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The price of paying for news

The continuing scandal over Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unconventionally intimate relationship with tabloid publisher American Media Inc. is rife with unsavory personal and political implications. But it’s also an absolutely crystalline example of the evils inherent in pay-to-play journalism.

The latest installment even contains an element of blowback, in that the machinations involved appear to have made relevant what the serious news media might otherwise have been inclined to treat as an irrelevant incident of consensual sex from the governor’s past.

As Ann Louise Bardach in Los Angeles Magazine and The Times previously have reported, when Schwarzenegger launched his campaign for office, he secretly struck a bargain with American Media, which publishes, among other things, the National Enquirer and a variety of muscle and fitness magazines. The company reportedly agreed to suppress any salacious material it might normally have been expected to publish about Schwarzenegger, and the actor-turned-candidate agreed to work for the publisher -- for a price. (Pay close attention, because everybody and everything in this squalid little drama appears to be for sale.)

During the course of the subsequent recall campaign, American Media not only made good on its part of the deal but also published a glowing 120-page magazine tribute to Schwarzenegger and his accomplishments. As The Times and Sacramento Bee also have reported, two days before he took the oath of office, the governor agreed to become executive editor of the publisher’s Flex and Muscle & Fitness magazines. Schwarzenegger was to receive $8 million for his efforts, and American Media presumably would capitalize on the relationship with readers and advertisers. After the details of the arrangement were published, the governor terminated the agreement, though he continues to write a column for the two magazines.

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So far, so cozy.

Friday, however, The Times’ Peter Nicholas and Carla Hall reported that just two days after Schwarzenegger announced his decision to enter the gubernatorial race, American Media signed a Malibu woman named Gigi Goyette to a confidentiality agreement concerning an alleged seven-year affair she had with the actor. According to the now-46-year-old single mother and her attorney, she thought she would receive $20,000 by remaining silent “in perpetuity” with anyone except American Media and that the company would publish a book on her life. Goyette’s friend, Judy Mora -- who knew of the alleged liaison -- told The Times she entered into a similar arrangement with American Media in return for a $1,000 payment, which she says was delivered as cash in an envelope. If the words “hush money” spring suddenly to mind, it may because no book ever was produced nor did National Enquirer ever publish the “exclusive” account it had purchased from Goyette and Mora.

Now why would they do that?

It seems tedious after all this time to once again have to make the case against paying sources for information. But, the fact of the matter is that a practice once confined to the lower depths of the tabloid cesspool has gradually been infiltrating parts of the mainstream news media. Various television magazine and news shows recently have begun flirting with payments or so-called “in-kind arrangements” -- such as book deals and promotion -- in return for access to sources. In other words, exactly what the Enquirer did in this case.

Partly this is because the competition for “gets” among the personality-driven broadcast and cable news shows has become increasingly bitter and intense; partly, and more important, it’s because an ever-growing segment of the media has succumbed to the tabloid mentality. Moreover, in a society in which life is treated with growing frequency as something to be sold rather than lived, where every biographical detail -- no matter how private or intimate -- is commoditized, more and more sources are demanding money for information.

Buying news is fraught with evils. Purchased information cannot be completely trusted because the source has a financial incentive to fabricate and embellish. In the pay-for-play environment, venality joins all the normal human vices that stand between journalism and the truth. Trading exclusivity for cash frustrates the normal competition among news organizations, and that process advances public understanding and acts as factual check on the veracity and fairness of the original report. And, as the Schwarzenegger/Goyette affair now seems to indicate, when you buy news you also obtain the right to suppress and manipulate it -- so long as the seller doesn’t rat you out.

It’s one thing when what’s involved is the career or reputation of some sort of Hollywood personality. It’s another when it’s the governance of the nation’s largest state. The fact is it shouldn’t be allowed to happen in either venue.

Moreover, in this case, whether Goyette’s and Mora’s silence was obtained with Schwarzenegger’s connivance or by confederates eager to secure his good will, the result has been precisely the opposite of what was intended. Whether or not Arnold Schwarzenegger the actor had an extramarital affair is of relevance only to Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver. Clearly, there would have been stories about it during the campaign, but the majority of serious journalists and commentators probably would have passed on it as immaterial to his qualifications for governor. Like Bill Clinton, who turned his relationship with Monica Lewinsky into a national political crisis because he was deceitful about it, Schwarzenegger may have done something similar by enlisting American Media as his behind-the-scenes agent. Schwarzenegger may have elevated what might arguably have been regarded as a private manner into a crisis of character.

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It’s beginning to appear that if Arnold does have a progenitor in Republican politics, it’s not Ronald Reagan, but Warren Harding. (“See what the boys in the back room will have.”)

Nothing about any of this will be unfamiliar to anyone acquainted with the way Hollywood does business, but in that context this whole sorry affair may do more than remind us of the malevolence of tabloid journalism. When he ran for office, Schwarzenegger’s campaign was widely heralded for successfully applying the Hollywood style of press relations to dealing with the political press. Access was limited, events were carefully staged and all potentially difficult questions were avoided.

Back-room, under-the-counter deals of the sort Schwarzenegger struck with American Media also are part of that strategy and, if this affair ultimately discredits it, so much the better for the press and its ability to serve the public’s interest.


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