When news outlets pay for exclusive access to a story it’s called 'checkbook journalism.' The Washington Post's Paul Farhi just reported about two recent cases of NBC News doing just that. Bob speaks with Farhi about the ethical problems raised by paying for news exclusives.
BOB GARFIELD: There are big stories, such as killer hurricanes and brand-new wars and small stories, like local burglaries or walkathons for whatever, and irresistible stories, which may be utterly insignificant but command intense human interest, lurid murders, say, or skydivers hurtling safely to Earth after a fiery midair collision, especially when it's all captured on video.
CORRESPONDENT: In this video, licensed by NBC News, you see the divers in the second plane get out on the step preparing to jump. That plane appears to fly right on top of the first plane. There’s a fire ball.
[SOUND OF SCREAM][END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: That was on NBC Nightly Newswith Brian Williams on Monday. The next morning, Today had an exclusive, with both the footage and the 11 lucky survivors, which guaranteed big ratings for Today and a chance to close the gap with its archrival, ABC's Good Morning America. Morning TV is the most lucrative segment of network news, which is why NBC paid $100,000 for that video. But wait, isn’t that checkbook journalism, deemed explicitly unethical by the Society of Professional Journalists? Yep, and in the past two weeks NBC did it twice. Only two days before the skydiver deal, the Washington Post's Paul Farhi disclosed negotiations between the network and the family of Hannah Anderson, the 16-year-old abductee in last summer’s spree of murder, arson and kidnapping.
HANNAH ANDERSON: When I got into the house, he handcuffed me and zip tied my feet and then sat me down on the couch and told me what his plan was.
KATE SNOW: And what did he say?
HANNAH ANDERSON: He told me that he was going to kidnap me and take me to Idaho…
BOB GARFIELD: NBC will pay the family about $100,000 for its participation in a documentary about the crime.
As for the skydiving footage, it was taken on Saturday afternoon.
PAUL FARHI: By Monday morning, the skydivers are signed, sealed and delivered to NBC.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Farhi covers media for the Washington Post.
PAUL FARHI: Now, what happened in the preceding 48 hours or less appears to be – and I don't know this for a fact – that a broker, a lawyer, somebody basically put this up for auction and the networks came running.
BOB GARFIELD: We spoke to NBC News to try to get comment, and we got a boilerplate response. I know you tried to reach them, as well. How did they explain the transactions here?
PAUL FARHI: In both cases, they said they were not paying for interviews but simply licensing material that they would show on the air. Mike Robinson, who is the sky diving instructor who was on the first Cessna that got hit by the trail plane, told me that the nature of the deal was not just about the footage from the helmet cams of the skydivers, it was for interviews and for appearances, and also for exclusivity. You can't go and talk to anybody else on TV, except NBC News, for the next two weeks.
BOB GARFIELD: And the Society for Professional Journalists says that, yeah, that is unethical.
PAUL FARHI: Yes, and the whole relationship is tainted by the introduction of money. Independence goes away. The source becomes a partner with the news organization. The news organization potentially could end up seeing the story only from its source’s perspective. And the viewer or the reader should have profound questions about what he or she is seeing and reading.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, what got your attention to this story was not just that NBC was engaged in checkbook journalism but that was the second time in about four days that NBC engaged in checkbook journalism. It also paid to tell the story of kidnapping victim, Hannah Anderson.
PAUL FARHI: Hannah Anderson had been kidnapped by a family friend in August. Her mother and brother were murdered during her kidnapping, or perhaps before it. The man who abducted her was eventually shot by the FBI. And NBC had gotten a couple of exclusive interviews with this girl, but has subsequently entered into negotiations with Hannah Anderson and her father to produce a documentary with their cooperation. Now, I would say that the Hannah Anderson payment by NBC is even more problematic than the skydivers’.
The Hannah Anderson case is actually an ongoing criminal investigation, and knowing exactly what happened is a matter for the criminal justice system. For a network to be involved and tell the story strictly from the perspective of one vested interest really begs the question of whether we’re getting to the truth in a serious criminal matter.
BOB GARFIELD: It reminds me of how in any big scandal in the UK, the British tabloids sort of divide the principals. One tabloid will pay one set of the players in a story [LAUGHS] and tell one narrative and another tabloid will write a check to the opposing players in the story and tell an entirely different narrative, leading the readers to have absolutely no idea where the truth lies.
PAUL FARHI: That’s exactly the problem, is, is once you start choosing up sides and handing out money to one of those sides, you are inevitably going to tell that side of the story. You are now invested in that side of the story. And funny you should mention Great Britain.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] It was not an accident. Why don’t you connect the dots for me, Paul?
PAUL FARHI: Well, this came up in the context of NBC News, whose new president of the division is from British television. Her name is Deborah Turness. She just started in August. The stories about the payments to Hannah Anderson and to the skydivers just recently emerged. I don't know if that’s a coincidence, but I think some of NBC's competitors would draw that conclusion, that this is a new era at NBC and that they are going to adopt, perhaps, some of the British media's tactics in covering the news.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in the intro, we observed that the stakes are quite high. The Today Show, at the moment, is the number two morning show. Between first and second, how much money hangs in the balance?
PAUL FARHI: Tens of millions of dollars. This is the most heavily contested time period that they have at stake. And you can see the context which makes them want to pay a few hundred thousand dollars for some juicy piece of video. Six figures in television, network television terms, that’s basically two commercials, they’ll get the money back.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Paul. I'm dispirited but grateful.
PAUL FARHI: [LAUGHS] Always happy to depress you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Paul Farhi covers the media for the Washington Post.
And here's a statement from NBC about this story: “NBC News is proud to have this remarkable footage of human survival for use across all of our platforms and broadcasts. Our licensing of this footage is standard industry practice and is the result of a very competitive process with other major broadcast outlets.”