In the hoopla surrounding Mayor Rob Ford last week, a journalistic sin was overlooked -- chequebook journalism.
In a new low for Canadian media, the Globe and Mail paid $10,000 to a drug dealer for screen grabs from another video allegedly showing the Toronto mayor smoking crack. As a Globe reporter for 20 years -- until 2008 -- I recall no previous payments for information.
Chequebook journalism undermines journalistic ethics. It encourages entrepreneurs to set someone up and provides financial incentives to manufacture news. It forges a business relationship with a source, an inherent conflict of interest.
In its story, the Globe acknowledged buying the screen grabs in the fourth-to-last paragraph, but did not disclose it paid $10,000. You learn that only by reading another article by its editor-in-chief.
Journalistic ethics require the transaction be fully and prominently disclosed so readers can assess the credibility of the purchased information.
I understand the pressure. Nowadays an old-fashioned scoop is as rare as a lunar eclipse. Even more rare is a one-two-three punch, like last week's Toronto trifecta in which three fierce competitors simultaneously broke news.
Well, not new news. More like a bad hit movie that keeps coming back to theatres, as in Drunken Stupor II, III, IV and V. I'm losing count, but the city's crack-smoking, alcoholic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic mayor is finally taking a leave to seek treatment.
The Toronto Star quoted eyewitnesses describing wild nights at clubs. On one occasion, the mayor tried to shake Justin Bieber's hand, but "became enraged when Bieber jokingly asked, 'Did you bring any crack to smoke?'"
The Toronto Sun posted a recording of a drunken Ford in a bar making lewd comments about Karen Stintz, a city councillor and mayoral candidate. Yes, Ford has just launched his re-election campaign. That's what I mean by bad sequels.
And as noted, the Globe reported the existence of another crack video, this time with the mayor holding a long metal pipe in his sister's basement.
A year ago, two Star reporters viewed Crack Video I -- three times. At that point I would have run the story. Astoundingly, the Star hesitated, stymied by the exorbitant asking price -- $100,000.
Chequebook journalism distracts from the core duty of reporting the news. Instead of publishing a story about the existence of the video, the Star's editors haggled over the price of possessing it.
If the Washington Post had been sidetracked this way, it wouldn't have broken Watergate and forced the resignation of a president. The newspaper didn't insist its reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, buy evidence. Deep Throat was good enough.
While the Star dithered over Crack Video I, a U.S. website named Gawker broke the story. Later, it crowd-sourced $200,000 to buy it, but by then the seller had disappeared so Gawker donated the monies to charity. (Toronto Police have since obtained the video.)
With Crack Video II, Gawker was offering $5,000 when the Globe swooped in with $10,000. Twenty-one minutes after the Globe published, Gawker posted its own screen grabs, apparently without having paid a dime.
Paying for information is accepted practice in the U.K. and by U.S. tabloids, but many Canadian news outlets ban it.
"This is not our normal practice," writes the Globe's newly appointed editor-in-chief, a former British journalist.
"But in this instance, the Globe felt it was a matter of public interest."
In an era of layoffs and demoralized newsrooms, paying cash to drug dealers is not in the public interest. We don't need more photos of Rob Ford with a crack pipe.
We need money for gathering news.
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