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ABC Will Cover Casey Anthony Without Its Checkbook

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Life Is Good Again

The U.S. Treasury did not default. Gabby Giffords returned to Capitol Hill to cast her vote and rally her House colleagues of the importance of unity. And it looks like our grandchildren will be paying off our nation's debt. Good news breaking all around (at least for many of us who have been supporting adult children and have no problem learning they may one day have to do the same).

Ever an optimist, I am a great believer in our flawed institutions and the flawed people who run them. After all, during my lifetime I've seen the most radical reforms. Among my favorites: how Big Tobacco was brought to its knees and forced to pay $368 billion in health-related damages, plus tear down billboards and retire Joe Camel. That was right up there with the break up of the Bell Telephone monopoly and the fall of communism.

And in the realm of anything is possible, it now appears Ben Sherwood is saving ABC News -- if not its ratings, at least its integrity. Swimming fiercely against the current, the new ABC News boss has announced the end of the scandalous practice of writing large checks for competitive news interviews under the guise of "licensing fees" for photos or video. See? If you wait (or live) long enough, the things you care about the most will turn out okay.

The end of checkbook journalism in network news is certainly on my current top ten list of the most urgently needed reforms. It is little more than an invitation to lie, a corruption of free speech, which is the very foundation of democracy. If your story, ahem, "photo or video" is worth only a couple hundred dollars, what might you do or say to make it worth thousands more?

Just ask the "Botox Mom" who got caught lying, in a paid ABC interview, about injecting her 8-year-old daughter before kiddie pageants. When California child services swooped in and took custody of the little girl, "Botox Mom" admitted, "I made it all up for money."

She'd originally sold the story to a British tabloid for a couple hundred bucks, then negotiated a lot more from ABC News. But just before they put her $10,000 check in the mail, she was forced to admit it was all a lie.

That scandal, and fee, was dwarfed by the recent news, delivered under oath, that ABC News paid $200,000 to Casey Anthony's lawyers for her defense fund, er, "for Casey's home video of her with little daughter, Caylee," before she went on trial for the child's murder.

Now to be fair, that journalistic black eye happened under ABC News president, David Westin, who is no longer there but recently scoffed at the practice in an interview with the New York Times. He explained the downside not as a journalism ethics breach, but as a bad business choice.

The economic tradeoff rarely makes sense, Mr. Westin said, in a time of budget and staff cuts at network news divisions.

"If you could prove that by spending $20,000 you would make $70,000, O.K., I can justify that," Mr. Westin said. "But I'll be doggone if you could go through any of those payments, trace them through and see if it made any sense."

So, if it didn't make any doggone sense, why did he continually authorize the payments? I certainly hope those at ABC News who are left holding the bag, so to speak, are not held responsible for their boss' decisions, made of course with the oversight by the network's V.P. of Standards & Practices.

If there are any lessons to learn from the Rupert Murdoch scandal unfolding across the pond: the buck stops with the bosses. It now remains to be seen if the newly acquitted, albeit vilified, Casey Anthony will have a soft spot for ABC News after that $200,000 fee which certainly made a big difference shaping her destiny.

Still, "Botox Mom's" check-that-was-never-sent had been authorized by the new ABC boss. So was the perplexing paymentto the most memorable of Rep. Anthony Weiner's x-rated texting friends, Megan Broussard. After being on the receiving end of his famous "penis" photo, the 26-year-old single mom sold ABC News not more damning photos of the congressman, but a few sexy photos of herself that she had texted back to him -- for around $15,000. The wink-wink "licensing fee" for her photos and texts coincidentally came with a free exclusive interview for 20/20 anchor Chris Cuomo, who defended the practice at the time in an interview with CNN's Howie Kurtz on Reliable Sources:

It is my decision. I'm the anchor of 20/20. I could have said, 'Don't do it.' I don't because it is the state of play right now. I wish it were not. 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."

Well, now Cuomo's new boss has decided, rightfully so, that it's definitely going to be "someone else," not ABC News, who pays faux licensing fees. Bravo.

A Personal Disclosure

The recent New York Times story said ABC and NBC morning shows regularly end up in bidding wars for candid and exclusive interviews and, curiously, quoted an anonymous source who said he was afraid that commenting openly could jeopardize his job, "It's been like this for years, this hyper-competition."

As a producer at ABC News for seventeen years, I was involved in many routine licensing deals for real news photos and videos provided by people not involved in the given story.

I was I was executive producer of Good Morning America from January 1999 to mid-2004, Only once all my years at ABC did I negotiate a licensing fee to someone who also gave an interview (other than an occasional random tornado chaser).

