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Paying Journalistic Sources: Onto That Slippery Slope

<i> Suzanne Garment, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in America Politics" (Times Books)</i>

It finally happened. Recently, the New York Times quoted the National Enquirer as a source, thereby breaching in the clearest possible way the line that separates the Establishment press from the sleazy tabloid pay-your- sources variety. And the most interesting thing about this event is that most people couldn’t care less--because they long ago stopped thinking there was any moral difference between the two types of journalism.

What prompted the Times-Enquirer merger was, naturally, the O.J. Simpson trial. Prosecution and defense skirmished in court over whether Simpson’s statements to a clergyman were privileged, and therefore inadmissible as evidence--even if they had been shouted so loudly other people could hear them. An anonymous source told the Enquirer he had heard the words Simpson yelled into the non-privileged air. The Enquirer printed them.

The New York Times, newspaper of record, judged that the Enquirer story was itself news. The Times reported--and thus repeated--the quote.

This decision stirred up the endemic debate over whether journalists should pay for news. Over at the Associated Press, when editors tried to insert the Enquirer quote into a Simpson piece, the reporter threatened to pull her respected by-line from the story. Information from the Enquirer, which routinely pays its sources, simply could not be trusted.

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She was right. But outside journalism it would be hard to find many Americans who think the issue worth discussing. Being called unethical by a journalist, goes the logic of their indifference, is like being called ugly by a frog. The prevalence of this attitude can be laid in good part at the door of journalists themselves.

In this country’s early years, people knew their newspapers were partisan vehicles for publishers’ political agendas. But as the 19th Century ended, citizens demanded more direct access to public affairs; in this modern view, news media should report news--not shape it. Journalists, for their part, gradually increased their prestige by embracing the image of themselves as neutral professionals.

In the past 30 years or so, two related changes reshaped journalism. First, more journalists insisted that their craft makes room for their own insights and observations, political and otherwise. Second, many wanted to spend more time reporting the inside story of politics, not just the often-spurious public accounts.

Press mores accommodated these ideas. Readers began seeing, whether they knew it or not, more quotes altered just a bit to make them fit storytelling requirements. The reporter-as-artist was squeezing out the reporter-as-lowly-scribe.

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Making these alterations was less dangerous for journalists than it once had been because more of the sources in the news were now anonymous. This anonymity had other effects. The political people quoted in a news story, being nameless, seemed less important than the journalist who had written it. And by withholding sources’ names, journalists presented themselves as different from the average citizen: insiders, privy to who said what, and not about to share the knowledge with an unwashed reader. Thus journalists again put themselves front and center.

In another journalistic shift, the search for the inside story made the press more likely to violate ordinary notions of privacy. And as news media grew more powerful, it became less important for a journalist to behave scrupulously toward sources. Misleading and just plain lying to people he or she dealt with became easier to do with impunity.

Eventually the word “journalist” became widely associated with deceptive and morally callous practices. Resentment grew not only among political people but--as the size of juries’ libel awards shows--the public as a whole. Today, when folks are told that some self-proclaimed journalist has paid for a story, they are not shocked; they have already heard about Janet Cooke (the Washington Post reporter whose Pulitzer Prize was taken away after it was found that the story was false.)

So why, under these circumstances, should we care about maintaining the distinctions between the New York Times and National Enquirer, such as the one between paying sources for news and not paying them? Because if we are annoyed by journalists twisting and inserting themselves and their agendas into stories, we should realize that journalists gain even more power to shape the news when they hand out the dough.

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Even with current journalistic obstreperousness, today’s potential news sources have considerable control over what gets into the media. Journalists can cajole, charm, threaten and lie, but in the end, a potential source either talks or doesn’t talk. Political sources naturally use this power to pursue their own goals, yet at least the agendas being promoted belong to real political or social actors, not just journalists.

But when journalists hand out money, they create new incentives. They target an individual who, left to himself or herself, would not choose to be a source. By making an irresistible offer, they transform this person’s motives and make a source out of him. The journalists decide which people in the vicinity of a news story should be turned around in this way. They became creators of the story to a degree that even the most skillfully manipulative conventional modern journalists almost never attain.

Then, there is the problem of actual lying: Money, if offered to someone who needs it, provides a powerful incentive to make things up. True, news sources can be corrupted by other motives: achieving power, advancing an ideology, ruining an opponent. But introducing the more broadly attractive lure of money into the process means that now the many ordinary people, not just the few politically motivated ones, will have the opportunity to be corrupted and, in turn, to corrupt the news still further.

So the question of paying for news matters. But if journalists want people to understand why the press should not pay for news, reporters and editors might also try to refrain from making themselves, their politics, their attitudes and their connections the controlling factors in their stories. We don’t want journalists paying for stories because we don’t want them to have so much power over the news; the same logic should recommend other types of self-restraint as well.*

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