BOB GARFIELD: One of the worst crimes a reporter can commit in pursuit of an exclusive is checkbook journalism. As stated in The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism, quote, “We do not pay for interviews or unpublished documents. To do so would create an incentive for sources to falsify material and would cast into doubt the genuineness of much that we publish.”
It seems so obvious, but in this month’s Columbia Journalism Review, journalist and NYU professor Robert Boynton argues that it isn't. When reporters spend months or years with a source, Boynton says, they may find themselves reconsidering this fundamental of journalism. ROBERT BOYNTON: Is it true that we really owe these people absolutely nothing? It seemed to me, and to many people I talked to, that that was not true, that there was some sense in which we owed the people we write about something and that something quite profound took place between the people we write about and ourselves. And I was wondering about the degree to which any kind of remuneration applied to that. BOB GARFIELD: Cite some examples of stories in which money was paid and an important story was the result. ROBERT BOYNTON: There’s a long history of examples where money traded hands. In 1912, The New York Times scooped the competition with an exclusive interview with the Titanic wireless operator by paying $1,000 for the story.
In the 1930s, the Hearst newspaper chain paid the legal bills of the defendant in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case in order to ensure scoops during the trial. And there have been many cases more recently in which money has factored in journalism. BOB GARFIELD: So how long has this actually been taboo? Since when is paying a source, you know, like wearing white before Memorial Day? ROBERT BOYNTON: I would guess that it probably originates from around the same time that the notion that mainstream journalism had to be objective, which would be at the turn of the century. But I think that the fact is that compensating the people we write about, whether through dinners or parties or - BOB GARFIELD: Or putting their name in the paper or flogging their point of view. ROBERT BOYNTON: There’s always some sort of a transaction that takes place in any act of journalism between a journalist and a subject, especially in a long-form piece that takes a long time to report. But we always, it seems, as a culture, as a journalistic culture, pull back when it comes to anything having to do with money.
And yet money, as we all know, is a very important reason for doing what we do, if not the only reason. And I've always just questioned that taboo on talking about money. BOB GARFIELD: One of the most bizarre examples of checkbook journalism was the case of Jeffrey MacDonald, the doctor who was tried for killing his family. Journalist Joe McGinniss was writing a book about the case, and he agreed to pay MacDonald for his cooperation with a portion of his royalties.
Now, MacDonald believed that McGinniss would depict him as innocent, but [LAUGHS] when the book, Fatal Vision, came out, he was portrayed as a killer. So MacDonald sued McGinniss, saying that the writer had agreed to maintain the integrity of MacDonald’s story. ROBERT BOYNTON: And that was the petard on which McGinniss was hoisted during the trial where MacDonald’s lawyer was able to make a very good case that, in fact, McGinniss knew that he believed MacDonald was guilty long, long before he ever told MacDonald that. BOB GARFIELD: Which created the idea of cross, double-cross, triple-cross. The case was also notable because it was written about in a famous New Yorker article about 15 years ago by Janet Malcolm, who concluded that, putting aside money, that all journalism [LAUGHS] is inherently dishonest because reporters always hide their motives and go to some lengths to mislead their sources about what they have in mind to begin with. ROBERT BOYNTON: I disagree with Janet Malcolm in that I believe that there are many forms of journalism that don't involve highly developed deceit and trickery. But I have to say I think that there is a way in which deceit is an important tool, one of many that journalists use in their articles.
What I thought she missed in that article was the fact that journalists are as open to being spun and bought as subjects are. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you invoked the Malcolm piece in your story. Are you suggesting in any way that money can [LAUGHS] actually purify the transaction? ROBERT BOYNTON: I don't think that money can purify the transaction. I do think that the reality of the situation is that there is some exchange, oftentimes a financial one, involved in many acts of journalism.
I think in general most of the arrangements that take place wouldn't really offend us if we knew about them, and I think disclosure would be one way to take care of that. BOB GARFIELD: Well, of course, there are many reasons why news organizations don't want any part of this kind of transaction. As The New York Times Ethics Policy says, it puts doubt as to the motives and therefore the veracity of the people being paid. There’s also the [LAUGHING] slippery slope argument.
For example, whenever a high-profile story breaks out in England, the slant of the story by any given paper is entirely determined by which principal in the story [LAUGHS] they've literally bought into. Is the slippery slope not something we should be afraid of descending? ROBERT BOYNTON: Absolutely. I would also argue, though, that journalists here, even though no money exchanges hands, for the most part, journalists here are also beholden to whichever source decides to talk to him or her, and that that kind of bias creeps into all sorts of articles, even without the taint of money. BOB GARFIELD: Rob, thank you very much. ROBERT BOYNTON: Oh, thank you very much. BOB GARFIELD: And, of course, [LAUGHS] the check’s in the mail. [BOYNTON LAUGHS]
Robert Boynton is the director of NYU’s Magazine Journalism program and the author of The New New Journalism, by Vintage Books.