As a young freelance broadcast journalist, I was sent out by an editor in London to do a short report on a telephone helpline in New York. This was TV AM, a shoestring operation, so we rented crews from wherever we could get them cheapest — often I would find myself out with Brazilian or Israeli cameramen. At the helpline, though, I had three real Americans with me — this remember was back in the day when it took three people to shoot a news story.
We had done our interviews and were just waiting for some calls to come in so that we could get B roll footage of the volunteers at work. No calls came so I asked someone from the helpline to go next door and make one. The American crew were horrified: faking a call for a news story? They clearly thought this was one short step from slitting the interviewee’s throat on camera and filming her last moments. I, on the other hand knew, that I could not call London and explain that I had paid for an extra hour of crew time so that we could wait for a genuine call to come in. The editor would have asked, as would any British editor, “why didn’t you just get someone to call? It’s only B roll after all.”
It was my first encounter with the prissy, self-satisfied code of ethics promoted by the Society of Professional Journalists. It permeates American media. Things that would be wholly unremarkable in the rest of the English-speaking world would get you fired at any big news outlet in the USA. This is the self-righteous agonising that is portrayed so accurately on HBO’s The Newsroom or that emerges those long form interviews with editors from the New York Times . It is also what has kept the mainstream American media relatively free of scandal despite very broad constitutional protection that makes US outlets almost immune to libel actions and beyond regulation of any kind.
That may be changing according to National Public Radio’s, On The Media programme (you can hear the segment of OTM here — it’s about nine minutes long). The immediate source of despair is still incomprehensible to any journalist who grew up in the UK. NBC News paid a source for exclusive access to dramatic footage of a sky-diving accident. Then they interviewed the people who had sold them the tape. To an American-trained journalist this constitutes an illicit payment for news material made worse by the possible editorial bias in interviewing someone that the outlet has paid. As the Washington Post put it, rather sniffily, “mainstream news organizations typically frown on paying sources, lest the payments taint the sources’ veracity or color the news outlet’s objectivity in reporting the story. Although some news organizations, such as the National Enquirer and TMZ.com, pay for news, checkbook journalism is considered unethical by the Society of Professional Journalists and other professional news organizations.”
It gets worse, according to the Post, because NBC News has also agreed to pay a kidnap victim for her story. ABC News had been bidding but pulled out (or maybe lost the bidding war), saying, “paying for interviews ‘is a clear violation of our standards and ethics. We wanted to bid solely for the rights to the footage.’”
What might have prompted this outbreak of harlotry at the home of Tom Brokaw and John Chancellor, two of the incarnations of American journalism at its most self-righteous? As Variety put it, “NBC’s Savvy Brit Deborah Turness”. According to Variety, “Turness is well known in British media circles for her charisma and self-confidence. She’s not afraid to be ruthless when the occasion demands, colleagues say. But she’s moving to NBC at a time of turmoil inside the Peacock’s news division in particular and the biz in general.” Ms Turness moved from ITN, the source for news on UK terrestrial commercial television, to NBC this summer. Although the Post is too delicate to mention it, OTM highlights it and points out that the Brits are taking over at places like the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the Wall Street Journal as well. How long can it be, the horrified NPR programme asks, before America the Pure succumbs to the cheque book flaunting, story trading, phone hacking ways of the British Murdoch empire and the of the Daily Mail.
It’s probably time to hire a few British media advisers who understand how to navigate the new money-driven world of top tier American journalism.