An Exchange on ‘Checkbook’ Journalism

An Exchange on ‘Checkbook’ Journalism

An Exchange on ‘Checkbook’ Journalism

Eric sends a drink back and Reed spars with former ABC News president David Westin.


My new “Think Again” column is is called “The Murdoch Empire’s Heart of Darkness” and it’s here.

My new Nation column is called “The Twilight of Social Democracy” and it’s a report from the conference in honor of Tony Judt in Paris, and it’s here.

At dinner a while back, Sam Seder reminded me that I have the honor of being the only guest ever on “The Majority Report” to send a drink back on the air. We are at the HBO Comedy festival in Aspen with Janeane Garofalo back in 2005 here and the drink goes back at around 14:00. I think it had an olive instead of a twist or else it was straight up instead of on the rocks. (It’s always something.)

I have a bunch of reviews coming, I promise, but in the meantime here’s an Alter-review by Reed:

Our Media Ourselves
By Reed Richardson

I’ll be honest, I don’t quite know what to make of Brooke Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine. Gladstone, the longtime host of NPR’s weekend show “On the Media,” has written a book of media criticism that, it’s safe to say, looks unlike any other in the genre. That’s because, as she notes in the book’s Acknowledgements: “I wanted to write a comic book long before I wanted to write a book about the media.” So, when Gladstone, an admitted sci-fi geek, couldn’t make a futuristic graphic novel about the press work out, she turned back to her day job for inspiration.

That’s right, Gladstone’s book is a work of graphic nonfiction, which is a book category that has yet to reach its full potential, based on the great difficulty I had in locating it in my local bookstore and library. Illustrated in a semi-realist, two-color style by Brooklyn-based alternative cartoonist Josh Neufeld, “The Influencing Machine” delves into the history of the media in a series of set pieces fleshed out in typical cartoon balloon-text-and-panel fashion.

Some of these panels are fairly routine drawings of talking heads, but others, like the full-page image of a swirling stream of objective journalists forever stuck in Dante’s Limbo, are quite clever, well executed works of art. And, as appears on that page, Gladstone’s avatar—intentionally drawn as a plain black-haired, black-bespectacled, black-clad, and black-booted caricature—travels throughout the book as a sort of tour guide for the reader, interjecting commentary between the many experts and sources cited (the book has eight pages of endnotes), all while driving the narrative along.

Indeed, the continual presence of Gladstone’s image on the page and voice in the text strongly evokes the experience of listening to her radio show. (See what I mean?) And the fact that, at 156 pages, it’s roughly consumable in the time it would take to listen to a one-hour “On the Media” podcast only heightens that feeling. But because both radio and graphic nonfiction are, at their essence, storyteller’s media, tackling a topic comprised of abstract ideas and concepts poses a more difficult challenge. “It became a puzzle I wanted to solve,” she writes.

In terms of making the graphic images enhance the text, she succeeds. She deftly (if briefly) explores journalism’s history of both proud and shameful behavior and dissects the rise of objectivity as the American press’s governing ideal, and all the attendant problems that came with it. Or, as she points out “Everything we hate about the media was present at its creation…[a]lso present was everything we admire.” Case in point, the New York Times, where publisher Adolph Ochs’ now famous declaration of first principles about “giv[ing] the news impartially without fear or favor” was quickly (but less famously) followed in the same editorial note with a proclaimed devotion “to the cause of sound money and tariff reform…the lowest tax consistent with good government, and no more government than is absolutely necessary to protect society.”

Still, to simply complain about the inherently flawed nature of the press and dismiss it as either tabloid junk or manipulative propaganda is to sorely miss the point. The media, her central metaphor goes, isn’t influencing what we think as much as it’s reflecting who we are. So, the things we don’t like about the press—unacknowledged, built-in biases, herd mentality, penchant for sensationalism, excessive fealty to power—are merely projections of the things we don’t like about ourselves. “We get the media we deserve,” she says.

Deserving better, then, involves expecting more out of both the press and the public. Regarding the former, Gladstone comes down firmly in favor of full disclosure of who’s doing the reporting and less restrictions on what they report as a way to both hold the press more accountable for its actions and keep it from becoming less timid about doing its job. We the people must do our fair share as well, however. The public, she says, must take “an active role in our media consumption,” offering up more corrections of errors to the press and occasionally clicking through to read an article’s original source materials, just to ensure what’s important isn’t being filtered out in the press.

Unfortunately, these insights, coming as they do at the very end of a graphic nonfiction book, get short shrift. Whereas in a traditional book these ideas could be expanded upon in a concluding chapter or two, Gladstone’s book only devotes a scant few pages and a couple of hundred words to where the media and—by extension we—go from here.

And that, I guess, is my chief grievance with Gladstone’s book. While it is a worthy contribution to the canon, I feel that the author undermined the impact of her criticisms and insights by somewhat self-indulgently choosing an unorthodox platform to deliver them. In other words, I suspect that the people who would be drawn to a graphic nonfiction book of media criticism are the most likely to already agree with the points expressed therein. Those most in need of reading this book, on the other hand, have been given a ready-made (if unfair and lazy) excuse to dismiss its contents because of its context.

But perhaps those of us who predominantly agree with Gladstone’s book—a distinct minority of which I am included—as well as those who decidedly do not—most media organization’s mastheads—aren’t the intended audience. Maybe it’s the next generation of the press and the public she’s aiming for, people who haven’t really thought much about the interplay between the two before and who will find the graphic platform a less daunting doorway into the worthwhile ideas inside. For the sake of our democracy’s future, let’s hope so.

