Cheater’s Remorse: ABC News Gets Ethical Without Knowing What “Ethical” Means

"Right now, cheating doesn't pay, so we're committed to ethics."

If you think ABC News is going to get any credit here for officially (sort of) banning the practice of paying so-called “licensing fees” to get exclusive interviews, I’m going to disappoint you. For there is nothing admirable about….

1….. engaging in the discredited practice of paying big money to central figures in news stories in order to gain access to them, and

2….disguising the practice by technically paying them inflated fees for the rights to photographs, even though the real reason for the pay-off is #1 above, then…

3….rejecting the practice when it leads to questions about how the network got an interview when it didn’t pay “licensing fees,” but…

4…noting that it might still go back to the unethical practice “perhaps once every couple of years,” since…

5….the other networks do it.

Yuck, pooie, ichhhh, petah!  ABC’s decision, outlined in a report by media watchdog Howard Kurtz, tells you everything you need to know about the state of ethics in broadcast journalism in general and ABC in particular, and I have seen prettier sights floating in an unflushed toilet bowl.

Kurtz reports that the ABC news division president, Ben Sherwood, has effectively taken ABC out of  the unethical network bidding war for hot interviews. Why? Well, first of all, the network was caught red-handed when it became known that it paid 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.  When the woman who accused the former head of the IMF of raping her recently went on “Good Morning America” for a sensational interview, ABC was, reasonably enough, suspected of paying her too. This hurt ABC’s pride, apparently. ABC spokesperson Jeffrey Schneider confirmed the new policy to Kurtz, 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.”

Ah. ABC isn’t cheating any more now, because it feels it doesn’t have to cheat. Got it. And when it feels it does “have to cheat” at some point in the future? Guess what it will do then! This is the advantage of having no ethical standards whatsoever. Sure enough, Kurtz was told that any future return to the unethical practice “would require approval at the highest levels.” This ethical standard, in other words, is exactly like the Goldman Sachs Code of Ethics—-a fraud. If an internal ethics standard can be waived by an organization, it isn’t a standard at all. It is subterfuge.

“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.”  Unless the suits at ABC decide at some future date that a particular interview is worth the credibility of ABC News—after all, it really isn’t worth much—and then Schneider’s statement will be meaningless and, as they used to say during Watergate “non-operational.”

Why is ABC changing its policy of paying fake “licensing fees” to get exclusive interviews?

PR value? Check.

Because they got caught? Check.

Because they don’t need to do it? Check.

Because it wasn’t worth it on a cost-benefit basis? Check.

Because they can go back to doing it any time it is deemed profitable? Double Check.

Because it is  unethical journalism?

I said, “Because it is an unethical journalism?”  Hello? ABC? Anything you want to say about this practice being wrong, which would, of course, mean that you couldn’t just change your mind and start doing it again when you thought it was worth it? ABC? Are you there? I said, “Are you there?” Is there anybody who cares about ethics at ABC?

Not by the evidence of this story, there isn’t.

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