Last August, 13-year-o1d Gary Rangasamy arrived at Scarborough General Hospital from his home in Guyana for a special surgical procedure to reduce the size of his right arm. It had grown to more than twice its normal size, a result of neurofibromatosis, better known as Elephant Man’s disease. The boy’s operation presented the media with the perfect “human interest story,” It also provided the perfect opportunity for the controversial practice of cheque book journalism. In exchange for donations of undisclosed amounts to a fund for the boy’s hospital expenses, CFTO-TV, The Toronto Star and radio station CFTR shared exclusive coverage of Gary’s story. They were the only media organizations allowed to film and photograph the rare operation, and to interview the boy, his family and his doctors. Other organizations were limited to picking up the story from them or reporting from a news conference held the day after surgery. This setup drew charges of cheque book journalism, and rebuttals from those who enjoyed exclusivity.
CFTO was the first to get involved, the result of a tip one of its reporters received from the hospital. The TV station negotiated a deal with the Rangasamy family, and then offered to share its rights with one newspaper and one radio station-the Star and CFTR. Before CFTO approached CFTR, however, it offered the radio rights to CFRB. But CFRB refused the opportunity. The asking price, says CFRB news director Don Johnston, was a $300 donation to the Gary Fund. “I don’t really like the idea of cheque book journalism, even if it is for a good cause, as it was in this case.” Johnston says free media access would have been the best way to raise money for the medical expenses because it would have provided for a wider audience, and would have set a better precedent. “I don’t want to see us getting into paying fortunes like the tabloids for memoirs and life stories. We shouldn’t even open the door slightly to this kind of thing.” Although he disagrees in principle, Johnston says he can understand CFTO’s decision. “I don’t want to get into a position of criticizing CFTO’s judgement. I sympathize with them because they were in on this thing right from the beginning.”
Ted Stuebing, CFTO’s vice-president of news and public affairs, says he has no qualms about accepting the exclusive rights. “It was a very good story-we were pleased to have it and make a contribution to a young lad who had a dreadful problem. It was an obvious decision on our part.” In response to an Aug. 23 Globe and Mail story headlined “Cheque book journalism bought exclusive stories on rare arm operation,” Stuebing says, “The charges of cheque book journalism were just sour grapes. ..I understand why there is repugnance at paying despicable people money for a story, but what has that got to do with Gary Rangasamy?” While Stuebing insists there was nothing wrong with what his station did, he refuses to release any details of the deal. “It’s private business,” Stuebing says.
Lou Clancy, The Toronto Star’s city editor, says the Star accepted the rights because, “For us, it was a good story. “If we didn’t take it, someone else would have.” Clancy says the Star had nothing to do with the financial arrangements; his newspaper simply made a donation to the Gary Fund. “The donation had nothing to do with our coverage of the story… as far as I know there was no price set on it. The Toronto Star is the biggest newspaper, so it was natural that it was brought to us, as well as the biggest radio and television stations.” Although Clancy “can understand why their noses would be put out of joint,” he says charges by the excluded media of cheque book journalism are unfounded, and adds that the Star has a policy against it. “Exclusivity is a word that goes right back to the early days of journalism. This is not cheque book journalism.”
CFTR news director john Hinnen says the station bought the rights from CFTO to give its listeners the best possible understanding of the operation. Although Hinnen says it was a “tough call” to decide whether to buy the rights, he doesn’t regret it. “I wouldn’t buy news if it meant someone who didn’t deserve to get financial assistance would benefit. But here you are dealing with a young boy who needed help.” Like Clancy, Hinnen is convinced that if he hadn’t taken the rights, the competition would have. He also says that because the arrangements for the story were made by Cf7.0, “certainly we can’t be charged with cheque book journalism. “We came in at the end.”
Susan Keeler, who works for the Scarborough General Hospital Foundation, which takes care of the hospital’s fund raising and public relations, says the Rangasamy family granted exclusive coverage because it feared a media circus. “It [exclusivity] enabled the story to be told on a more open basis. You just couldn’t have bombarded Gary like that, or his mother and uncle. “They also had more control that way. They could say, ‘You can’t use that picture or write that,’ to some extent,” Keeler says.
