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Checkbook Journalism Revisited

Columbia Journalism Review, Jan/Feb 2008

IN NOVEMBER 1970, ESQUIRE PUBLISHED ONE OF THE MOST MEMORABLE COVERS in its history. Illustrating “The Confessions of Lt. Galley,” 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 Galley, in uniform and grinning broadly, surrounded by four adorable Asian children.

Perhaps one reason for Galley’s smile was that Esquire 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 Esquire paid the subject of a story: in 1963, the magazine had given Muhammad AIi (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 Esquire 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 always 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 Times does not pay sources for information,” says the Los Angeles Times Ethics Guidelines.

The standard argument against checkbook journalism is that paying for information creates an additional incentive for subjects to lie or embellish the truth. And even if a subject tells the truth, the fact that he’s been paid undermines the journalist’s position as a disinterested observer.

While I agree with this argument, I wonder whether it is equally true in every instance. It is obviously a bad idea for a daily reporter to go around handing out twenty-dollar bills to everyone he interviews. But what about the journalist who spends months, perhaps years, trailing his subjects? Do the daily reporter’s ethical constraints apply when one is interviewing a character dozens of times over a long period, often depriving him of every shred of privacy? Does such a journalist-especially one working for highly remunerative magazines, whose books become best-sellers and perhaps even movies-really owe his subjects nothing? Is the difference between the rules guiding the daily reporter and the long-form writer one of degree or of kind?

IN THE OPENING LINES OF THE JOURnalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm labels journalism “morally indefensible” because of the unsavory means reporters use to convince people to cooperate. She’s right, as far as it goes, but she’s mistaken in her assumption that the benefits of journalism flow only toward the journalist. I’d argue that some form of mutual exchange is inherent in every substantial reporting project.

After all, people have an infinite number of motivations for talking to journalists. Some cooperate to publicize their message or movie; others want fame, possibly riches; still others desire revenge. And, of course, journalists share these motivations to one degree or another. How could they not? Are the desires of the people we write about really so different from ours? Regardless of the “currency”-whether emotional, ideological, or financial-journalism always involves a transaction of some kind.

Among the reasons journalists write, of course, is for the money. Having freelanced for a decade, I am as attuned as anyone to the role money plays in the life of a magazine writer. During that time, I was never in a position to pay anyone for cooperating, nor were most of the subjects of my pieces in need of compensation. So while I never discovered whether money would influence them, I became an expert on the influence money had on me. Put simply, I love writing for money. Being paid is one of the things that distinguishes journalism from scholarship. It makes me feel, rightly or wrongly, that my work has more “purchase” on the world.

I thought a lot about the relationship between money and writing while doing the research for my book, The New New Journalism (2005). The goal was to look at the state of long-form nonfiction by discussing craft with some of its finest practitioners. I was lucky to find some extremely forthcoming interlocutors, and just about the only time the conversation faltered was when the topic turned to money, due in part to my own uneasiness with the subject. After some version of the “I never pay for information” boilerplate, we’d move on. But those who didn’t shirk from discussing money had some intriguing suggestions.

In the epilogue to his book There Are No Children Here, Alex Kotlowitz explains that the poor, African-American family he wrote about agreed to cooperate with him without any promise of payment. A former Wall Street Journal reporter, Kotlowitz was a firm believer that the journalist must keep his distance. But the intensity of this reporting project tested those beliefs. “I spent two years with this family, and everything I imagined about a subjectreporter relationship went out the window,” he tells me. Kotlowitz would occasionally buy clothes for the two boys who were the focus of the book, or food for the household. “How could I not?” he says. Toward the end of his reporting, he began to think how he might assist the boys in a more long-term way. After completing the book, he used a percentage of the royalties to set up a trust fund. “I know there are some people who will say that I became too involved with the family, that I broke my pact as a journalist to remain detached and objective,” he writes.

Jon Krakauer, the author of the bestsellers Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, argues that there are occasions when a writer’s subjects “deserve to be compensated for their contributions.” For instance, while reporting Under the Banner of Heaven, he paid $20,000 for the rights to a woman’s memoir, though she had already provided him all the valuable information it contained. He recognized that he had benefited from the exchange, and wanted to help her in a way that wouldn’t undermine the project’s integrity. “She was dirt poor, and struggling to overcome some serious problems,” he explains.

When Jonathan Harr, the author of the best-selling A Civil Action, wanted to write about an archaeological dig on the Turkish-Syrian border, the project’s organizer requested a share of the revenue to help fund the dig itself. Harr felt it was a legitimate request and came up with a contract that specified that the archaeologists would profit from any movie that resulted from Harr’s work, although not from the book or article itself. The deal was never completed because Harr ultimately decided it was too unwieldy.

As these writers attest, the question of what, whether, and when a journalist owes a source is never going to be obvious or straightforward. It is a discussion that takes place at the extremes of journalism, where the extraordinary duration and depth of the reporting put the writer-subject relationship on a different plane.

And for every Kotlowitz, Krakauer, and Harr, there is a Joe McGinnis, the best-selling author whose contractual relationship with Jeffrey MacDonald blew up in his face. In order to write Fatal Vision, an insider’s account of MacDonald’s 1983 murder trial, McGinnis agreed to share the proceeds of his book, going so far as to join the defense team. When McGinnis concluded that MacDonald was guilty after all, MacDonald sued him for fraud and breach of contract. That trial ended in a hung jury and McGinnis agreed to a substantial out-ofcourt payment to avoid a retrial.

More recently the ethics of former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald’s 2005 investigation of online child pornography were questioned when it emerged that he had sent the boy who ended up as the central character in the piece a $2,000 check and several smaller amounts via PayPal. Eichenwald insists that he sent the money out of concern for the boy’s safety, and only later decided to write about him. His critics have suggested he blurred the line between concerned citizen and objective journalist. Whatever the truth of the matter, Eichenwald’s situation illustrates the complications that arise when one introduces money into the journalist-source equation, even if the person in question is not yet a source and the journalist’s intentions are noble.

One way to alleviate the ethical dilemma that comes from compensating a subject might be to publish more work under dual bylines-a practice frowned on by most serious magazines. Serious books often carry the names of two authors without slipping into the “as told to” gray zone of celebrity memoir. Although Sack’s article about lieutenant Galley didn’t start off this way, it ended up credited as “by First lieutenant William L. Galley Jr., interviewed by John Sack.” I don’t think the joint byline hurt either Esquire or Sack’s reputation (even though the controversial content of the article cost the magazine $200,000 in advertising). Another possibility is to pay the subject after the fact, although this makes the act of giving less one of compensation than of charity. Again, disclosure is the key to any such arrangement.

My point is not that journalists should routinely compensate their sources. In the vast majority of cases, they shouldn’t As professional skeptics, though, we should be suspicious of the knee-jerk way in which journalists invoke the “no money for information” rule. How convenient that our personal gain and our profession’s ethical principles are so perfectly aligned! Isn’t it possible that this prohibition is simultaneously true and a way of banishing awkward questions of money and exchange from our moral calculations? In the murky intimacy that comes with immersion reporting, we owe our sources everything. Perhaps this is why we try so hard to avoid the topic.