Ever since the Rob Ford "crack video" controversy blew up late last week, questions have swarmed around the ethics of buying said alleged video, especially after Gawker, the site that broke the story first, started a crowdfunding "Crackstarter" campaign to cover the $200,000 asking price.
Many are calling this unethical. Toronto Star reporter Andrew Livingstone, for instance, sparked an epic Twitter tiff with Gawker's Tom Scocca with this tweet: "glad to see you throwing ethnical (sic) journalism under the bus by raising money to pay alleged drug dealers for a video. #classy"
Ah, but Livingstone brings up very different two issues here -- it may not be "classy" to pay $200,000 for video that allegedly shows the mayor inhaling from a crack pipe, but it's not unethical to do so. The press buys photos and videos all the time. It may also feel unseemly to buy something from someone whose other job you disagree with, but how is it an ethical violation? Are there certain professions that are allowed to ethically sell a photo or video that they shot and own? Is there a list?
Let us not forget, these guys are not selling drugs here -- they are selling a video which is their property. We live in a society where people are legally allowed to sell things that they own which have some sort of market value. This clearly does. (Not to mention that they chose to legally sell this video to the media rather than illegally blackmailing or extorting Rob Ford.) Besides, literally nobody else would be in a position to film this alleged evidence.
If we say that no criminal-supplied video or photographic evidence is ethically valid, then essentially we're giving public figures a free pass to do whatever they want with criminals so long as the cops don't find out. And that's compounded if we apply that standard even further to deem that no paid-for video or photo is ethical unless it's shot by a journalist.
So what's the next complaint? The 200K is a lot of dough. I've even heard it described as an absurd amount. But let's put this $200,000 price tag into perspective. Brangelina baby pics sold for $6 million, a pic of Charlize Theron's adopted baby sold for $600,000, Blue Ivy pics are worth a half-million apiece and a photo of Jennifer Lawrence and her boyfriend just waltzing through the park goes for like $400 grand.
There is no news value or social relevance to those paparazzi pics, but there clearly is tremendous news value to the alleged Ford video: If it exists, it directly impacts the mayor of the fourth largest city in North America, either damning or clearing him. When you look at it that way, $200,000 isn't even that bad a deal.
Now, Russell Smith wrote "Rob Ford and the case against paying sources for information" in The Globe And Mail, which obviously conflates buying this video with paying sources for information. Smith goes so far as to compare this "chequebook journalism" to the dreaded Yellow Press of the 1890s (an obscure argument clearly intended to appeal to his fellow journalists who studied it in J-School).
Except it's not really true in this case. Paying sources is an ethical issue if it's their eyewitness testimony that's at stake because the money might encourage them to lie. This video is not the word of an easily swayed source, it is a thing, and it has monetary value. They already doled out "information" to Gawker and the Toronto Star for free. The video is what they're charging for. Smith then goes on about how paying sources taints the information (except it doesn't here, because it's video not testimony) and taints the publication (except major media organizations already buy photos and videos). This is why, towards the end, Smith concedes, "This may not be true in the specific instance of the Ford video."
But that, and only that, is what we're talking about here.
Another argument against buying the video which I've heard bandied about is motivation. But that may be the weakest one yet. How is anyone's motivation -- be it the drug dealing filmmakers', the U.S. gossip site's or the Toronto daily's -- relevant to the legitimacy and importance of the video itself?
Take the Mitt Romney 47 percent video. That was given away for free because the person who owned it had political motivations. He wanted to do political damage to Romney. But that wasn't what mattered; what mattered was that Romney had actually said this hurtful thing and now we had video evidence of how he truly felt (or at least what he told his donors he felt). The alleged Somali criminals trying to sell the alleged Ford video apparently have financial motivations -- in a weird way, that's less ethically problematic. They have no apparent desire to unseat the mayor; they just want to get real paid.
The final issue here is crowdfunding. Gawker's Indiegogo campaign is leaving a terrible taste in many people's mouths, partly because why should people be bankrolling a deep-pocketed corporation that will profit from this eventual video? (Hell, it's worth $200,000 for the publicity alone and Gawker should just pony up.)
Of course, that's a weakness of corporate crowdfunding in general and also applies to the Veronica Mars and Zach Braff movies. Except in this case, it's not mere entertainment and there's also an argument to be made that this shows a personal investment by the people of Toronto in getting to the bottom of this controversy. People who are putting money into the Crackstarter campaign are taking literal ownership of the story.
Doug Ford just held a press conference today in which he called what Gawker is doing "disgusting and morally wrong," taking particular offense at the gossip site "giving away prizes trying to raise money for drug dealers and extortionists." Except that, as I noted, the sellers aren't extortionists -- if they had been, we might never have even heard of this video -- and while Gawker is, in fact, often disgusting and disgraceful, there's a public interest at stake in seeing this footage and finally bringing the issue to an end, one way or the other.
As a journalist, I find this ethics debate fascinating because of how it sets the old media (The Star and the Globe) against the new (Gawker). It's a debate we should be having. But the newspapers' ethics argument is hypocritical and ultimately falls apart because the video is a thing that has value, and the person who owns it is just as perfectly entitled to sell it as the media is to buy it.
And that's not unethical, it's capitalism.