July 22, 2024

For Instant Ratings, Interviews With a Checkbook

ABC and NBC, embroiled in a fight for viewers in the mornings, are increasingly in the news for their willingness to pay thousands of dollars to gain exclusive access to news subjects.

The practice was especially visible last week when ABC News ran an exclusive interview with Meagan Broussard, one of the women who was sent lewd photos by Anthony Weiner, after the network paid her about $15,000 for photos. ABC said its extensive reporting, including the interview, led to Mr. Weiner’s admissions about his online behavior.

Also last week, ABC announced that Diane Sawyer had secured the first-ever interview with Jaycee Lee Dugard, the young woman held captive for 18 years in California. ABC declared that it had not paid any fee for the interview, but last year, according to a longtime ABC News executive aware of the deal, the network paid a six-figure sum for rights to home movies of Ms. Dugard.

The networks provide perks besides paychecks, too: When David Goldman, a subject in a custody battle over his son, brought his son back to the United States from Brazil last year, he was provided both a ride on a private jet by NBC and accommodations at Universal Studios, an amusement park partly owned by NBC’s parent company. Mr. Goldman’s network of choice for interviews was NBC, and he mentioned being “grateful” for their support.

More recently, a high school student in Washington State who faked a pregnancy was persuaded to appear on NBC in May in part because the network placed money in a trust fund for her future education.

Network representatives say their only payments are licensing fees for photographs and videos, not for interviews. In the case of the high school student, NBC said, “the video of the moment when she revealed to her class that she was faking was essential to her story,” the “Today” show executive producer Jim Bell said, adding, “The amount was reasonable.”

Similarly, James Goldston, the executive producer of ABC’s morning show, “Good Morning America,” said the fees paid were relatively small and called the licensing “a very small part of the work that we do.”

In other interviews last week, the licensing distinction was glossed over — and even laughed at — by current and former network employees and executives, some of whom said the practice was at best a questionable breach of ethics.

“The real issue is: by paying for interviews, are you changing the news?” said David Westin, who was the president of ABC News until last winter, when many licensing deals were done. The economic tradeoff rarely makes sense, Mr. Westin said, in a time of budget and staff cuts at network news divisions.

“If you could prove that by spending $20,000 you would make $70,000, O.K., I can justify that,” Mr. Westin said. “But I’ll be doggone if you could go through any of those payments, trace them through and see if it made any sense.”

The Poynter Institute, the journalism ethics group, said last week that the payments corrupted journalism. The group suggested that the trend could be reversed if networks would agree to pay license fees only to people not involved in the story, like eyewitnesses who happen to record a news event.

The practice of paying for interviews is common in Britain. In the United States, magazines like Us Weekly pay for wedding and baby photographs of celebrities and are often granted interviews at the same time, and tabloid shows like “TMZ” and “The Insider” pay for stories and interviews. But they are generally not held to the same standards as the network news divisions, all of which have ethics policies against paying for interviews.

So the networks pay for photos, videos, hotel rooms — even special events, as NBC did in 2007, when its entertainment division paid an estimated $2.5 million for the rights to the “Concert for Diana,” putting its news division in line for exclusive interviews with Prince William and Prince Harry.

Some news executives said that the subjects of interviews were learning how much their stories were worth. “Money is being asked for more and more of the time,” said Jeff Fager, the president of CBS News, who denounced the practice. “If you’re in the business of having to pay people to get a story, it can’t be worth it,” he said.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=ca642c09135fe2d47bd596c5affd7940

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