Question the money

Question the money

: John Tierney questions one of the sacred tenants of journalism: Thou shalt not pay sources.

The question is: Why shouldn’t Deep Throat, aka W. Mark Felt, make money from Watergate? Woodward and Bernstein certainly did. The scandal — and Felt’s information that helped them expose it — made them famous and made them a fortune and established their careers as journalistic heroes.

But when Felt’s family tried to get some money for his story, they were treated like money-grubbers. People and Vanity Fair wouldn’t pay them. Against journalistic ethics, they say.

Now there is some reason for this, a practical ethical reason: If people reveal the truth for money, they may make up lies to make money.

But there’s another reason, an economic reason: Journalism cannot afford to share the money it makes off the truth. What if everyone wanted their cut? What if your competitor could pay more? What if George Steinbrenner were a publisher? He’d get all the scoops.

As Tierney points out, the way to manage this in the past — the way to launder the money — was to publish a book; the public decides whether to buy your truth. There, it’s OK to make money for your own story. In newspapers and magazines, you can’t make money for your own story — the publishers do; they sell their truth.

I wonder whether the new age of distributed media that might change. I joked the other day that if Watergate occurred today, Deep Throat would have a blog. He might well, for it would give him control of his story and his identity. It’s hard to imagine making enough money off Google AdSense to make whistleblowing pay. It’s also hard to imagine a whistleblower able to get the verification and attention that journalists bring. But I have to believe that the next Deep Throat will want to control the fate of his story…. and its value. And is that so wrong?