Media : Reporters in Germany Open Wallets for Stories : The practice is called checkbook journalism and it’s booming as celebrities and nobodies alike are demanding compensation from newspaper and magazine firms.
When reporters ask their traditional who, what, when, where and why these days, media-savvy Germans are likely to respond with a question of their own:
No longer just the dirty little secret of boulevard scandal sheets, checkbook journalism appears to be rampant in newly united Germany, with celebrities and nobodies alike demanding--and often getting--"honorariums” for giving interviews.
And while many daily newspapers insist that they never pay for information, others, such as the country’s biggest publishing house, the Axel Springer Verlag, have to maintain an entire “honorarium department” to keep up with the payouts.
The cash-for-quotes trend is not limited to Germany, although the practice appears to be enjoying a particular boom here now.
The British tabloids are notorious for buying their “scoops,” and the juicier the scandal, the higher the price. In France, too, the most fiercely competitive publications sometimes pay for exclusive interviews or news beats.
The practice has been spreading eastward. In the Soviet Union, for example, institutions are so starved for hard currency that even the Moscow police have been known to charge Western European and Japanese journalists for access. The Soviet Defense Ministry wanted money in exchange for permitting journalists to visit two bases last August, and the chief AIDS specialist at a Moscow Hospital has demanded payment for information.
(The Los Angeles Times, like most major American publications, has a policy against paying for information used in its news columns. However, the Los Angeles Times Syndicate does occasionally pay an honorarium for interviews with prominent people.)
It is the already rich and famous in Germany who demand the highest fees for interviews, but the trend does not stop with them.
While neither side is willing to discuss who gets how much, celebrities such as tennis stars Boris Becker and Steffi Graf reportedly merit lucrative contracts for a few interviews a year with papers such as the mass-circulation Bild, a Springer daily.
“It’s a confidential thing,” said a Springer Verlag spokeswoman. “We certainly pay for certain information, especially Bild, but there’s no rule on whether it’s 500 or 5,000 (deutschemarks).”
When the Wall Street Journal sought an interview with star east German sprinter Katrin Krabbe, the athlete’s manager said she wanted $2,000 for 45 minutes, recalled correspondent Fred Kempe. “Photos would be extra.”
The paper refused, and quoted the manager speculating aloud how much could be raked in by auctioning Krabbe off “piece by piece.”
Kempe finds that “normal sources ask almost regularly” for money.
“Obviously it’s a product of what German journalists are doing,” Kempe said. “They wouldn’t ask if others weren’t paying.”
Not all German journalists do, though.
“It’s absolutely idiotic to pay for an interview,” said Ullrich Dost, deputy sports editor of the newspaper Die Welt. “Earlier, it was unthinkable. The practice developed through competition among publications.
“I’ve been here since 1973, and to this day I have not paid one penny.”
Even nonprofit groups, such as the pacifist Military Counseling Network, often expect publications and television stations to pay them for the publicity. An American reporter once had a gang of menacing skinheads demand an honorarium in exchange for an interview.
Karen Breslau, a Newsweek reporter based in Bonn, was flabbergasted to get a letter demanding an honorarium from a government official charged with helping resettle Soviet Jews in Germany.
The official helpfully included his bank account number so she could transfer the funds directly. An angry exchange of letters ensued when Breslau refused to pay and challenged the official’s ethics.
Military Counseling Network director Andre Stoner said he is not about to “bust my butt” for a slick, sensationalist news organization that doesn’t pay his group an honorarium. But he says he’ll still cooperate for free with reporters whose publications he considers more credible.
Interviewees have even been known to resort to guerrilla tactics for their honorariums. When Washington Post correspondent Marc Fisher refused to pay a campaign volunteer for an impromptu 20-minute interview, the indignant man snatched the reporter’s notebook and demanded a ransom. “And this was a leftist!” recalled Fisher, who diverted the man’s attention, grabbed the notebook and ran.
While many people and organizations who initially request honorariums agree to free interviews when refused payment, none see it as an unethical practice.
“I don’t quite see the ethical problem,” said Dietrich Schwarzkopf, a television program director affiliated with the University of Munich’s journalism school.
“All the scandals and investigations you see reported in Spiegel or Stern are based on information which is paid for, and heavily paid for,” he said. “Of course, you can regret checkbook journalism is on the increase, but it seems unavoidable.”
The newsmagazines Spiegel and Stern declined to discuss their policies--or prices--regarding honorariums, but Stern did not stop paying for information even after being taken for the equivalent of $3.1 million in the 1983 Hitler diaries fraud.
And while Schwarzkopf acknowledges that “people have become more greedy recently,” exactly why remains uncertain. People from both the affluent western half of the country and the crumbling east seek cash for quotes.
One theory is overexposure. After being in the international limelight for a year following the fall of the Berlin Wall, “the man on the street simply may realize that what he has to say is regarded as important,” said Schwarzkopf.
Nor is the greed one-sided. Journalists are routinely offered four-digit discounts on new cars, first-class upgrades on the national railroad, and tax breaks--all considered aboveboard in Germany.
Private companies also send expensive gifts to reporters, ranging from bottles of fine wine to personal computers and even rubber boats courtesy of a tire company.