My new Think Again column is called “The Underlying Nonsense in David Brooks’s Lament” and it’s here.
My new Forward column is called “Will the One-State Solution Become the Only Solution?” and it’s here.
And I did this Daily Beast piece a few days ago after Obama’s tough-talking presser.
I’ll try to do a bunch of book and movie recommendations soon, but right now I appear to be stuck in those lazyhazycrazy days of summer, when there ain’t nothing better in the world you know than lyin’ in sun with the radio, (listening to Sly singing “Hot Fun….”). Um, I can do this forever but I’ll stop now.
Except for this: Go see “The Names of Love” if you live somewhere that shows cool movies.
I've always had a (heterosexual) thing for Hugh Grant (not unlike the (heterosexual) thing I have for Cary Grant). How nice to see this and have my faith rewarded.... Today, "News of the World," Tomorrow?
Now here’s Reed:
Write the Check, Sell the Story, Pay the Price
The recently concluded trial of Casey Anthony has, as an unexpected side effect, reignited an internal media debate about the ethics of so-called checkbook journalism. Anthony, if you hadn’t heard because you just returned from a week-long submersible voyage to the bottom of the ocean, was acquitted on Tuesday of charges of murdering her daughter. And almost immediately afterward, speculation began that she might now be able to cash in on her infamy by again selling her story to the highest media bidder.
I say again because Anthony has already enjoyed the largesse of our scandal-obsessed press to the tune of $200,000. That’s what ABC News generously paid her in “licensing fees”—the profession’s favored euphemism for these payoffs—back in 2008 to get access to exclusive photo and video content of her daughter, all while Anthony was under investigation but hadn’t yet been indicted. Such an exorbitant pay-for-access deal, first publicly divulged during trial testimony earlier this year, rippled through the upper reaches of the press and occasioned much gnashing of journalistic teeth and woe-is-us condemnation from media ethicists.
Nevertheless, this media self-flagellation has a distinct Lady Macbeth-like air of protesting too much in some quarters. For example, it was hard not to notice the outright disingenuousness ABC News’ Chris Cuomo displayed during his appearance on CNN’s Reliable Sources early last month. Cuomo’s public comments on the topic were no mere happenstance as, just days before, he had produced an online and video package about the Rep. Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal that was built primarily around an exclusive interview with one of the Congressman’s online paramours.
As is now routine in these situations, Cuomo’s report quietly slid into the story’s 16th paragraph an oblique reference to the “licens[ing]” of photos and didn’t divulge the exact amount paid to his source. (Other reports, however, put the figure at between $10,000 and $15,000.) And though Cuomo chose to bemoan the “commercial exigencies” that necessitated his network’s latest deal, he nonetheless turned right around and defended the practice to CNN host Howard Kurtz:
I wish it were not. 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, Howie. I wish it were not. You do, too. But it is the state of play, and to say otherwise I think is false.
This “everybody’s doing it” argument is, of course, ethical relativism at its finest—the abdication of one’s supposed high standards of conduct in order to compete with the lowest common denominator. (It was also a favorite defense among journalists who, years ago, routinely enjoyed the common practice of sources giving them “freebies.”)
What’s also striking about Cuomo’s comments is the almost desperate, rationalizing tone they take—“I needed” the photos of Weiner, which were “the key to the exchanges” for the story “to be real.” In fact, the photos are rather underwhelming and almost an afterthought, while the interview with the source, which was ostensibly granted for free, was what really advanced the story with regard to Weiner’s casual recklessness. But even more illuminating is the way Cuomo briefly alights on what I think is the most compelling question about this practice during his soliloquy only to quickly move on and miss the deeper point: What, exactly, is the value of the stories the media is paying for?
In terms of newsworthiness, the answer is often hard to say. These deals tend to gather around salacious scandals or sensational stunts that are of little lasting political or cultural value. This is not to say that the exclusive stories they generate are not occasionally interesting, but they are also overwhelmingly ephemeral and rarely seem newsworthy enough to justify the filthy lucre expended to bring them to light.
However, the financial value that these deals represent to the networks that engage in them tell another tale. Former ABC News President David Westin, in this recent Times story, tried mightily to downplay the bottom-line significance of such deals during his tenure (of which the Anthony payment was one), but in doing so he comes across as either recklessly profligate or flagrantly dishonest:
The economic tradeoff rarely makes sense, Mr. Westin said, in a time of budget and staff cuts at network news divisions. ‘If you could prove that by spending $20,000 you would make $70,000, O.K., I can justify that,’ Mr. Westin said. ‘But I’ll be doggone if you could go through any of those payments, trace them through and see if it made any sense.’
