Tom Fiedler was offered a photo in 1987 implicating Presidential hopeful Gary Hart in an extra-marital affair. Fiedler refused to pay the source, but he managed to break the story anyway. Fiedler, retired Executive Editor for the Miami Herald, explains that in the 20 years since that incident, checkbook journalism has thrived.
BOB GARFIELD: Larry Flynt is the founder and publisher of Hustler Magazine. Sex scandals have, of course, killed political careers without the use of full-page ads or payments to sources. Tom Fiedler was a reporter at The Miami Herald in 1987 when rumors were flying around that Democratic Presidential hopeful Gary Hart was having extramarital affairs.
When someone approached The Miami Herald with information and demanded payment, Fiedler refused on principle, but he still managed to break the story. Tom, welcome to On the Media. TOM FIEDLER: Glad to be here. Thanks. BOB GARFIELD: I remember Gary Hart saying if you don't believe I'm clean, follow me. You followed him. TOM FIEDLER: Well, we did, although we had actually already, by the time that was published, met with the source. This is the woman who called me initially wanting to sell a photograph, the one that had Senator Hart and Donna Rice sitting in his lap.
I told her we didn't pay for photographs, but I suppose I ultimately persuaded her that it was in the country's best interest for her to help me anyway, and she did. BOB GARFIELD: That was 1987. This is 2007. Twenty years later, other forces have intervened. One of them is Larry Flynt. TOM FIEDLER: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. BOB GARFIELD: Another is the tabloids, who have introduced money into the game. TOM FIEDLER: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE]. The ground for this was actually plowed pretty well in the 1992 presidential campaign when Jennifer Flowers showed up at a press conference sponsored by the - not The Enquirer - The Star, and she announced that she'd had an affair with then-Governor Clinton for a number of years. She was well paid for that, as I think everybody knew. BOB GARFIELD: Well, you mentioned Jennifer Flowers. She had documentary evidence. She had answering machine tapes, so she had the goods. And, after all, police pay for information all the time that can lead to convictions. Publishers buy tell-all books from news figures and so forth. If the story checks out, what is the problem with paying for it? TOM FIEDLER: Well, I think what you're hoping to get is the ideal situation, and that is where someone's motives in coming forward and providing information that is relevant, by the way, and not just scandalous for scandal's sake, that the ideal would be that someone's motives are pure, or at least as pure as I suppose you can have in a human situation or in a political situation. BOB GARFIELD: All sources have one motive or another, and some far less straightforward and transparent they just money. You know, in Washington journalism, you never get a piece of information where someone doesn't stand to gain something. TOM FIEDLER: Yeah. Well, that's absolutely true, and our role as journalists is to present the information in a way that enables people to make an informed judgment. And part of that process is to try to understand the motives there so that they can assess, you know, do I really want to believe this or is this tainted? Maybe that fact is right but they're holding back on something else that would be mitigating. It's very tricky territory. BOB GARFIELD: Clearly the Gary Hart/Donna Rice story found its way into The Miami Herald without Knight Ridder having to write a check to anybody. But, you know, you've got to hand it to Larry Flynt. Nobody else broke the Bob Livingston story.
Whether it should have been broken or not is an open question, but the Speaker of the House-designate had to leave the Congress on the basis of a story bought and paid for by Larry Flynt. Was he doing some sort of public service by exposing Livingston's hypocrisy? TOM FIEDLER: [LAUGHS] If you put Larry Flynt and public service in the same sentence, you feel like you almost need to take a shower later, you know. [BOB LAUGHS]
But, first of all, I do think that that was relevant information. That said, I would hope that journalists would have been able to get at that information without having paid for it, simply by him saying, look, this is information that, for the good of the Republic, you ought to be willing to step forward and make this allegation known.
Well, you know, it didn't happen. Larry Flynt was able to pry it loose with his checkbook, so it's out there. But I put that in the category of the same way that sometimes the only way law enforcement can get information is to grease the proverbial palm of somebody who's less than savory. I suppose we just wish we didn't have to go that route. BOB GARFIELD: Oh, so you're on your way to the Shorenstein Center at Harvard to study media issues. TOM FIEDLER: Mm-hmm [AFFIRMATIVE] BOB GARFIELD: Will you tell your students, yeah, take careful notes, and bring a big wad of cash? TOM FIEDLER: [LAUGHS] I would tell them not to do that. I would tell them to try every possible way to avoid that kind of a situation. I know there are times when a source will say, look-it, the only way I can give you this information, if I lose my job I need some kind of help, and so, you know, as a journalist you might look around and say, well, how can I help? Maybe I can see to it that this person can get another job.
There are ways around, I would hope, just pulling out a checkbook and putting a bunch of zeros after a number. BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you very much. TOM FIEDLER: It was a pleasure. BOB GARFIELD: Tom Fiedler is retired executive editor at The Miami Herald. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Coming up, un-bought TV pilots get a second life on the Internet, and a sport called Parkour spreads around the world there. This is On the Media from NPR.