’s the same ABC that overzealously committed $10,000 to a woman allegedly giving Botox to her child, in what she subsequently claimed was a for-money hoax. “It does sound unreal,” Lara Spencer fretted, introducing the piece on “Good Morning America.”

At first blush, ABC News and new prexy Ben Sherwood should be applauded, having recognized the potential damage inflicted by his net’s tabloid tilt, and seeking to right the ship.

Look closer, though, and the new stance does little to address the disheartening state of morning news, the tabloid/pop culture sensibility that permeates “Nightline” or the eagerness to produce primetime hours devoted to inconsequential fluff — a la the staged morality lesson “What Would You Do?” — under the guise of news.

So let’s at least be honest and open about it. Paying sources is hardly an ideal solution, but doing so eliminates a layer of deception — and perhaps more significantly, self-deception. Otherwise, the networks are mirroring the punchline in an old joke about prostitution, the one that says, “We’ve established what you are. Now we’re just haggling about the price.”

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