Pay for interviews? Yes, but tell us how much

March 16, 1994|By Walter Cronkite

AFTER the game-show scandals of the 1950s, the Federal Communications Commission sought to reassure the public that it was seeing honest programs, unsullied by under-the-table payoffs.

It started requiring that any consideration offered to contestants be disclosed on the air.

This is how "Transportation furnished by United Airlines," "Accommodations provided by the Hilton Hotels" -- that sort of thing -- became game-show staples. And there's been no hint of game-show scandal for years.

What could be more important than public confidence in the honesty of televised game shows?

Well, possibly the integrity of news programs.

But that's an integrity that is compromised when a subject is paid to tell his or her story.

The problem, of course, is the likelihood that such witnesses will invent the most salesworthy story. It is highly unlikely that the TV program that would use such material has the facilities or the will to dig very deeply in checking the witnesses' veracity.

By now the practice is so common, at least on the syndicated TV news magazines, that there is probably no turning back, as desirable as that might be.

But to enable us to judge the value of the subject's testimony, we do have the right to know whether he or she was paid, and if so how much: the higher the price, the greater the possibility of venality.

Why not require the broadcasters to state the amount that any interviewee is paid for performing?

It could be done quite simply, with the amount shown on the screen -- in what the industry calls a super -- when the interviewee first appears.

There are not many ways that the government can or should get involved in this essential matter.

Fortunately, the First Amendment protects the press and broadcasting from such meddling. But a large part of the cleanup of the quiz shows was accomplished not by the FCC's regulations but by the imposition of ethical considerations by the National Association of Broadcasters.

Besides the NAB, the Radio-Television News Directors Association, a vigilant watchdog of news broadcast ethics, should be heard from.

And since the problem originated with the tabloid (that is, sensational) press and is still widely practiced there, similar action could be taken by the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America.

Of course, there is no guarantee that tabloid-minded broadcasters and publishers would heed any such pronouncements on ethics. That is hardly their game.

But in the case of television, most stations that buy the magazine shows are members of the industry associations, and pressure from these groups could have an important impact.

A firm stand by peer groups would be likely to strengthen the hand of legitimate news organizations, notably the networks, in resisting this disturbing trend.

Walter Cronkite is the former CBS News anchor.

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