Sarah Ferguson Sting Prompts Tabloid Tactic Debate

After string of breakthroughs, experts debate merits of tabloid journalism.

BySARAH NETTER via via logo
May 23, 2010, 7:54 PM

May 26, 2010 — -- This week's stunning undercover video of the Duchess of York exchanging a bundle of cash for access to Prince Andrew is the latest tabloid sting that has experts wondering if there is a place in the journalism world for such tactics.

From Sarah Ferguson's embarrassing deal with News of the World reporter Mazher Mahmood, posing as a businessman, to the National Enquirer's outing of one-time presidential candidate John Edward's love child with mistress Rielle Hunter, tabloids are getting credit for breaking significant scoops.

"We should not be so quick to look down our noses at a papers like the National Enquirer," Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz told "Good Morning America" today.

But are traditional tabloid tactics -- including deception and paying sources for information -- acceptable if it results in a scandal the public should know about?

In Ferguson's case, she was one of several people who have been snared by Mahmood, dubbed the "fake sheikh" for his penchant for posing as a wealthy businessman to trap politicians and other high profile figures.

He came to his meeting with Ferguson prepared with a $40,000 down payment -- clearly visible in the video -- and she agreed to accept a total of 500,000 pounds, or more than $700,000, for "open doors" access to Andrew.

Another royal, Prince Edward's wife the Countess of Wessex, was another of Mahmood's victims, recorded making disparaging remarks about the then-prime minister's wife.

Bonnie Fuller, editor-in-chief of, questioned exactly what public service News of the World provided in the Ferguson sting besides, "selling a ton of newspapers."

The Edwards case was different, Fuller said.

"I don't know if the Fergie story is public service," she said. "I feel the John Edwards story... did provide a service to the American public. I don't think we would have had to elect him as president and then have had our attention derailed from news that he had a love child."

The paper was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for its effort, a first for a tabloid paper.

"We're doing the heavy lifting now that the papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post used to do," National Enquirer Executive Editor Barry Levine said.

The paper also discovered Rachel Uchitel, one of the first of many women who would come forward to claim affairs with golf great Tiger Woods, by polygraphing sources, using disguises and tracking Uchitel around the globe.

"I'm not a fan of checkbook journalism, but what the National Enquirer did in the John Edwards case was old fashioned street journalism," Kurtz said, pointing to the months its reporters spent staking out Hunter and Edwards and cultivating sources. "Tenacity is important in journalism. So much of what we do now is short sighted."

Experts Debate Tabloid Tactics

Tabloids have generally been scoffed at by mainstream news outlets for openly admitting to paying for sources. One former National Enquirer reporter told "Good Morning America" she personally saw her former boss dish out anywhere between $100 and $100,000 just for a tip on a big story.

But Fuller points out that those same mainstream companies skirt the issue by shelling out big bucks for rights to photos and videos and putting them up in expensive hotels.

"There's not really a line," she said. "What's the difference between that and paying for sources?"

The fallout from the Ferguson sting remains to be seen. The Queen, who has always struggled with controlling her former daughter-in-law, was said to be in crisis talks with Prince Andrew.

Both Ferguson and Andrew's spokesperson have said Andrew had no knowledge of Ferguson's "deal" that was caught on camera.

Ferguson has been in the United States since shortly after the scandal broke to accept a charity award in Los Angeles. She is now in New York, promoting a book.

Even before the sting, Ferguson has been a tabloid staple in the British press. While still married to Prince Andrew, she was caught sunbathing topless while another man sucked on her toes.

She's also been flamed in the tabloids for her fluctuating weight and financial struggles.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events