Checkbook Journalism Revisited
Sometimes we owe our sources everything
In November 1970,
published one of the most memorable covers in its history.
Illustrating “The Confessions of Lt. Calley,” the first of three articles about the man who, with
his platoon, murdered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai, it
consisted of a photograph of Calley, in uniform and grinning broadly, surrounded by four
adorable Asian children.
Perhaps one reason for Calley’s smile was that
had paid him $20,000 (the equivalent
of over $100,000 today) to work with veteran journalist John Sack, who received $10,000 for
writing the articles. This wasn’t the only instance in which
paid the subject of a story:
in 1963, the magazine had given Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) $150 ($1,000 today) to
cooperate with a young journalist named Tom Wolfe for his article, “The Marvelous Mouth,”
which it published in its October issue.
That these two instances of “checkbook journalism” took place during the period when the
legendary Harold Hayes edited
makes me wonder: Can journalistic greatness coexist
with a practice usually associated with celebrity magazines and tabloid television?
In the wake of the James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair scandals, journalists and
journalism educators have become obsessed with the profession’s ethics. While it is
undoubtedly good that the profession is more self-conscious about its values, I worry that we
sometimes emphasize it to a fault.
In particular, I fear my students are less concerned with getting great stories than maintaining
their journalistic virtue. When I once advised a student that he didn’t owe his cantankerous
profile subject complete candor, he was aghast. “But Professor X told us that we must
be completely honest with our subjects,” he protested. Cast in the role of ethical cretin, I tried,
without much success, to explain that while deception wasn’t one of Kant’s universal ethical
principles, it played an important role in journalism.
After the prohibitions against fabrication and plagiarism, there is no principle about which the
ethics police are more absolutist than the one prohibiting any kind of exchange between a
writer and the subject of his story. There is a sense that the time and energy a reporter puts
into writing an article about someone is “payment” enough. A journalist who pays, or is paid
by, a subject, the argument goes, compromises his objectivity and credibility. The mainstream
media don’t leave room for ambiguity. Reporters “may not pay for interviews or unpublished
documents,” reads the
New York Times
ethics handbook (September 2004). “The
not pay sources for information,” says the
Los Angeles Times
The standard argument against checkbook journalism is that paying for information creates