Why did ABC News wait two years to admit its $200,000 payment to Casey Anthony?
Let us allow that ABC News actually paid $200,000 just to get family photos and old home movies from accused murderer Casey Anthony. Let's also accept the ludicrous notion that this money was not part of an attempt to influence Anthony into sitting for an interview.
None of this answers the most troubling question: Why didn't ABC News disclose this payment publicly until the judge forced Anthony's attorney to fess up in open court Thursday?
I'm betting its because they knew how it would look -- a major news organization handing thousands of dollars to a woman police suspected of murdering her daughter. She wouldn't be officially indicted by a Grand Jury until about two months after ABC cut the check in 2008. But if the payment was ethical and above board, ABC at least had a duty to disclose it.
ABC News disclosed the payment to the Web site TvNewser, saying: "In August 2008 we licensed exclusive rights to an extensive library of photos and home video for use by our broadcasts, platforms, affiliates and international partners. No use of the material was tied to any interview."
The sad fact is that news organizations have pushed the boundaries of such agreements for many years. Paying sources for photos and background material is a convenient way to funnel cash to potential sources.
CNN and ABC, for example, reportedly bought a cellphone camera photo from Jason Schuringa, the Dutch airline passenger who put out a fire started by a Nigerian man trying to blow up the plane. The Web site TV Newser reported the bidding many have topped $10,000; Schuringa then sat for an interview with CNN.
In December, NBC paid for a private jet to whisk David Goldman and his son to New Jersey from Brazil, once his highly-publicized custody battle there was over. During the trip, Goldman just happened to give an interview to Meredith Vieira, and anchor on NBC's Today show. Later, he gave an exclusive interview to Vieira at his stateside home.
The Society of Professional Journalists denounced the move as "checkbook journalism," noting the financial relationship between NBC and Goldman made it tough for them to report the story fairly and the lack of disclosure made it impossible for viewers to accurately judge the story, either.
Is it any wonder, then, that the gate-crashing Washington D.C. couple Michaele and Tareq Salahi wanted a six-figure payment to tell their story? (just their bad luck that the world's news organizations already took pictures of them entering the White house party they snuck into, so they had no "materials" to hawk)
Or that Schuringa reportedly refused to speak with any news organization that didn't buy his cellphone photos?
Some argue the money doesn't distort coverage, but that seems a fantasy. If a news outlet pays $200,000 for access to a source, will they report information which limits or ends that source's value as a news source? Will they report stories which anger the source and make them uncooperative?
In Anthony's case, ABC News had the answer to a question which had been bugging observers of her case for a while: How does a woman who was unemployed for a year before her arrest pay a "dream team" of defense attorneys? But viewers never learned that information from ABC News, because it was already ethically compromised.
The sad fact is, news outlets will keep finding ways to pay sources for access -- and lie about it -- unless they are made to pay a price.
I would prefer news outlets be required to disclose such deals when they are made -- in part to jack prices so they stop paying for sources, altogether.
But considering how badly some viewers want a ringside seat to the ongoing news circus, that may not happen anytime soon.