Checkbook journalism is hot.
Last week word got out that NBC chartered a plane to bring David Goldman and his son back from Brazil in an apparent exchange for an interview on Today.Andy Schotz, chairman of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), issued a statement blasting NBC. “Paying for access taints the credibility and neutrality of what you are doing,” Schotz said. “There is now a motive for people to be helping you, to be telling you what you want to hear.”
Then CNN and ABC took heat for paying for photos from Jasper Schuringa, a guy who claimed to have been a hero in the underwear bomber episode. Schuringa happened to give his first interviews to the folks who bought his photos. “It’s unconscionable to think about a bidding war for sources on important—or unimportant—news stories,” railed Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the Radio, Television and Digital News Association (RTDNA). Woelful called the practice of paying for sources “a ticket on a one-way flight to ruin for our profession.”
Yet for all the recent stink, the practice of paying for sources has been going on in this market for decades, as sportscasters vie for access to the Washington Redskins. George Michael, the beloved former WRC sportscaster and undisputed king of pay-to-play broadcasting, died just as the ethics debate raged nationally.
Michael’s amazing run atop the D.C. sportscasting scene was fueled by checkbook journalism. He started paying Redskins players and coaches to get access shortly after arriving in town in 1980, and after Dan Snyder bought the Redskins, Michael and WRC even began taking money from the team to get Snyder’s message out via various sources, including Snyder-produced infomercials.
Neither Michael nor WRC ever disclosed to viewers that they had financial arrangements with the interview subjects. And Michael never apologized for his behavior—and almost nobody ever asked him to. In a 1992 article in the Washington Post that went over the various deals WRC had to pay Redskins players and coaches for interviews, including then quarterback Mark Rypien and head coach Joe Gibbs, Michael rationalized the exchange of money. “That news segment is sponsored and sold. We promote the segment,” Michael told Len Shapiro. “The fact is, a player deserves to be compensated if you use his name to sell it.” (Full disclosure: I freelance music reviews for the Washington Post.)
Michael also pointed out to Shapiro that he didn’t invent the paid interview. That’s true.
The term “checkbook journalism” took hold in the 1970s, when news organizations began compensating mostly bad guys to get them to talk. David Frost paid Richard Nixon to sit down. Nixon went to Frost after CBS turned down the disgraced president’s offer to play for pay. And in 1978, ABC gave Chuck Colson $10,000 to spill the beans on Watergate co-conspirator H.R. Haldeman. Then Bernard Welch, a prolific D.C. cat burglar who murdered socialite Dr. Michael Halberstam during a robbery, took money from Life to tell how he stole rich people’s things. (D.C. stores refused to sell the Welch issue of Life.)
When Snyder took over the Redskins in 1999, he expanded the relationship the team had with Michael, who was far and away the most important sports broadcaster in town at the time.
By 2000, Snyder had divided local broadcast journalists into two groups: those who would play ball with him and those who wouldn’t. TV stations that didn’t become “media partners” with the Redskins, meaning those that didn’t agree to pay or barter with the team, could no longer use the name “Redskins” in program titles. Michael and WRC became the leader in the partnership scheme, taking over the broadcasts of preseason games. Historically, the broadcasts were farmed out to D.C. stations, but Snyder created the Redskins Broadcast Network, which had him owning all Redskins programming. WRC also began airing Redskins infomercials on weekends, using Michael and other employees of WRC’s news departments.
Just because it’s sports, and because other folks are doing it, doesn’t make it right, says Schotz, SPJ’s ethics watchdog.
“Maybe it’s commonplace or seen as more acceptable by some people,” says Schotz, “but this should be a cardinal sin in journalism. These days we don’t think as much as we should about disclosure. If there’s nothing wrong with what you’re doing, then let your viewers know about [potential conflicts of interest]. If you don’t want to let your viewers know, that should tell you something about it. If you are a legitimate news organization, you have to disclose these arrangements. Otherwise, it’s just deceitful.”
There were victims in the schemes Michael and Snyder worked out, too. Only one network affiliate didn’t follow Michael’s lead and become a “media partner” with Snyder: WJLA-7.
Snyder punished the station for not going along with the system he’d set up. Beginning with newscasts in the 2000 training camp, while Michael and sportscasters from WTTG and WUSA were allowed to broadcast their live shots from inside Redskins Park, WJLA folks were banished from the team’s headquarters.
“We spent the season shooting in the Redskins Park parking lot,” recalls former WJLA sportscaster Rene Knott. “Those were the days.”
Knott, who left WJLA in 2004 and is now a sports broadcaster in St. Louis, says Snyder’s actions were an attempt to send a chill to area journalists, but he doesn’t think the setup paid off for the Redskins owner, at least in public relations terms.
“I know what Dan Snyder did soured me on him,” Knott says. “Here he was a young guy, comes in and seems good with the media, and then he does [the media partnership program], and suddenly there’s all this distance between us and the team. But we set up outside in the parking lot and kept rolling, because the Redskins are the team you’ve got to cover, so you don’t want to be that far on the outside. As much as you want to send a message, you also don’t want to be the guy not covering the team.”
Knott admits that he was occasionally jealous of the access Michael had to the Redskins, but says that he was always a huge admirer of Michael and didn’t hold the sportscaster’s relationship with Snyder and work with the Redskins Broadcast Network against him.
“I don’t know if George held his tongue or changed what he said about the Redskins because of his arrangement,” Knott said.
But there were times Michael’s moonlighting gig seemed to impact his reporting. In 2005, Snyder launched a bizarre and still mystifying campaign against star linebacker LaVar Arrington. Arrington had just come out of a nasty contract negotiation with the Redskins, after which he accused Snyder of dishonesty and fraud. Among local broadcasters, Michael served as the lead attack dog in Snyder’s anti-Arrington campaign. Arrington was slandered as dumb, lazy, and injured during paid interviews Michael conducted on WRC with Redskins coaches Gregg Williams and Joe Bugel. And on The Joe Gibbs Show, one of the Snyder-produced infomercials Michael worked on, he asked Gibbs if playing Arrington, a four-time Pro Bowler and the fans’ favorite player, was “worth the risk.”
Hearing that, viewers who were aware of Michael’s employment under Snyder, and of Snyder’s ugly feud with Arrington, could wonder: Was that the real George Michael, or his wallet, asking the question? And when Michael landed the only broadcast interview that Snyder granted during the 2007 season and let the reclusive and much-despised owner get away without saying anything of substance, fans could question whether Michael got the assignment and lobbed so many softballs because of the employee/boss dynamic.
Only George Michael and Snyder know for sure. WRC spokespersons declined to comment on station policies from when Michael served as sportscaster. But one station official, who requested anonymity, said, “WRC does not pay anyone for interviews—including coaches.”
Yet employees of the station’s news department still work for Snyder’s Redskins Broadcast Network. So suspicions about the station’s coverage of the team remain. Lindsay Czarniak broke the story that Jim Zorn was fired, tweeting at 4:45 a.m. on Monday morning that the Skins had made the move. Maybe it was hard work that got Czarniak the tip. Maybe it was a perk for her employment with the team. That’s the George Michael legacy.
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