So the former president of ABC News, who in his last few years there spent nearly half a million dollars buying up content from sources (including another $200,000 licensing deal for a Michael Jackson video) while slashing a quarter of the staff, now says he didn’t have the resources to track imminently trackable things like higher TV ratings and increased ad rates that followed from such six-figure expenditures? I call barnyard epithet on that. Even worse, the Times reporter just swallows this ridiculous statement and lets it sit there unchallenged.
Fact is, most, if not all, of these checkbook journalism deals are probably profitable, as this Nieman Journalism Lab’s detailed analysis showed when crunching the potential return on investment of the Gawker empire’s pay-for-tips policy. Indeed, if it weren’t a money-maker for the media, it’s hard to understand why American journalism would have such a long and distinguished history of paying sources—an early and notable example of which involves the New York Times and a $1,000 payment to the Titanic’s wireless operator for his exclusive story.
That’s why I’m less than convinced by anyone who hyperventilates about the untrammeled evils of so-called checkbook journalism. Yes, exchanging cash for exclusive access or materials can compromise a journalist if he or she is not careful. But as Slate’s Jack Shafer points out, how is this substantially different than the potential ethical pitfalls that can corrupt (and has corrupted) every source-reporter relationship (cf. Chalabi, Ahmad and Miller, Judith and Rove, Karl and Novak, Bob)? After all, heedlessly granting a source anonymity so he or she can smear a political opponent or justify a war is certainly just as harmful and ethically impure (and sometimes equivalent to an in-kind contribution worth far more than $200,000), yet even those few reporters who engage in this kind of egregious behavior will rarely face the professional disdain reserved for those who trade in money with sources.
What’s more, in other aspects of our society, we’ve begun to understand the power of incentivizing people to come forward with their stories, even if it means they enjoy lucrative benefits of doing so. That’s what has driven the more expansive whistleblower laws instituted recently. Of course, it’s easy for someone to argue that a mother accused of infanticide hardly occupies the same ethical ground as a conscientious pharmaceutical employee fired for exposing dangerous business practices. And they’d be right. And that is precisely the point.
Checkbook journalism or paying a source to get their exclusive story isn’t bad per se, it’s what kind of story the media ends up buying and from whom that really matters. Sure, Casey Anthony’s obscene deal with ABC News gets roundly criticized, as it should, but does anyone really think Time would have encountered a similar outcry from the public if the magazine had also paid these three women to tell their compelling stories?
Unfortunately, what might be a powerful tool to coax out tips exposing corporate malfeasance and government corruption has instead become a way to mainly generate tabloid fodder. And because, like Cuomo, many media organizations still make a show of emphatically disdaining the practice of paying sources while selectively choosing to ignore their own advice, the press, as a whole, appears even more craven and unprincipled once the details of these licensing deals inevitably leak out. So, rather than take an absolute stand against so-called licensing deals on the one hand or embrace a more judicious use of checkbook journalism under full disclosure rules on the other, much of our media has unwisely chosen to occupy an untenable, hypocritical middle ground.
Why go this way? Simply put, it’s the path of least resistance right now—what’s a little public opprobrium and professional embarrassment if the overnight ratings are good and advertisers are happy? In the long run, however, devoting more and more of the newsgathering budget to the buying of sensationalist scoops and investing less and less of it into staffing a robust newsroom becomes a recipe for disaster. In time, it creates a vicious cycle, where fewer reporters available means more reliance upon paying sources, which nets more sensationalist stories, which means less justification for paying reporters…
In many ways, this pattern is reminiscent of the myopic, self-consuming mindset that often proliferates throughout the corporate world. There, corporate leaders can became so focused on tomorrow’s stock price and the next quarterly report that few think twice about sacrificing an enterprise’s long-term core competency in order to gain a short-term financial boost. Wall Street learned too late about the dangers of this ruinous strategy to prevent a crisis, but journalism has no such margin for error. To avoid a similar fate, the press can’t keep mistaking the cost of something with its value, the price of doing that is just too high.
Editor’s Note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.