Paying Sources

Chatterbox, taking a brief timeout from Flytrap Madness, has stumbled onto the Next Big Question likely to be chewed over by the journalism ethics industrial complex (Howie Kurtz of the Washington Post, Brill’s Content, the Pew Center, the Freedom Forum, etc.): Massingate.

Michael Massing, a justly admired magazine journalist, has a book called The Fix due out in October. It’s about U.S. drug policy, and includes much impressive on-the-ground reporting about the workings of New York City’s drug markets. In a “Note on Sources” at the end of the book, Massing says that some of this information was acquired by paying sources. It is rare–perhaps even unprecedented–for a member of the “respectable” press to trade information for cash. (Massing’s work, has appeared in the New YorkReview of Books, the Atlantic, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the New York Times Magazine, which excerpted The Fix last Sunday; he also received a MacArthur “genius” grant some years back.) Even rarer, though is Massing’s forthright argument that it would have been unethical for him not to pay his sources. “Journalism is an inherently exploitative enterprise,” he writes, “with reporters sucking information out of people without providing much in return. Such a relationship becomes particularly uncomfortable when one’s sources have few assets aside from the facts of their lives. As long as I felt my subjects were not embellishing their stories in order to enhance their value, I did not mind helping out in small ways.” Sometimes this meant buying them cheeseburgers or cigarettes. One Spanish Harlem drug lieutenant charged Massing $200 for four interviews that Massing judged “a worthwhile investment; most of what he told me checked out with the 23rd precinct.”

Chatterbox suspects this will all cause an ethical shitstorm, but applauds Massing for rightly characterizing the cash-for-trash issue as a practical issue, not an ethical one. It hasn’t really been demonstrated that “cash for trash” journalism is less reliable than no-cash journalism. And whether the source is paid or not, journalists have an obligation to check out their sources’ stories. In truth, the real reason respectable news organizations shun “checkbook journalism” is that it’s uneconomical for all but the most cheesy, circulation-and-ratings-boosting stories. Were sources routinely to expect payment, news organizations would face the choice of either going tabloid or going bust.

The New York Times excerpt of The Fix, incidentally, didn’t contain any of Massing’s “bought” material. It was merely a summary of the book’s substantive arguments, which Chatterbox found highly persuasive. (Chatterbox’s favorable review of The Fix can be found in the forthcoming issue of the Washington Monthly.)

Timothy Noah