In November 1970, Esquire published one of the most memorable covers in its history. Illustrating “The Confessions of Lt. Calley,” the first of three articles about the man who, with his platoon, murdered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai, it consisted of a photograph of Calley, in uniform and grinning broadly, surrounded by four adorable Asian children

Perhaps one reason for Calley’s smile was that Esquire had paid him $20,000 (the equivalent of over $100,000 today) to work with veteran journalist John Sack, who received $10,000 for writing the articles. This wasn’t the only instance in which Esquire paid the subject of a story: in 1963, the magazine had given Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) $150 ($1,000 today) to cooperate with a young journalist named Tom Wolfe for his article, “The Marvelous Mouth,” which it published in its October issue.

That these two instances of “checkbook journalism” took place during the period when the legendary Harold Hayes edited Esquire makes me wonder: Can journalistic greatness coexist with a practice usually associated with celebrity magazines and tabloid television?

In the wake of the James Frey, Stephen Glass, and Jayson Blair scandals, journalists and journalism educators have become obsessed with the profession’s ethics. While it is undoubtedly good that the profession is more self-conscious about its values, I worry that we sometimes emphasize it to a fault.

In particular, I fear my students are less concerned with getting great stories than maintaining their journalistic virtue. When I once advised a student that he didn’t owe his cantankerous profile subject complete candor, he was aghast. “But Professor X told us that we must always be completely honest with our subjects,” he protested. Cast in the role of ethical cretin, I tried, without much success, to explain that while deception wasn’t one of Kant’s universal ethical principles, it played an important role in journalism.

After the prohibitions against fabrication and plagiarism, there is no principle about which the ethics police are more absolutist than the one prohibiting any kind of exchange between a writer and the subject of his story. There is a sense that the time and energy a reporter puts into writing an article about someone is “payment” enough. A journalist who pays, or is paid by, a subject, the argument goes, compromises his objectivity and credibility. The mainstream media don’t leave room for ambiguity. Reporters “may not pay for interviews or unpublished documents,” reads the New York Times ethics handbook (September 2004). “The Times does not pay sources for information,” says the Los Angeles Times Ethics Guidelines.

The standard argument against checkbook journalism is that paying for information creates an additional incentive for subjects to lie or embellish the truth. And even if a subject tells the truth, the fact that he’s been paid undermines the journalist’s position as a disinterested observer.

While I agree with this argument, I wonder whether it is equally true in every instance. It is obviously a bad idea for a daily reporter to go around handing out twenty-dollar bills to everyone he interviews. But what about the journalist who spends months, perhaps years, trailing his subjects? Do the daily reporter’s ethical constraints apply when one is interviewing a character dozens of times over a long period, often depriving him of every shred of privacy? Does such a journalist—especially one working for highly remunerative magazines, whose books become best-sellers and perhaps even movies—really owe his subjects nothing? Is the difference between the rules guiding the daily reporter and the long-form writer one of degree or of kind?


In the opening lines of The Journalist and the Murderer, Janet Malcolm labels journalism “morally indefensible” because of the unsavory means reporters use to convince people to cooperate. She’s right, as far as it goes, but she’s mistaken in her assumption that the benefits of journalism flow only toward the journalist. I’d argue that some form of mutual exchange is inherent in every substantial reporting project.

Robert Boynton is the director of New York University's magazine writing program and author of The New New Journalism.