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ABC News confirms Daily Beast report: Network will no longer pay licensing fees to subjects of big stories



casey_anthony1.jpgABC News will no longer pay the subjects of big interviews licensing fees for material such as video or photos, ending a practice many critics compared to paying for exclusive interviews.

The story was first broken today by Howard Kurtz at the Daily Beast, who noted that new ABC News president Ben Sherwood quietly ended the practice amid heated criticism over paying acquitted murder suspect Casey Anthony $200,000 in 2008. In fact, the condemnation for ABC News came in waves; when news of payment first surfaced last year and this year during trial testimony as the man who discovered the body of Anthony's deceased 2-year-old child admitted receiving $15,000 from ABC News.

At about the same time, the network also admitted paying between $10,000 and $15,000 to a woman who had exchanged explicit emails and pictures with disgraced congressman Anthony Weiner. I was among many critics who wrote bruising columns about how this growing culture among established news organizations to pay "licensing fees" to story subjects or brokers representing them was damaging journalism.

A few weeks ago, ABC News announced a policy of acknowledging and/or confirming licensing fees if journalists asked. Which meant that the question surfaced every time the network snagged a big interview -- Anthony juror Jennifer Ford and the woman accusing former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape are two notable recent examples.

More recently, viewers have written me to say that they would boycott ABC News if it ever paid more money to Anthony in connection with a post-acquittal interview. According to some press accounts, Anthony's lawyer is in New York negotiating with news organizations right now to secure an interview -- ABC News' current disclosure may help forestall questions if they get her cooperation or explain their inability to land the interview if they don't.

casey-anthony-justice.jpg"The discussion that led to this policy was underway long before the (Anthony trial) verdict," ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider told me today, adding that the network hadn't planned to announce its policy, but Kurtz dug up the story. "We're not going to brag and this isn't about our competitors. We've been headed this way for some time."

According to Kurtz's story, Sherman concluded the practice, which was "relatively infrequent," was still beginning to tarnish the network's image and blunt the impact of some good interview "gets." Indeed, though Schneider insisted Ford never had access to parent company Disney's Orlando theme parks, news that she and family members were taken to a hotel at Disney World led many to assume she received something for her exclusive interviews.

It's worth noting, this practice evolved from an arrangement which makes sense. Anyone who has photos of something newsworthy should be able to sell them to news outlets seeking to center stories on the material. But when the person selling the video is also a person at the heart of the story, it is too easy to see the payment for exclusive material as payment for an interview.

Kurtz's story allows that such deals may still happen in some rare circumstance, if approved by top managers. Schneider told me that -- to his knowledge-- no such deals are in the pipeline. Material they have obtained through past licensing agreements would still be identified as such.

I still hope other news organizations will learn from ABC's example and put the brakes on such practices, while also clearly disclosing inside stories connected to licensing agreements how much they paid sources for materials.

As ABC News discovered, it's really the only way to assure a savvy audience the stories they see are as fair and accurate as possible.



[Last modified: Monday, July 25, 2011 5:44pm]


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