Prostitutes and Reporters
Most of you have probably already seen the Paul Lomartire's feature story in the Palm Beach Post about one of the more storied prostitutes in PBC. Good on Lomartire to get the story of Maggie Williams (or "Scaggie Maggie" as they call her on the streets) -- and it's got some compelling scenes in it (along with a great picture gallery shot by Bill Ingram). But there's also an extremely interesting journalistic issue raised in Lomartire's story. He writes about the process he went through to get her to talk:
You have to be willing to find her. Give her $5 for lottery tickets or cigarettes. Buy her fast food.
Prostitutes expect to be paid for their time, even if they're just talking.
At the end of the article comes this little disclaimer:
"About this story: Maggie Williams was interviewed for a few hours each week over the past eight months. Reporter Paul Lomartire drove Williams to court appearances and a doctor's appointment, and The Palm Beach Post spent approximately $75 in that time on Maggie — for fast food, cigarettes and back rent."
So the Post paid
for interviews. You can't do that! It's wrong, it's unethical, and it took me back.
Back to like 1995, when I interviewed a prostitute named April Wentland (I believe that was her last name) in Fort Myers. There was a rash of prostitute murders and another victim had been discovered. I wanted a fresh perspective, as it were. So I drove to Palm Beach Boulevard, an area known for street walkers, and April was the first one I came to. She was just in her 20s, as was I, but already had that caved-in look of death that crack whores get. She started listing places we could go to do the deed. I told her that wasn't in the picture, that I was a reporter and I just wanted to talk to her about the prostitute who had been murdered.
Well, she knew the dead prostitute real well -- and some of the other victims, too. She was a great source, but there was no way I was going to take her time without paying her. I can't remember if I knew that instinctively and just gave her the money, or if she set that as a condition to stick around. I do know I gave her a 20-dollar bill out of my wallet. I talked to her for about a half hour in the car, taking notes. She even agreed to go on the record. It was a great interview.
When I got back to my office with the story, the editors were all smiles. Yes, the boy had done it again. But I never mentioned that 20-spot. In fact, I think I told only my wife and another reporter-bud about the transaction. Hell, I knew there was a chance that some corporate hack might fire me for it.
The day the story ran, the Lee County Sheriff's Office busted April for solicitation. It was obvious they were acting on my story and the brass probably got a nice kick out of arresting my story subject, since we were at odds over another little project of mine (tying top sheriff's office personnel to a known Mafia associate from New York who owned and operated a very popular local beach hotel; I'll tell that dark little story when it's warranted).
But back to the point: I broke a rule. It remains the only time I have ever paid a source. Yet I never regretted it. Here's the justification (or, you may say, the rationalization): I wasn't paying for the interview, I was paying for her time. She was working; time was money. She didn't mind giving the interview, it was the lost time (and, ultimately, the lost crack) that she couldn't afford.
Maybe that doesn't make it any better (hell, maybe it makes it worse), but it seemed like the right thing to do and my conscience, always quick to pounce on even the smallest transgression, never made a peep.