You have see it everywhere -- everywhere on NBC's air, that is. A stunning midair collision of a plane with another plane over Wisconsin, as sky divers were jumping... Would they all die in the inferno? Would the plane incinerate them...? The outcome as you know was a happy one: A very happy one certainly for the sky divers who got $100,000 for the footage.
So: Good, bad, terrible, or the beginning of the end for American television journalism, or at least for NBC News? The network has, in fact, been fairly -- or slightly -- upfront about the transaction, calling the footage "licensed," leaving viewers to guess what "licensed" actually means. It means simply that the network paid for it. Period.
But besides the footage, what else did it get? A Washington Post story -- which also noted that NBC had paid for access to Hannah Anderson, the San Diego teen kidnapped by a "family friend," and which also got blanket coverage on the network -- says it got interview rights, too.
Deborah Turness, former news chief for Britain's ITV, is the new president of NBC News, and the charge before her now stands: Is she bringing the louche standards of Fleet Street to the hallowed halls of U.S. network news?
NBC is declining comment on the footage and referred to a comment that appeared in The Washington Post story: NBC News is proud to have this remarkable footage of human survival for use across all of our platforms and broadcasts, including an hourlong ‘Dateline’ special. Our licensing of this footage is standard industry practice and is the result of a very competitive process with other major broadcast outlets.
The process of buying footage is known as checkbook journalism and to call it "prevalent" in U.S. television circles would probably be an overstatement, but not an egregious one. For example, networks buy footage from freelance journalists all the time, which is an innocent form of "checkbook journalism." They also compete -- occasionally -- for broadcast rights to sensational footage, as the sky diving accident indisputably was.
But the so-called "slippery slope" gets particularity greased when other elements are thrown into he package -- diary notes, exclusive rights to interviews, and so on. The problem with the latter is that the assumption then becomes that the sources might alter their story, especially to make it more sensational, or lurid, or creative.
There has long been the speculation -- or rather the charge -- that the networks will buy lousy footage simply as a cover to get the interview rights, which can then become the basis for a docudrama or cheesy TV movie. (By which point, the initial information has become so bastardized as to be unrecognizable, and certainly not anything even remotely resembling "news" or "fact.")
Nevertheless, exclusive interviews are often considered the most valuable commodity. Did NBC -- which plans to make a docu-movie on Hannah Anderson via its Peacock Productions subsidiary -- pay for the Anderson interviews? The network insists no. We'll have to take its word on that.
Did it pay for the sky diver interviews -- which will form the basis for a future "Dateline" special? My understanding is that it did not, although The Washington Post spoke to one of the sky divers who said the interviews were part of the deal, for the forthcoming "Dateline" special.
Bill Wheatley, former executive vice president of NBC News and a highly regarded commentator on TV journalism ethics, explains that the networks have in fact used the purchase of footage as a pretext to buy the interview, pointing to Anderson: "My biggest issue is that they are not leveling on this. News organizations are supposed to seek truth and in these cases, they've obfuscated it. [Buying interviews] sort of runs the risk that people will exaggerate their story and demand a higher price. And as a business matter, it doesn't make a lot of sense if everyone is charging you for their story. I wish the networks wouldn't buy interviews and if they're going to do it, go ahead and admit it. You're playing with your credibility and that's your most important asset."
So to recap: Checkbook journalism does take place in network TV news -- though the incidence is hard to pin down.
How long has it gone on for? Many years.
Is it ethically questionable? Absolutely, particularly when interviews are secured, but the networks long ago learned how to disguise that as well.
Case in point, or at least one that comes immediately to mind: ABC News and "20/20" did NOT pay for the Monica Lewinsky interview back in 1999 -- which under Barbara Walters' direction, would become one of the most viewed news interviews in history.
But according to a number of reports at the time -- notably in the New Yorker -- it did pay for her legal expenses. Or to quote The Washington Post story on the transaction way back then: ABC paid $25,000 to Washington attorney Theodore Olson after Olson -- who was hired by Lewinsky's book agent and adviser -- helped persuade Starr's deputies to allow Lewinsky to go on the air with ABC's Barbara Walters.
As you can see, the slope isn't just slippery -- it's a veritable ski jump.