Should CBS News have paid Route 66 tour guides?

Public Eye, which is sort of an ombudsman of CBS News, received a question from a New York Times reporter about the CBS “Evening News” story about Route 66 and the impact of the interstate highway system.

CBS correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi paid John and Lenore Weiss, two Illinois Route 66 preservationists who also conduct tours of the Mother Road. There was no effort to hide the fact the Weisses were paid; it’s there in the video.

So Public Eye asked whether paying the Weisses was proper:

We asked Alfonsi for a little background information, and she emailed the following:

“They are full time Route 66 tour guides, and drove us around about 100 miles in their car. We paid them to show us the road, like any other customer.”

I asked Linda Mason, CBS News senior vice president, standards and special projects, whether paying for the tour was a violation of CBS News standards.

“No, of course not,” said Mason. “Especially because we disclosed it. He knew Route 66 – he was a specialist – and by disclosing it we’re being totally transparent with our viewers.”

Mason said disclosure was the key issue. “We disclose when we’ve paid somebody,” she said. “Sometimes we do it by saying that the person is a CBS News analyst. Or a CBS News consultant. That’s code for we paid this expert. Otherwise we would just say they’re an energy analyst.”

Since CBS made it clear that the Weisses were paid for their expertise, I don’t have a problem with it. They know about Route 66 in Illinois as much as anyone, and their involvement in the story gave it more credibility. But I would suggest that CBS stop with the self-admitted “code” words on other stories and be more upfront about the use of paid consultants.

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