By: Mark Fitzgerald
‘The Price Is Right’
But ‘checkbook journalism’ arouses IRE at conference
When ABC News paid $16,000 to a friend of one of the presumed Columbine High School killers in Littleton, Col., many in the press wondered what it was buying: the homemade music video and other footage of alleged gunman Dylan Klebold ? or the exclusive interview with the 18-year-old it identified as Klebold’s best friend?
The payment, revealed in The New York Times May 31, had many at the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) national conference June 3-6 wondering if journalism is now at another critical juncture. To many, the payment represented the entrance of a big-name, mainstream news organization into the murky waters of checkbook journalism.
“It’s checkbook journalism. If you’re paying for the tape to get the interview ? it’s checkbook journalism,” says Bob Greene, the retired assistant managing editor of Long Island, N.Y.-based Newsday who is often considered the “Father of IRE.”
ABC News says that’s not the case at all. In its first response to the payment revelation, it said there was no connection between the payment for the videos and the interview with Klebold’s friend, Nathan Dykeman.
In the report airing on “Good Morning America” May 24, an ABC reporter said the network had “obtained the rights to his [Dykeman’s] home video.”
Even as IRE was meeting in Kansas City, Mo., ABC was changing its policy to require reporters to make an on-air disclosure of any financial arrangement from “an unusual, non-news-gathering source,” as a spokeswoman put it.
It is the practice itself that is wrong, says James Neff, a former columnist for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer who has written several investigative books, including “Mobbed Up,” a biography of former International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jackie Presser.
“When money transfers to the subject of an interview, that is wrong. I would never do that, and in the classes I teach, I say that is wrong,” says Neff.
“I’ve sold exclusive video footage I have gathered on a project,” he notes, “and I have no problem with that. But it is a very different story when you are [selling] and you are the subject of the interview.”
Greene, who now teaches journalism at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., says he is somewhat optimistic that the practice will not spread.
“I don’t think so because everybody is screaming and shouting about it,” he says. The reaction to the incident, Greene says, reminds him of the furor when The New York Times and NBC News used the name of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape in a widely reported case in Florida, arguing it was justified because her name had been disclosed by The Globe, a supermarket tabloid.
“Everybody shouted and screamed then. The Times and NBC did it once, and then nobody did it again. This can go either way ? it will go backwards or it will go forward because everybody says everybody does it.
“I’m inclined to think that sanity will prevail,” Greene says. One big reason: “They don’t have the budget anymore! ABC, CBS ? they’re all cutting back. I can’t imagine anyone in the networks wanting to go into checkbook journalism.”
Mainstream newspapers are not likely to be the targets for those with stories to sell, Greene and other IRE members say. “Most of the people who go around hustling this stuff are going to go to the Globe or the [National] Enquirer, where they can get the real money for it,” Greene says.
Print reporters are likely to be spared the pressure for two other reasons, says Neff, now director of Ohio State University’s Kiplinger Fellows program. “I would say there is almost no problem in print, because that is such a taboo. I don’t see them coming to newspapers because we don’t need this kind of thing. I feel sorry for TV because they do need compelling pictures,” Neff says.
Public repulsion can eliminate certain TV practices, some broadcasters at the conference noted. The best evidence of that is the virtual disappearance of the “ambush interview,” in which camera crews chase after news subjects who clearly do not want to talk.
“We started to feel there was a real backlash to it,” says Julie Kramer, senior producer for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis. “People began to feel sympathetic towards the people being chased.”
“I think they’re sort of passe now,” adds Eric Engberg, CBS News correspondent in the network’s Washington, D.C., bureau. A reporter a couple of decades ago, he says, “could do a lot of things expecting the public to applaud him because he was fighting against evil.
“We are not the heroes anymore,” Engberg says. “The public views us as bullies and know-it-alls, people who throw their weight around unfairly ? and in certain instances we have behaved that way.”
For investigative journalists writing for newspapers and other print media, the pressure to whip out the checkbook rarely comes from people like the presumed Littleton shooter’s friend, says author Neff.
“Where we are being held up and asked to pay for information is from the state and federal government agencies who are privatizing all these data. Those are the real pirates,” says Neff.
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