LIFE IS GOOD AGAIN

The U.S. Treasury did not default.  Gabby Giffords returned to Capitol Hill and rallied her House colleagues on the importance of unity. And it looks like our grandchildren will be paying off our nation’s debt. Good news breaking all around  (at least for many of us who have been supporting adult children and have no problem learning they may one day have to do the same.)

Will checkbook journalism go the way of Joe Camel?

Ever an optimist, I am a great believer in our flawed institutions and the flawed people who run them.  After all, during my lifetime I’ve seen the most radical reforms. Among my favorites:  big Tobacco brought to its knees, forced to pay $368 billion in health-related damages and retire Joe Camel. That was right up there with the break up of the Bell Telephone monopoly and the fall of communism.  

In the realm of  anything is possible,  it now appears Ben Sherwood is saving ABC News — if not its ratings, at least its integrity.  Swimming fiercely against the current, the new ABC News boss has announced the end of the scandalous practice of writing large checks for competitive news interviews under the guise of “licensing fees” for photos or video. See? If you wait (or live) long enough, the things you care about the most will turn out okay.

The end of checkbook journalism in network news is certainly on my current top ten list of the most urgently needed  reforms.  Paying for interviews is little more than an invitation to lie, a corruption of free speech which is the very foundation of democracy.  If your story, ahem,  “photo or video”  is worth only a couple hundred dollars, what might you do or say to make it worth thousands more?

Just ask  “Botox Mom” who  got caught lying, in a paid ABC interview,  about injecting her 8-year-old daughter before kiddie pageants. When California child services swooped in and took custody of the little girl, “Botox Mom” admitted, “I made it all up for money.”

She’d originally sold the story to a British tabloid for a couple hundred bucks, then negotiated a lot more from ABC News. But just before they put her $10,000 check in the mail,  she was forced to admit it was all a lie.

That scandal, and fee, was dwarfed by the recent news, delivered under oath, that ABC News paid  $200,000 to Casey Anthony’s lawyers for her defense fund, er, “for Casey’s home video of her with little daughter, Caylee,”  before she went on trial for the child’s murder.

Now to be fair, that journalistic black eye happened under ABC News president, David Westin, who is no longer there but recently denigrated checkbook journalism in an interview with the New York Times.  Most troubling, he explained the downside of the practice not as a breach of journalism ethics, but as a bad business choice.

“The economic tradeoff rarely makes sense, Mr. Westin said, in a time of budget and staff cuts at network news divisions.

“If you could prove that by spending $20,000 you would make $70,000, O.K., I can justify that,” Mr. Westin said. “But I’ll be doggone if you could go through any of those payments, trace them through and see if it made any sense.”

If it didn’t make any doggone sense, why did he continually authorize payments?  I certainly hope those at ABC News who are left holding the bag, so to speak, are not held responsible for the decisions or their bosses, a group which includes, of course, a V.P. of Standards & Practices.

If there are any lessons to learn from the Rupert Murdoch scandal unfolding across the pond: the buck stops with the bosses.  It now remains to be seen how ABC News will cover the newly acquitted, albeit vilified Casey Anthony.  Will she  have a soft spot for the network who paid the $200,000 “licensing” fee which certainly made a big difference in shaping her legal destiny?

Still, “Botox Mom’s” check-that-was-never-sent was authorized by the new ABC boss.  So was the perplexing payment to the most memorable of Rep. Anthony Weiner’s x-rated texting friends, Megan Broussard.  After being on the receiving end of his famous “penis” photo, the 26-year-old single mom  sold ABC News not more damning photos of the congressman, but a few sexy photos of herself  that she had texted back to him.  The wink-wink”licensing fee”  — around $15,000 for her photos and texts —  coincidentally came with a free exclusive interview for 20/20 anchor Chris Cuomo who defended the practice at the time in an interview with Howie Kurtz on CNN’s Reliable Sources:

It is my decision. I’m the anchor of ’20/20.’ I could have said, ‘Don’t do it.’ I don’t because 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.”

Well, now Cuomo’s new boss has decided it’s definitely going to be “someone else,” not ABC News,  who pays faux licensing fees.  Bravo.

A PERSONAL DISCLOSURE

The recent New York Times story said ABC and NBC morning shows regularly end up in bidding wars for candid and exclusive interviews and, curiously,  quoted an anonymous source who  said he was afraid that commenting openly could jeopardize  his job, “It’s been like this for years, this hyper-competition.”

To set the record straight, during my five+-year tenure as executive producer of Good Morning America (1999-2004), we competed fiercely with the Today Show, but never with checkbooks. Back then, we’d try to steal each other’s guests at the airport or their hotel lobbies. The biggest scandal was when Katie Couric’s booker took a kidnapping victim shopping and bought her a new pair of jeans to wear on the air. (The booker got a brief suspension.)

In my full seventeen years at ABC News, I was involved in  many routine licensing deals for real news photos and videos provided by people not involved in the given story.  Only once did I negotiate a licensing fee for someone who also gave an interview (other than an occasional random tornado chaser.)

