As Casey Anthony witness admits $15,000 payday from ABC, I say: Time for news outlets to fully disclose payments to sources
It wasn't even the biggest news to come from Tuesday's testimony in the widely-watched Casey Anthony murder trial; a sad sign of today's tabloid-skewed media environment.
But midway through his time on the witness stand, Orange County meter reader Roy Kronk admitted earning $15,000 paid by ABC's Good Morning America while describing how he discovered the remains of 2-year-old Caylee Anthony last year.
"I was paid for a licensed picture of a snake, but I knew that an interview would probably be involved," he said, admitting the thin pretense TV news departments now use to disguise paying for interviews in the modern age.
Watch the segment where Kronk appeared, and it is even more apparent; the $15,000 photo of a rattlesnake, found months earlier in the same spot where Caylee's remains were eventually discovered, flashes by so quick they could have used a stock photo with no problems.
Instead, the $15,000 likely bought exclusive access to Kronk, then a hot media commodity as the guy who helped resolve the mystery everyone suspected had an obvious answer: What happened to the cute , missing 2-year-old with the mom who didn't report her missing for a month?
TV industry types defend these payments as a necessary evil for exclusive access to a newsmaker. But if that's the case, then ethical news organizations need to take another step: They need to disclose when they pay for such materials and how much.
Of course, they don't want to do that, both because it could drive up the price of such payments and it distracts viewers with such thoughts as "is this source really telling the truth or trying to get paid?" Or "If ABC is willing to pay thousands for access to this person, will they really work that hard to make sure their story is true?"
Kronk's story wasn't the first time the Anthony court proceedings have unearthed ABC's open pocketbook. Last year, the network admitted paying $200,000 to Anthony's attorney Jose Baez for photos and videos of the family. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Baez was leading an auction of the material among various media outlets.
That's right; a network news department covering a mother suspected of murdering hr child paid that mother $200,000 before the case was resolved. Presumably, Anthony used those funds to finance her current defense, substantially affecting the course of the trial itself. The website Mediabistro also reported in 2009 that ABC News paid $200,000 to license video from Michael Jackson's father Joe Jackson in a deal that led to an exclusive interview.
The situation has deteriorated to the point where 20/20 anchor Chris Cuomo admitted providing such payments to the woman who had explicit online communications with former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, telling CNN's Reliable Sources: "It is the state of play right now. 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." (h/t to Poynter.org)
Oh, you needed them. Well, that makes flouting a classic journalism ideal -- the notion that paying for stories distorts the reporting -- totally okay, then.
What bothered me most about Cuomo's admission, was that he came clean about the amount they paid -- in the range of $10,000 to $15,000 -- on Reliable Sources, not the actual story aired on 20/20 (the piece simply noted that they licensed the material from source Meagan Broussard, with no explanation of what that meant or how much ABC paid).
He was honest enough to admit the payment details on CNN, but not to his own viewers in his own story? One of Cuomo's stories quoted Broussard saying she came forward to salvage her reputation and protect her child; Cuomo never asked whether ABC's own payment might have influenced her decision. (the anchor even noted in a "Real Deal" report summarizing the incident that ABC News "reporting" helped push Weiner into admitting Internet indiscretions with women; but it seems the network actually paid a woman with explicit photos after she was connected to them by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart)
Forget about pointless questions over whether journalists vote or give political contributions; this habit of secretly shoveling thousands of dollars to interview subjects creates a shadowy network of hidden priorities worse than any ideological bias.
It is long past time for news outlets to stop pretending they are not buying access to sources. And long past time for them to be honest with viewers about how they get these exclusive interviews clogging morning newscasts and prime time newsmagazine shows.
Like all ethical stands, this will hurt at first. The price for such payments will rise and critics like me will ask questions about every payment made to a former Charlie Sheen goddess or friend of the Balloon Boy's family. As it should be.
But in the end, such disclosures will force TV networks to think harder about who they are giving money and the impact of such payments. Would ABC have given Anthony $200,000 if producers knew they had to disclose the payment amount in their journalism? Bet not.
And as a former journalism teacher of mine once said, if you're not willing to have your actions splashed on the front page of the New York Times, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.