News for Sale?


In August 2002, NBC reprimanded a Today
show booker for her handling of two hot "gets," teenage girls who had been kidnapped from a California lovers' lane. The booker's sin: She bought one of the girls an $80 pair of pants. That ethical faux pas
cost the booker a week's pay.

Just a few months later, though, the booker's masters at NBC were playing with much higher stakes. Last February, they wooed Michael Jackson by offering him $5 million for an interview and other footage, with the promise of shelving (or at least postponing) a tough NBC Dateline
report. The New York Times
printed the NBC deal-point memo last week.

Although ultimately rejected by Jackson, the NBC offer once again raises ethical questions about the courting of interview subjects and the blurring of the line between news and entertainment.

"These companies are putting together these synergistic, vertically integrated situations," says Bob Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, "and that is the very reason this kind of thing is happening. Remember Jessica Lynch and Viacom: Do the interview and then put her on [MTV's] Total Request Live, the book deal."

Thompson is recalling the well-publicized letter from CBS News executive Betsy West dangling goodies before the Iraq War veteran who became an icon last spring. West's letter also mentioned the possibility of a TV movie produced by Viacom (without actually promising it) if Lynch did a big interview with co-owned CBS News.

"The problem," says Thompson, "is there is a big bloc in these companies, the journalism bloc, that is not supposed to play by the same rules. But it is getting more and more difficult for it not to be pulled in."

And many network news insiders agree. One senior-level news staffer said that linking news interviews with lucrative entertainment packages clearly crossed the line of good journalistic ethics and there are examples at all the major networks. "It's embarrassing," the staffer said, indicating that a majority of the people at the staffer's news division feel that way.

But CBS News President Andrew Heyward says all this handwringing by the pundits over blurred lines is just overstated.

In November, CBS pulled its own Michael Jackson special after the King of Pop was indicted on child-molestation charges. At the time, CBS said the program would air, if at all, only "after the due process of the legal system runs its course."

A short time later, though, CBS reversed course and told Jackson the special would run but only after he addressed the molestation charges on 60 Minutes. The New York Times
said CBS paid Jackson $1 million dollars extra for the special to get the interview—an allegation CBS strongly denies.

Even accepting CBS's denial as fact, some find it disconcerting that business executives at the network entertainment divisions are cutting deals for news ventures. Heyward says that's a simple fact of life in today's media-conglomerate world. So get past it.

"I don't believe our standards have slipped at all," said Heyward, the only network news president from the Big Three willing to go on the record on this. "I think that, in today's world, where you have these large media companies with multiple holdings and multiple interests, these standards get held up to the light and the firewall becomes even more important to maintain."

So where's the firewall if Jackson does a news interview only because corporate insists on it before airing his special? Heyward's response: "The firewall is that we did an interview with a bona fide newsmaker that we pursued in good faith for a year and it fell into our lap with no strings attached and we chose to do it." Further, he adds, "the unusual circumstances by which it fell into our laps, we disclosed."

Although Heyward says network-TV news is defined much more broadly these days, Bob Calo, a journalism professor at University of California-Berkeley and former NBC Dateline
producer, says the problem is that "the celebrity spectacle trial" is like a drug to networks. "What that can do with a news division in terms of ratings is tremendous."

Vertical integration, he adds, gives networks lots of ways to coax hot news subjects in the door. "If you can offer the book deal, the movie deal and the TV deal, you've broken through the glass of 'We don't pay for interviews.'"

The problem, as Frank Sesno sees it, is that the typical viewer doesn't distinguish between Pat O'Brien (of Access Hollywood) or Tom Brokaw (of NBC Nightly News) doing an interview with Michael Jackson. News and entertainment divisions, says Sesno, a George Mason University professor and former CNN Washington bureau chief, "have separate agendas and thresholds for success. That's the problem. The public is not informed as to how the standards for one are different than the standards for the other."