During my tenure at GMA, we competed fiercely with the Today Show, but never with checkbooks. Back then, we'd try to steal each other's guests at the airport or their hotel lobbies. The biggest scandal was when Katie Couric's booker took a kidnapping victim shopping and bought her a new pair of jeans to wear on the air. (The booker got a brief suspension.)

When I paid for the above-mentioned video, neither the Today Show, nor any other show was in the mix. It was just days after the April 20, 1999 Columbine High School massacre when I first learned of a school video starring Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two seniors who killed themselves after their shooting rampage that ended the lives of 12 random classmates and one beloved teacher. The spree, backed up with bombs planted in the cafeteria, was a well-planned inexplicable act of violence that left 24 more injured and an entire nation traumatized.

2011-08-03-hitmenforhire7a.jpg

Their student video, titled Hitmen for Hire, was made four-and-a-half months before the massacre and appeared almost to be a dress rehearsal for the tragic events that would soon follow. Dressed in their now familiar long black goth trench coats, Harris and Klebold troll the halls of Columbine High School as hitmen for hire, offering their services to protect "the weak" from bullies. While a group worked on the project, it is Harris and Klebold who look into the camera and express intense anger and rage. The classroom assignment had been to come up with an idea for a new business.

Tipped off to the revealing class project by our reporters on the ground, there were no story brokers involved, no one who set out to profit off a tragedy or build a defense fund for a trial. It was quite the contrary. The father of the student who had possession of the video did not want his son or family involved with ABC News or any of the media for that matter.

I personally initiated the numerous conversations it took to convince the reluctant father to let ABC News license the video. In the end, we agreed a fee, the existence of which, not necessarily the $10,000 amount, would have to be disclosed to our viewers in the event we interviewed his son as well.

After the negotiation for the tape, and much further discussion, the dad and I agreed it was probably better to let his son grant an interview rather than risk having something leak, giving the appearance of a sneaky or underhanded transaction.

The boy was neither a friend or confidante of Harris or Klebold. He was just an accidental classmate. He had no one to protect, no story to change or color. Clearly, the video stood on its own as an important piece of evidence in the puzzle of why these students carried out their rampage.

The situation fit my personal litmus test for a licensing fee: if the seller doesn't grant an interview, would I still want to buy the photo or video anyway for ABC and would I be willing to offer the same amount. This video passed that test; if we didn't get permission to talk to the young classmate, we would have booked a criminal profiler to see what there was to learn.

As part of our continuing coverage of Columbine, we aired the video along with a live interview with the classmate. About a month later, Good Morning America broadcast a 2-hour town hall meeting with victims of all the school shootings, at the White House with President and Mrs. Clinton with Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson. For morning show viewers, Columbine was the biggest story of the year.

It was five years before the Jefferson Country Sheriff's Department released Harris and Klebold's Hitmen for Hire to the public, after which it became a big news story once again, on all networks. Five years after that, Dave Cullen included a detailed analysis of the video in his New York Times bestseller, Columbine.

Do I wish the video had been given to us? Of course. Do I think paying for it changed or influenced our reporting? Not one word. But the possibility that it might is the very reason to avoid the practice. Other than getting something on the air faster, there is little other benefit.

Convincing people to grant interviews for the sole purpose of setting the record straight has become more and more challenging over the years with the growing population of syndicated television shows like Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition and TMZ which routinely pay for interviews. But it is still the our mission. For 17 years, the following argument always seemed to work for me.

"If you want people to believe your story, and if you'd like to see your window into the story preserved in ABC News archives for future generations, then don't sell out."

This very simple strategy lead to an untold number of exclusive interviews on the most competitive stories of the day. A group of Menendez jurors, some whose homes were damaged in the Northridge earthquake during the trial, turned down cashier's checks to talk to ABC News.

After one long year of discussions, two members of the U.S. Marine Corps' elite silent drill team decided not to sell their incriminating video which showed egregious and dangerous hazing of the new inductees. Instead, they agreed to give it to ABC News to make a difference. They did. The result was a primetime news report which sparked the establishment of the first anti-hazing policy for Marines.

After much discussion, but no fees or financial consideration, another source provided me with sealed grand jury transcripts from the Michael Jackson child molestation case which was the first look at the strengths and weakness of the prosecutor's case. The list goes on.

In the end, the high cost of paying for interviews has nothing to do with the amount of the check. One can only hope that CBS and NBC follow ABC News as they begin to show the world you can put the toothpaste back in the tube.

This blog originally appeared in Shelley Ross' daily Xpress.