When I paid for the above-mentioned video, no other broadcast was in the mix.  It was just days after the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School massacre when I first learned of a school video starring Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two seniors who killed themselves after their shooting rampage that ended the lives of 12 random classmates and one beloved teacher.  The spree, backed up with bombs planted in the cafeteria, was a well-planned inexplicable act of violence that left 24 more injured and an entire nation traumatized.

"Hitmen for Hire," starring Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Does their student video reveal why they carried out the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School?

Their student video, titled Hitmen for Hire, was made four-and-a-half months before the massacre and appeared almost to be a rehearsal for the tragic events that would soon follow. Dressed in their now familiar long black goth trench coats, Harris and Klebold  troll the halls of Columbine High School as hitmen for hire, offering their services to protect “the weak” from bullies.  Although a few students were involved in the production, it is only Harris and Klebold who look into the camera and explode with words of violence, anger and rage. The  classroom assignment had been to come up with an idea for a new business.

Tipped off to the video by our reporters on the ground, there were no story brokers involved, no one who set out to profit off a tragedy or build a defense fund for a trial. It was quite the contrary. The father of the student who had possession of the video did not want his son or family involved with ABC News or any show for that matter.

I personally initiated the numerous conversations it took to convince the reluctant father to let ABC News license the video.  In the end, we agreed a fee, the existence of which, not necessarily the $10,000 amount,  would have to be disclosed to our viewers in the event we interviewed  his son as well.

After the negotiation for the tape,  and much further discussion, the dad and I agreed it was probably better to let his son grant an interview rather than risk having a story leak,  giving the appearance of a sneaky or underhanded transaction.

The boy was neither a friend or confidante of Harris or Klebold.  He was just an accidental classmate. He had no one to protect, no story to change or color.  Clearly, the video stood on its own as an important piece of evidence in the growing puzzle of why these students carried out their rampage.

While all negotiations were signed off by ABC senior executives, it passed my personal litmus test for a high ethical standard as well:  if the seller doesn’t grant an interview, would I still want to buy the photo or video anyway for ABC and would I be willing to offer the same amount.  The video was very important. If we didn’t get permission to talk to the young classmate, we would have booked, perhaps, a criminal profiler instead.

As part of our continuing coverage of Columbine, we aired the video along with a live interview with the classmate. About a month later, Good Morning America broadcast a 2-hour town hall meeting, with victims of all the  school shootings, at the White House with President and Mrs. Clinton with Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson. For morning show viewers, Columbine was the most important  story of the year.

It was five years before the Jefferson Country Sheriff’s Department released Harris and Klebold’s Hitmen for Hire to the public, after which it became a big news story once again, on all networks. Five years after that, Dave Cullen included a detailed analysis of the video in his critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller, “Columbine.”

Do I wish the video had been given to us? Of course. Do I think paying for it changed or influenced our reporting? Not one word.

Convincing people to grant interviews for the sole purpose of setting the record straight has become more and more challenging over the years, especially with the growing population of syndicated television shows  like Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition and TMZ which routinely pay for interviews. But it is still the our mission to get to as pure a truth as possible.

For 17 years, the following argument always seemed to work for me.

“If you want people to believe your story, and if you’d like to see your window into the story preserved  in ABC News archives for future generations, then don’t sell it.”

This very simple strategy, a genuine one, led to an untold number of exclusive interviews on the most competitive stories of the day.  A group of Menendez jurors, some whose homes were damaged in the Northridge earthquake during the trial, turned down cashier’s checks to talk to ABC News.

After a full year of listening to various offers, two members of the U.S. Marine Corps’ elite silent drill team decided  not to sell an incriminating video tape which showed them and other new inductees stripped naked, bound with duct tape and egregiously hazed, while officers are interviewed in rooms nearby over marines screaming in the background.

The two young marines chose to make a difference instead of a wad of quick cash which they both certainly needed.  We didn’t disappoint them.   After  we aired our Primetime Live investigation anchored by the legendary Sam Donaldson, the Pentagon responded by establishing the first ant-hazing policy for  the Marines Corps.

After years of earning a personal trust and developing mutual friendships,  another source provided me with the sealed grand jury transcripts from the Michael Jackson child molestation case — without any payment or  financial consideration.

While networks routinely and ethically pay for documents, I had to tell my source  in early conversations it was not a possibility.    These documents were sealed were under a court order and any payment could be perceived as an inducement to violate the law.  As instructed by my bosses, all I could offer was my vow to go to jail rather than ever reveal who provided the documents.  In the end,  I was given all 1906 pages  — no strings attached — to allow legal correspondent and PrimeTime Live anchor Cynthia McFadden to reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the case, after so many years of rumor,  innuendo and spin.  Our story made front page news in 60 countries around the world.

In the end, it’s just not good enough to argue that paying for interview is “okay if it makes doggone financial sense” or that “someone will pay for it anyway.”   The real cost of paying for interviews has nothing to do with the amount written on the check. One can only hope that CBS and NBC follow ABC News as they begin to show their fellow broadcasters you can put the toothpaste back in the tube.


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