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Up for audit: 'Checkbook journalism' and the news groups that buy big stories

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; 12:42 AM

At first it was only supermarket tabloids like the National Enquirer that did it. While the "respectable" media shunned the practice, the Enquirer developed a long and proud tradition of "checkbook journalism," paying sources for such sensational exclusives as a photo of Elvis Presley in his coffin or "revelations" about Donald Trump by his ex-housekeeper.

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But thanks to heightened competition for the next big "get," journalism's Thou-Shalt-Not-Pay commandment has lately been taking a beating. News and gossip sites that paid for information have broken some of the biggest and most sensational recent stories. TV news divisions have joined in, spurring an arms race to buy big stories.

Did unsuccessful Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell of Delaware get tipsy and spend Halloween night three years ago in intimate contact with a 25-year-old man she'd just met? The Web site Gawker.com claimed as much last month in a widely read but much criticized first-person account written by the anonymous young man, complete with pictures of O'Donnell in a ladybug Halloween costume. The site's owner acknowledges that it paid the author about $4,000 for his story.

Did Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre send racy voicemail messages and photos of his private parts to an attractive young female employee of the New York Jets two years ago? The Web site Deadspin.com said so, basing its account on voicemails and photos it bought from another anonymous source for about $12,000.

How did the tech site Gizmodo.com get a prototype of the new iPhone model in April, months before Apple released it? The answer: By paying $5,000 to yet another anonymous individual, who handed over a copy of the phone that he said was inadvertently left by an Apple engineer in a bar near the company's headquarters in Silicon Valley.

Mainstream news organizations have long been reluctant to pay for information for a few simple reasons. One is practical: Paying for stories can get expensive. The other, more important consideration is the perception that paying sources poisons the credibility of both the source and the news organization. "When you pay for a story, you're making a contract with the person who supplies it and that means you're no longer acting independently," says Hagit Limor, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, which prohibits the practice in its code of ethics. "People will say anything in pursuit of money. The public should assume you're reporting something because it's true, not because someone received money to say it."

Daily newspapers such as The Washington Post and the New York Times say they do not pay people for news tips or interviews. TV networks say much the same thing, although they often devise ways to compensate high-profile news subjects anyway.

The typical maneuver is to pay sources for the right to air personal photographs or home videos. Since the payments technically aren't for interviews, the networks say this doesn't constitute an ethical breach.

ABC News and NBC News acknowledged that they paid the families of three rescued Chilean miners who were featured in "exclusive" reports on "Good Morning America" and the "Today" show last month. In both cases, network correspondents told viewers that home videos included in the reports were "licensed" by the networks, a vague disclosure that revealed little about the nature of the agreements. NBC News declined to comment.

CNN, ABC and the New York Post also paid for blurry cellphone photos of accused Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab being led off a plane in handcuffs by authorities last year. The news organizations bought the photos from Jasper Schuringa, the Dutch passenger who helped subdue Abdulmutallab and snapped the cellphone photos. Schuringa shopped the photos to American news organizations, reportedly earning $18,000 from the sales, according to the Web site TVNewser.com.

CNN spokeswoman Edie Emery insisted, however, "CNN does not pay for interviews or sources. Yes, CNN did pay a licensing fee for exclusive rights to Schuringa's cellphone image. Payment for the exclusive license of the image was never a condition of the guest interview." In fact, CNN did interview Schuringa.

In some cases, the money involved can grow exponentially. Lawyers for Casey Anthony, a Florida woman accused of killing her young daughter, revealed in court in March that ABC News paid $200,000 for her cooperation in its coverage of the story. Anthony used the money to pay for her legal bills.


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