Pay for Say

Why is it OK for George Stephanopoulos to get $2.8 million from Little, Brown but not OK for Gennifer Flowers to get $150,000 from the Star?

In journalism, few things are considered worse than paying sources. Media institutions that pay for information–the paper and TV tabloids–are branded sleazy and unprofessional. The sources and their information are regarded as being highly unreliable. In the Flytrap scandal, those who have sold their stories or tried to include Kathleen Willey, Gennifer Flowers, the Arkansas state troopers, Cristy Zercher (a flight attendant on Clinton’s 1992 campaign plane), and Mike McGrath (a former White House steward). All have been denigrated–and their credibility challenged–as a result.

But that is not the whole list of people who’ve cashed in on private knowledge of Clinton and his doings. There’s George Stephanopoulos, who has been paid $2.8 million from Little, Brown and Co. for his forthcoming White House memoir. Stephanopoulos advised Bill Clinton in Newsweek to hold a “come-clean” press conference and “tell us everything about [his] relationship with Monica Lewinsky.” But Stephanopoulos can’t come clean himself on everything he knows about Clinton. As he’s explained to reporters, he’s under a gag order from Little, Brown, which wants to protect its $2.8 million investment in anything juicy he may have to reveal.

That’s different, of course. When Stephanopoulos’ book comes out, nobody will impugn his motives or question his reliability simply because he sold his story to the highest bidder. Nobody will call him a liar–at least, not just because of the money. And the difference is … what, exactly? Well, one difference is a matter of class–a journalistic attitude toward people who talk to the Star that parallels the “trailer trash” dismissal of Paula Jones.

This is not to suggest that Stephanopoulos shouldn’t be trusted. It is meant to suggest that the respectable media covering Flytrap have not been serving their readers or the truth by dismissing paid-for information out of hand.

The current spate of say and pay began back in 1992, when Flowers made a big splash with her account of a 12 year affair with Clinton. The story was too big to ignore but was easy to dismiss as fiction, because the Star had paid her $150,000. Clinton denied the affair, and it wasn’t until this year that we learned his denial was a lie: During his Jones deposition, Clinton acknowledged that he had had sex with Flowers–though he says it happened only once.

More recently, Zercher earned $50,000 from the Star for her story about how Clinton talked dirty and squeezed her breast during the ‘92 campaign. (Slate’s monthly tabloid roundup gives you the skinny on that story.) Zercher’s story supports Jones’ and Willey’s accounts of unwanted touching by Clinton, yet the mainstream media have largely snubbed it. Newsweek knocked Zercher’s credibility in a short piece, “Still More Tawdry Tales,” because she didn’t tell this version of the story to a reporter in 1994 after she was counseled to say “all positive things” by a White House lawyer.

Willey’s lip-quivering confession on 60 Minutes was unpaid, but the press raised doubts about her by reporting that she had approached a book publisher in the hope of turning the breast grab into a money grab. The New York Times and Time magazine reported this and other damaging information provided by her former friend, Julie Steele. (Steele has changed her story of what Willey told her more times than Hillary has changed her hairstyle.) Oddly, neither the Times nor Time identified Steele as the recipient of tabloid cash, even though the National Enquirer paid her $7,000 for a photo of Willey and Clinton. Was this an oversight, or was it a recognition that applying the say and pay standards uniformly would render Steele useless as a source to discredit Willey?

You’ve probably never heard of Mike McGrath. He’s the former Navy steward who told his stories to the Star (for $50,000 again)–and to Kenneth Starr’s grand jury–of what he had seen and heard about Monica and others at the White House. More tainted meat, disdained by the respectable media.

L ast month, the New York Observer broke a money story about the Arkansas troopers. Having served as Clinton’s bodyguards when he was governor, the troopers later told the Los Angeles Times and the American Spectator about his sexual exploits. According to the Observer, conservative Chicago financier Peter Smith helped bring the troopers to the attention of the Spectator’s David Brock. Smith also gave the two troopers money when they lost their part-time jobs after their story appeared in 1993 in the Los Angeles Times and the Spectator. (The troopers split $21,000, according to the Observer. Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times he’d paid them $6,700 each.) Smith also paid Brock $5,000 for an abandoned book project.

These revelations were “embarrassing” to Clinton’s opponents, wrote the Washington Post. The Sun-Times quoted Rahm Emanuel, Stephanopoulos’ successor, on the revelation: “From Day One I always thought this was politically motivated and had politics written all over it; after five years, it is nice to have the truth catch up with the president’s political opponents.” The “truth”? What on earth is Emanuel talking about? The troopers have yet to recant their charges that they had arranged and concealed Clinton’s sexual adventures on public time.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t endorse the practice of paying sources. And I certainly don’t endorse the practice of giving money to witnesses in a criminal investigation (rich right-winger Richard Mellon Scaife is accused of having provided the money that allegedly went to former Clinton associate David Hale). Above all, I don’t condemn the practice of paying journalists to tell their sources’ stories. In fact, as long as sources can be persuaded to supply the information for free, there’s more money for those of us who repackage it for public consumption.