Sure, we pay for news. We have to!

March 01, 1994|By Bill O'Reilly

OUT of the hysteria surrounding the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan affair has come another story, more important but no less hysterical.

That story is "checkbook journalism": the practice of paying for news interviews.

This is not a new story, but now it is out of the news closet.

Syndicated television magazines do, on occasion, pay for information. Many despise this; I am not thrilled about it myself.

But the competition for ratings and stories is now so intense that "Inside Edition" must pay for some big scoops to survive.

If we didn't pay, we'd be off the air. Simple as that.

As a journalist, I have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on paying for interviews. The parent company of "Inside Edition," King World, usually makes the deals.

I don't ask about the figures and the company doesn't tell me. So I don't know what King World has paid Ms. Harding for our series of interviews with her, though the executive producer assures me that the $600,000 some publications are reporting without attribution is inaccurate.

Some people seem to think that newsmakers who are paid may not speak truthfully. This is a legitimate concern.

But people lie to the media all the time, paid or not, and responsible reporters expose deceit.

Research tells us that readers and viewers want information, regardless of whether someone is paying for it.

The Harding story is mesmerizing millions. Who is this woman? Why did she associate with such dubious characters? What is her degree of guilt?

All these questions have been explored on "Inside Edition." And many in the media hate that. They want the Harding story and can't get it directly from her because "Inside Edition" has exclusive rights in some areas.

Some say that's wrong, but why should independent syndicated TV magazines allow their network competitors to dominate coverage?

When "Inside Edition" began five years ago, there were two network magazines: "60 Minutes" and "20/20." Now there are about a dozen.

The network magazines can offer any celebrity or newsmaker huge exposure, a famous host like Dan Rather or Barbara Walters and a publicity blitz.

Sometimes the only way we can compete is to offer payment.

Network news people say they never pay for stories. But the networks' entertainment divisions may make deals with

newsmakers and, soon after, some of these same newsmakers may pop up on network newscasts.

The ethics of paying for stories can be debated until Amy Fisher gets out of prison, but the practice is here to stay.

Big money has changed the news and information industry just as it's changed professional sports.

Few journalists like it, but there's nothing we can do about it.

Bill O'Reilly is anchor of "Inside Edition."

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