The Mail
Last week we received a letter from David Westin, former president of ABC News, in response to Reed’s last post. Reed’s response follows below.

David Westin
New York

If [Reed] had contacted me before writing, I might have been able to help [him] understand a bit more about the subject. I’ll limit my post facto comments to two:

1. You confuse two things: paying someone for footage entirely apart from any interview and paying someone being interviewed for materials used in the interview. Casey Anthony was an example of the former; ABC News never interviewed Casey. Whether our paying for the Casey Anthony footage made sense or not was a purely business issue. What we licensed was three years of home video.

2. The point I was making to Bill Carter is that there is an ethical issue when a news organization pays the subject of an interview for ancillary material (the issue being that the payment may change what’s said in the interview). But even when there isn’t any interview involved and the payment cannot affect the news being reported, there is a legitimate business question of how you know that you made a good investment. There are some conspicuous cases that can’t be questioned. ABC’s licensing from the BBC Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana in the mid-90s is a good example. But, it’s much harder to pencil out the cost/benefit when the material is incorporated into other reporting. This isn’t a matter of laziness or lack of rigor — it’s inherent in the economics of television news. How do you know what the rating for a given segment of GMA would have been without the footage? During my tenure at ABC News, I became concerned that we were not doing a good enough job of looking back after the fact making sure we were making good decisions. And, yes, I’m sure that part of what made me particularly concerned was the extreme pressure we were under to examine all of our costs, which ultimately led to my re-structuring the business. So, sometime after the Casey Anthony situation, we cut back on our licensing of footage and stills, raising the bar on demonstrating cost/benefit. Again, to be clear, this was in cases where there was no interview involved.

I’ll ignore the purple prose.

Reed replies:

To Mr. Westin’s first point, I think a close reading of what I wrote last week regarding ABC News’ relationship with Casey Anthony clearly shows that I did not confuse the issue. I specifically noted that the $200,000 his network paid in so-called licensing fees was for visual content only and I never said those monies were in exchange for a (non-existent) interview of Anthony.

Nevertheless, even his broader argument about the importance of distinguishing between both interviewing and paying a source for “ancillary materials” versus just licensing the latter seems a bit too narrowly drawn and flawed to me. If, as he indicates, the central ethical hazard in checkbook journalism involves a paid source’s potential to—either inadvertently or intentionally—change the story being reported, it seems a tad disingenuous to ignore the fact that said source, particularly in cases like Anthony’s, can still slant a story through the selection of which content they choose to sell. Plus, I’d submit that, to a vast majority of the American public, the fact that ABC News paid Anthony $200,000 to license three years of home video, but deliberately chose not to interview her for supposedly ethical reasons is a distinction without a difference.

Now, I’ll take Westin at this word that he found such deals less attractive and less profitable near the end of his tenure. (Still, I find that a bit hard to swallow, since the increasingly common practice of repurposing content for use across multiple news platforms—TV morning shows, online channels, primetime specials, etc.—would seem to make the bottom-line return on these often exclusive, paid-access deals more rather than less valuable.)

What’s most striking, however, is hearing Westin starkly judge the merits of these licensing-only deals in “purely business” terms. What doesn’t seem to enter into this blinkered calculus is the long-term reputational price the press pays for practicing checkbook journalism in its current, misguided form. As I said in last week’s post, it doesn’t have to be this way. If done wisely and transparently, paying sources directly for information could be a formidable journalistic force for the public good rather than fuel for a media arms race downward into irrelevance.

Stephen Carver
Los Angeles

Regarding your Daily Beast piece about Obama’s new tough stand…

In the days following your piece two things have become clear:

1. He didn’t mean it.
2. It’s too late anyway.

In his desperation to be liked by everyone (and I don’t mean his desire to be "re-elected," I mean, this guy really wants to be LIKED by everyone), Obama continually backpedals and gives concessions to the people who hate him. I see these pictures of Republicans and Democrats alike sitting around a conference table, the President included, and everyone is smiling and laughing, like there’s NOT 10% unemployment; like there are NOT two wars currently draining our Treasury and killing our soldiers; like there’s NOT anything wrong with people starving in our streets.

I am in despair when I look at these photos because they (the politicians, not the photos) are obviously the problem, but the problem has become so entrenched in power that there is literally NOTHING we can do.

Michael Green
Las Vegas, Nevada
Recently, David Brooks has done some columns that read as though they came directly from someone in the bowels (appropriately) of the Republican right. Knowing that Brooks prizes his reputation as a moderate conservative, I wonder whether he got some blowback on those columns and felt he had to shift the other way. I base this on two thoughts. One, the Allen Drury novel in which reporters say they have to "stand tall in Georgetown"–Brooks would worry about his social standing. Two, the legendary tale of the great New York baseball writer Dan Daniel. The American League easily won an All-Star Game and Daniel wrote a column warning that the National League was in danger of becoming a minor league. That year, the NL easily won the World Series and Daniel wrote that the American League was in danger of becoming a minor league. Another sportswriter asked Daniel how he could reconcile that. Daniel said, "I warned them both. Now they’re on their own."

Alan Chaprack
New York 25, NY
As an unrepentant Lefty, what pissed me off most about Brooks’s column was his equating having "no sense of moral decency" to those who’d let us default on our obligations.

He somehow doesn’t see that in those who’d deny medical care or unemployment benefits to those in need. He doesn’t see that lack in a defense budge that can be pared to take care of Americans. Brooks to me has no moral center.

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