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Ann Coulter wasn't trying to be literal when she congratulated ABC News for "owning" the Anthony Weiner lewd-tweeting story, says Poynter media ethicist Julie Moos. But ABC did buy its scoop interview with Weiner sexting partner Meagan Broussard, "in the form of a 'licensing fee'" for her damning photos of Weiner. Paying for interviews and photos is common in Britain, and for U.S. tabloids, but has long been frowned on by America's more reputable news organizations. Now ABC and NBC News are defending "checkbook journalism" as a necessary evil. Should the press really pay people for their sleazy photos?
Paying for access corrupts journalism: There are legitimate reasons to pay "licensing fees" to freelance journalists or bystanders to an event, says Moos in Poynter. But when a news organization buys salacious photos from a source involved in the story, like Broussard, "it hurts journalism's credibility." Payments give people incentives to grossly exaggerate, lie about, or even arrange juicy news events. In other words, they create a market for corruption.
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What's the big deal? Sure, checkbook journalism "may stink, but it's been around so long that it's hard to smell it," says Jack Shafer at Slate. Besides, as someone "who has repeatedly been lied to by unpaid sources," I don't buy the credibility argument. There can be all sorts of "non-cash benefits" to giving your story or sexy photos away, like smearing your political opponents. At least when you pay a source for photos, you can "sue him for fraud" if they're fake.
Good or bad, checkbook journalism is here to stay: ABC paid Broussard $15,000 for more than just Weiner photos, says Noah Davis in Business Insider. It also bought "bragging rights" in its morning-show war against NBC. But "as checkbook journalism becomes more pervasive" — and the stakes are too high for it not to — it will also get more expensive. As the public catches on, the first question reporters will start hearing when talking to sources is, What's in it for me?
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