ABC Bans Paying News Subjects

After the embarrassment of giving Casey Anthony a huge payday, the network is effectively ending the practice. Howard Kurtz on why ABC is breaking from the pack.

07.25.11 7:04 PM ET

ABC News has quietly decided to get out of the business of paying news subjects in connection with exclusive interviews.

With no public announcement or fanfare, the news division’s president, Ben Sherwood, has effectively taken ABC out of what had become a competitive bidding war for hot bookings.

After taking a public-relations hit in several high-profile cases, ABC will no longer be buying photos or video as a way of getting a news subject to cooperate—a process that had become a fig leaf for purchasing interviews.

When asked for comment, spokesman Jeffrey Schneider confirmed the new policy, saying: “We can book just about anyone based on the strength of our journalism, the excellence of our anchors, correspondents, and producers, and the size of our audience. These licensing deals had become a crutch, and an unnecessary one.”

The new approach is not an absolute ban, but network sources say it would take an extraordinary circumstance to allow a licensing fee—perhaps once every couple of years—that would require approval at the highest levels.

ABC got a black eye after paying Casey Anthony $200,000 for photos in 2008, shortly before she was charged in the killing of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. The network’s payment did not become public until a court proceeding last year. Anthony was recently acquitted of murder in a controversial verdict.

The network was also embarrassed when it agreed to pay $10,000 to a woman who claimed she had injected her 8-year-old daughter with Botox. After appearing on Good Morning America, the woman acknowledged that she had used a fake name and the whole thing had been a hoax. ABC withheld the promised payment.

The practice surfaced yet again when ABC paid Meagan Broussard, one of the women who had been texting with then-congressman Anthony Weiner, $10,000 to $15,000 for photos she had sent the New York Democrat.

“That’s one of the things we have to deal with in the business,” 20/20 anchor Chris Cuomo, who conducted the interview, told me afterward. “I wish money was not in the game, but you know it’s going to go somewhere else. You know someone else is going to pay for the same things.”

When Sherwood took over the news division in December, he began a broad review that included the licensing issue. What he found was that such payments could be approved at a relatively low level with little oversight, saddling the network with the fallout.

Network staffers say Sherwood concluded that the cash-register approach to journalism was starting to tarnish the network’s credibility, even though the practice was relatively infrequent. Whenever ABC landed a high-level booking, questions were raised about whether money had changed hands. It happened again when ABC’s Robin Roberts interviewed the hotel maid in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, a segment that aired on GMA Monday after the maid broke her silence with Newsweek on Sunday. But the network did not pay a dime for the sit-down with Nafissatou Diallo.

ABC’s unilateral disarmament could prompt the other networks to drop out of the pay-to-play arms race as well. Or they could continue to pay big bucks for licensing fees with one less competitor to worry about.

“Will we lose a booking here and there? Sure,” said Schneider. “Are those lost bookings equal to the credibility of ABC News? Not in any way, shape, or form.”