A s much as people have complained about the tabloid nature of the media's interest in the Casey Anthony trial, it turns out viewers jacked into continuous TV coverage of the proceedings learned something really important. The price of a hot media interview. During Anthony's trial on charges of killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, lawyers discovered ABC paid $15,000 to the meter reader who discovered the child's body. That's in addition to the $200,000 the network paid Anthony herself back in 2008.
CBS News also paid George and Cindy Anthony, Caylee's grandparents, $20,000. And Krystal Holloway, a woman who claims to have had an affair with George Anthony, admitted on the witness stand Thursday her family received $4,000 from the National Enquirer.
How do the nation's biggest TV news operations justify forking over cash to story sources just like a supermarket tabloid?
They claim to be paying for rights to use pictures and video.
Even the sources who get money say something else; they're paid, in part, to provide exclusive interviews.
"I was paid for a licensed picture of a snake, but I knew that an interview would probably be involved," Orange County meter reader Roy Kronk said on the stand Wednesday.
Watch the Good Morning America segment where Kronk appeared exclusively, and it is even more obvious. The $15,000 photo ABC bought of a rattlesnake, found in the same spot where Caylee's remains were discovered, flashes by so quickly it has little impact.
As a realistic media critic, I won't insist the practice should end. It's already obvious every big player in TV news indulges this shameless hypocrisy.
If such payments are necessary for access to a big newsmaker, then ethical news organizations need to take another step: They must disclose when they pay for such materials and how much.
ABC has a history here. The network also admitted paying between $10,000 and $15,000 to Meagan Broussard, a woman who exchanged explicit photos online with disgraced former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner.
ABC anchor Chris Cuomo, who reported the Broussard story, told CNN's Reliable Sources: "It is the state of play right now. You're paying for these photos, why? Because they are the key to the exchanges. … I needed them."
Oh, you needed them. Well, that makes flouting a classic journalism ideal — the notion that paying for stories distorts what sources say — totally okay, then.
What bothered me most about Cuomo's admission was that it came on CNN, not in the story he aired on Nightline (that piece simply noted they licensed the material, with no explanation of what that meant or how much ABC paid).
And when Cuomo asked Broussard in his story why she was going public, guess what didn't come up?
Some at ABC complain they are criticized more because they disclose licensing deals and will admit amounts to reporters, while competitors may not. Indeed, NBC spokeswoman Lauren Kapp said her network does not disclose amounts it pays.
Kapp e-mailed a statement saying, in part, "NBC News does not offer money for interviews," but does "occasionally license materials to round out our coverage."
Like the incident reported by the New York Times when a high school student who faked a pregnancy appeared on NBC in May, in part, because the network put money in a trust fund to pay for her education.
Largo attorney John Trevena said intermediate brokers who sell media outlets access to newsmakers offered to cover bail for his client, "Hiccup girl" Jennifer Mee, even if the bond was as high as $1 million.
But Mee was denied bail. And Trevena said he doesn't accept money from media outlets and fought with a past client who did.
"I think it undermines the client severely," he said. "I'm appalled there aren't some prohibitions to this practice."
Forget about the empty political bias debate. This habit of secretly shoveling thousands of dollars to interview subjects creates a shadowy network of hidden priorities worse than any ideological bias.
Disclosures of such payments may bring scorn and higher prices. But in the end, they will force TV networks to think harder about what they're doing.
Would ABC have given a woman suspected of killing her daughter $200,000 if producers knew they had to disclose the payment amount in their journalism?
Which may be the best argument for disclosure I've heard yet.