Keeler also says the family went to the press only to publicize the Gary Fund, and that it was appropriate that CFTO and the Star got the rights because they had been helpful to the hospital in the past. And, she says, “Their good coverage was the reason for the success of the Gary Fund.” Through donations from individuals and companies, $50,000 was raised. Keeler estimates the boy’s expenses were $17,500 and will be about the same when he returns for further corrective surgery this July. Any money left over will go to other children with rare diseases. “Normally we’re not for cheque book journalism,” says Keeler. “But CFTO and the Star were helping, and there was no profit for anyone. ”
Gary’s uncle, Hilton Gopie, a psychology professor at Seneca College, says the hospital advised the family to grant the exclusive coverage to CFTO.
“We didn’t choose them,” Gopie says. “The hospital approached them.” After the hospital agreed to help with fund raising, Keeler, who worked at CFTO before joining the hospital’s public relations department, called a friend at the newsroom for advice on publicizing the operation.
“He [the CFTO employee] came down just to give personal advice, then he got excited when he saw some slides of Gary,” says Gopie. “It would have been completely public, but there was no initial interest, and this was a few days before the operation.” Gopie says that, in conjunction with the CFTO advisor, the hospital decided exclusivity was the best course. They told Gopie that allowing full access meant the hospital would have to find staff to do the coverage and distribute it to the news media to protect Gary from a barrage of journalists. “The general advice given by the hospital was, if full access was granted, everyone would be trying to get the jump on the others, and we would be hounded. We agreed with their decision, given the explanations, and left the hospital to handle the rest,” Gopie says. “We didn’t do any negotiating. We had no experience with the media. We were dependent on the hospital’s judgment.” Scarborough General’s executive director Allan Greve disputes Gopie’s version of the story. He says any advice given was confined to clinical matters, such as whether or not Gary’s health permitted media access, and to the setting up of the Gary Fund. He says Gopie, who lives in Scarborough, was familiar with CfTO and had his own opinions about who could handle the coverage. “The family discussed it at home to decide how to handle things. The guardian, or person responsible, was the liaison with the hospital. In this particular case it was Hilton Gopie because he understood the system. Basically, he represented the family.” Greve says all media arrangements were made by the family, and he doesn’t know the details. “That’s a family thing. We’re in health care, not public relations.”
Greve says CFTO made a donation of an undisclosed amount to the Gary Fund, but that “the arrangement was to tell the story, and nothing else.” He adds, “Mr. Gopie’s bottom line was that no one should profit from the fund raising.”
But Craig MeInnes, The Globe and Mails assistant city editor, says CFTO, CFTR and the Star did profit from the deal. “What they did was buy into exclusive coverage. No one argues with raising funds for an operation. But they bought into it knowing they would get something from it-it wasn’t a donation.” McInnes says the denials of cheque book journalism are invalid. “Once you’re in a position, you defend it, and that’s what they’re doing. Where the money went is of no consequence. ..it’s a dangerous precedent to pay for news.” Lester Pyette, executive editor of The Toronto Sun, says the Sun bought exclusive rights only twice; for the story of the test tube twins and for the discovery of the Titanic wreckage, but says that generally it’s a bad idea. “We try not to get involved in things like that. I hesitate to use the words cheap and sensational; but they apply to this case. From a media outlet’s point of view, it’s pretty shoddy.” The Sun was forced to scalp the story from the Star, Pyette says, and harass the hospital to release some photos.
The idea of bidding wars among media agencies worries Pyette. “To pay $10,000 to $12,000 to get exclusive rights means whoever has the most dough gets the story. It just doesn’t sit well.”
Peter Desbarats, dean of the Graduate School of journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London, says purchasing exclusive rights damages the credibility of the news media. Desbarats says buying information to provide news no one else has reflects badly on the media’s ability to use the traditional method of news gathering-investigative journalism. He says it is an unhealthy extension of the competition for an audience. “Cheque book journalism is an aspect of that competition,” Desbarats says. Although he believes there is an element of envy in the criticisms of CFTO, the Star and CFTR by the other media, Desbarats believes the reproofs are justified.
However, he says, there are different degrees of cheque book journalism. “Paying a convicted murderer for a story would really stink. “this story is not in that league at all. But this doesn’t invalidate the fact that cheque book journalism doesn’t work.”
Regardless of the ethical standpoints adopted by the various Toronto news agencies, one sentiment crosses the minds of even the opponents of exclusive coverage. Desbarats articulates it when he says, “I can’t help but think if I was a news director and was offered an exclusive story, even though I thought it was wrong, if I knew it would go to the competition, I would probably buy it. I can’t be too self-righteous.”