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ABC News, NBC News Snipe Over Paying Sources

NBC gloating over ABC's policy change prompts return fire

Casey Anthony at the Orange County Courthouse, July 7, 2011 in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images

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As ABC News moves away from checkbook journalism, its competitors are starting to gloat—and distance themselves from similar practices. “We were happy to hear about this change in ABC News policy," a spokesperson for NBC News told Adweek. “We agree that their recent activity has been bad for journalism and the news industry. And we welcome them back to the practices that we work hard to uphold.”

An ABC News insider, flabbergasted by the NBC comment, fired back saying, "NBC News lies about its practices, does not disclose the habitual payments it makes for interviews, and then has the gall to get up on a high horse. Someone ought to remind NBC News that the higher they get up on that horse, the farther they will fall as their rank and recurring hypocrisy is exposed."

ABC had come under fire amid recent revelations that it was habitually compensating its sources by way of large “licensing fees”—cash payments ostensibly for the use of proprietary photo and video material in its news segments. The network's news division paid Casey Anthony $200,000 for the use of photos in a story it ran in 2008 and promised $10,000 to the woman who claimed she regularly injected her child with Botox (though that cash offer was rescinded last May when the woman’s story began to unravel).

Like nearly every other television news operation, ABC has an explicit policy barring its news division from paying for interviews, but some in the industry have accused the network of skirting its own guidelines through the wide use of such fees.

But other outlets have compensated sources through licensing fees as well. For example, in May, Adweek reported that NBC News and CBS News, as well as ABC News and cable outlets like CNN and the National Geographic Channel, had all licensed photo or video material at one time or another from a British photographic and reporting agency called Barcroft Media, which in turn, frequently paid its story sources outright (and, in some cases, even helped concoct the stories it pitched to these American news outlets).

Sources at the other broadcast networks are now distancing themselves from those practices. “We use licensing fees for what they should be [used for]. They’re fair market value, and they’re in no way ever used to cloak a form of payment,” one ABC competitor told Adweek.

CBS declined to comment officially on ABC’s policy shift, but a source close to the network said “after the change in management [when Jeff Fager and David Rhodes were named chairman and president of CBS News, respectively, last February], CBS News moved away from paying licensing fees.” The source also pointed to a comment Fager made to The New York Times in June, in which he said “money is being asked for more and more of the time. . . . If you’re in the business of having to pay people to get a story, it can’t be worth it.”