By Bill Walsh
Posted Mar 24, 2010 @ 12:06 PM
Bedford, Mass. — One of the problems of the 24/7 health care bill coverage over the past few weeks is that it’s pushed other stories off the front page, and some of them ought to have seen the light of day. There was a significant development in the Caylee Anthony murder story, for example, and it merits our attention regardless of how health care turns out.
Caylee Anthony, you may recall, was the cute tot in Florida who disappeared and was later found murdered in 2008. Her mother, who had not reported little Caylee missing for over a month, was indicted for first-degree murder shortly thereafter and now sits in prison awaiting trial.
The new development in the case was that mom Casey Anthony appeared before a judge last week claiming that she was out of money and needed the public to start paying her defense costs. Where had she been getting the money she used from 2008-2010, the court asked? The shocking answer was ABC News.
It turns out that ABC News had paid Casey Anthony $200,000 (that’s nearly a quarter of a million dollars) while her daughter was still missing. According to both ABC network officials and Anthony’s defense attorney, the money was for “exclusive rights to reproduce family photographs and videotape of Caylee.”
Well, ABC certainly got their money’s worth. On Sept. 5, 2008, the day Casey Anthony was arrested for child neglect and endangerment (authorities hadn’t found Caylee’s body yet), the network did a special segment on “Good Morning America” featuring the photos, and broadcast a full-hour of them later that same day on “20/20.” Since that time, ABC has done at least 30 separate stories on the case.
“Never-Before-Seen Images of Casey Anthony and Missing Florida Toddler” said the promotional spots for ABC programming. And the ABC Web site gloated, “Intimate, never-before-seen pictures and home videos of the girl and her young mother offer a rare window into Caylee’s life.” What ABC kept secret, however, was the fact that they paid Caylee’s accused murderer hundreds of thousands of dollars for those pictures.
There are at least three things wrong with such behavior. The first is the maudlin, saccharine, overly-emotional and intimate nature of what ABC News first bought and then trotted out for public display. Pictures of a happy toddler and her mom are meant to arouse our sympathy or anger – appeal to our sense of the tragic – in order to boost ratings. I don’t know if more people watched ABC programs because they had “exclusive” and touching photos of little Caylee in happier times, but I’ll bet there were some. Broadcasting those images at all was a pretty sleazy thing to do.
Paying for them (and then keeping that fact a secret until years later) was another. I don’t know if it was criminal. I do know that it was unethical. ABC News violated at least six of the ethical guidelines for news reporting by paying for those pictures, and although other news organizations have done so from time to time, that doesn’t make it right.
In 1912, the New York Times got an exclusive interview with the telegraph operator of the Titanic – for $1,000. The Hearst newspaper company paid the legal fees for Bruno Richard Hauptmann (the accused kidnapper in the Lindberg baby case) so that they could get exclusive stories from inside the defense. Life magazine paid some of America’s first astronauts for their cooperation in stories during the space race of the 1960s.
More recently, CNN may have paid $10,000 to one of the passengers who helped stop a Nigerian man from blowing up a plane (again, technically not for his interview, but for his cell-phone photo). The list goes on. These days networks ostensibly pay people for the exclusive rights to their photographs of newsworthy events. They think it’s better or more ethical than paying them for their stories. To my mind, it’s a distinction without a difference. They’re really paying them for information and interviews, regardless of whether they claim it’s for the photographs.
“Don’t pay for news items,” is part of the professional journalists’ code of ethics, but it seems that many news organizations think they’ve found a way around that by buying “photographs.”
And to make matters worse, ABC not only paid for pictures they used in an inappropriate way, but the person they bought them from was the accused criminal herself. Yes, Casey Anthony is innocent until proven guilty, I know. But can you imagine what it would be like if news organizations paid accused murderers for their stories (or, ahem, “pictures” – of the victim, no less) in every case?
“The idyllic boyhood of John Wilkes Booth! What went wrong? An exclusive series of pictures on the Walsh News Network! See the assassin as no one has ever seen him before! Watch our exclusive jailhouse interview!”
Something is wrong here.
Buying news is a sleazy thing to do, regardless of how many news organizations do it.
And we, the public, ought to know about it when it occurs, because (justifiably) it colors not only that news story itself, but everything that network tells us from now on.
Ethics still matter – to many of us who watch the news, at least, if not to the people who report it.
Bill Walsh is a Billerica resident and regular contributor to the Billerica Minuteman. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Copyright 2010 Bedford Minuteman. Some rights reserved
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