On last night’s Daily Show, I learned of a new initiative CNN has put forth called “I-Report.” The concept? Basically, you send in your video, photo, text, or audio to CNN as an “eyewitness” news account and you get…the chance to tell people CNN used your material. Jon Stewart
and his staff had a lot of fun with this, noting the obvious media ramifications along the “are they too lazy and cheap to send out cameras now?” line as well as showcasing a hilarious video involving a half-naked drunk man, his genitalia, and Wolf Blitzer’s head. But there are very real ramifications to projects such as this that everyone should be aware of.
First, when you send something to CNN’s I-Report, they gain unpaid non-exclusive rights to use it however they choose for infinity. In their CNN straight-talk legalese, that means “you hereby grant to CNN and its affiliates a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license to edit, telecast, rerun, reproduce, use, syndicate, license, print, sublicense, distribute and otherwise exhibit the materials you submit, or any portion thereof, as incorporated in any of their programming or the promotion thereof, in any manner and in any medium or forum, whether now known or hereafter devised, without payment to you or any third party.”
While it might appear that CNN is trying to be democratic, this is a move with wholly capitalist motives. Despite the ever-expanding score of media and the radical changes in technology that have allowed cameras to be dropped anywhere in the world within a matter of minutes, the major news networks have constantly been looking for ways to trim the budgets and economize. In addition to cutting research budgets and closing news bureaus, this also means trying to get suckers to do their work them. What they’re banking on with the I-Report project is that the next time a major story breaks, some naive idiot will send them prize footage that will cost them nothing. I should also mention at this point that CNN has independent competitors who collect eyewitness news that they are trying to snuff out with this.
And aside from paying some poor editor to sift through the muck they receive, it won’t cost CNN a penny, and the gain is enormous. In many cases, obtaining prime first-person footage on an event can be costly. The most famous such footage is the infamous Zapruder film, whose value lawyers have calculated as high as $18.5 million. To purchase the rights or run such footage often costs a fee, so CNN is banking that absent-minded people in the rush of an event will send prime footage and instantly relieve CNN of ever paying a dime to broadcast it. What if the film is fabricated, libelous, or otherwise breaks a law? CNN – regardless of how many times they distribute the film – exempts themselves from culpability in the terms of submission. This gives a certain editorial freedom that a network does not have when using its own reporters, who can implicate the network in a libel suit.
I know there are various programs like this out there on different networks. I know people sometimes will send footage of their dog jumping on a trampoline to the nightly news and some get a thrill about being interviewed by the local newsman. I also know there’s unfortunately a wealth of websites and magazines that make a pretty penny because they give people the joy of seeing their work published or on the air.
There’s a fine line here, but programs like I-Report clearly violate it. CNN stands to make a potential boatload of money with no risk to their corporation. The whole purpose of CNN and other news networks to exist is to have a journalistic outlet for news that happens at all hours of the day. To run this, they have a sprawling network of vans, cameramen, and wireless network setups that can reach anywhere within an hour. People who watch the networks expect a product of quality journalism, and the prospect of getting that quality drops when they’re just running eyewitness footage they should be paying a competitive price (either monetarily or in labor) for.
Don’t be a sucker. Know the value of your material. Don’t submit content to some corporate entity who gives you absolutely nothing in return. If only having your name spread around CNN makes you feel more important in the world, go see a psychologist. If you take genuine eyewitness footage of a major event, someone will pay you for it, and generally their agreement will be much more in your favor than CNN’s.
The once-prestigious CNN started going down a long and winding hill in the late 1990s. This latest move only shows how much further they’ve slipped, seeing as this sounds like something Fox News would do. Look, if an auto plant posted a sign that said “come on in, get the thrill of installing car parts and tell your friends!” we would all laugh. Cameramen and journalists exist for a reason. Make them do their job.