Media Ethics: Should Paris Get Paid to Talk?

Should news organizations pay celebs for their interviews? The issue hit the headlines this week amid reports that NBC had outbid its rivals at ABC by offering Paris Hilton $1 million to dish on her 45 days behind bars for violating her parole on a drunk-driving conviction. ABC confirmed that it had made a $100,000 offer for video rights to accompany the interview, which was rejected in favor of an NBC offer. NBC said only that "we don't pay for interviews." On Friday, in the face of intense criticism, both news organizations said they had no plans to air a Hilton interview.

That doesn't end the debate about media outlets paying for access. Fierce competition to secure exclusive material have led to creative deals in which companies pay for related expenses, like production materials, while shying away from paying the subjects themselves. NEWSWEEK's Alexandra Gekas spoke with Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington-based nonpartisan research organization, about the ethics and prevalence of checkbook journalism. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Is it common for journalists to pay for an interview?
Tom Rosenstiel:
The networks by and large got out of what is called checkbook journalism in the 1970s, after CBS News paid [former Nixon chief of staff] H. R. Haldeman for his first interview after Watergate. In retrospect, CBS decided it was unseemly for them to pay someone who was convicted of a crime to then talk about that crime … The networks have [since] hired people as consultants who were also sources in their stories. Generally [those] people had an expertise [in the topic] and they were navigating the story, but even that [is] pushing close to the line.

What, in terms of media ethics, is the problem with paying for an interview?
Basically there are two rationales that suggest that checkbook journalism is unwise. The first is that journalists are supposed to be independent of the sources they cover. Their allegiance is supposed to be with the viewers. That's the covenant: "We're telling you the truth, we're on your side." When you engage in contract for pay you are doing business with them, you are no longer independent.

The second problem is that when you enter into a financial arrangement you're creating an incentive for the source to hype or aggrandize the truth because the juicier the story, the more they are going to get paid. Not only are you incentivizing the source to make the story more dramatic, but once you sign a contract you also have a financial incentive for the story to be that dramatic. You are creating obstacles which will get in the way of your priority as a journalist, which is the truth.

So why then would a media company even consider paying for an interview with Paris Hilton?
I don't know Paris Hilton very well, but I understand from friends in Hollywood that this is how she makes her money. She gets paid to show up, and since she's not an actress or singer or sculptor, she is herself, and that's her job. She has people who sell that, and that causes these situations, I guess.

Before the 1970s, was it common for journalists to pay their interviewees?
It wasn't so much common as it hadn't been thought through. I mean a lot of journalism ethics are really fairly new. After World War II the news business began to professionalize itself and a handful of crusading editors started to say we should not accept freebies, and there's a bunch of things we used to do that we should stop doing that will help the public trust us more. That was sort of the watershed moment on checkbook journalism.

Is their any legitimacy to the argument that news divisions are businesses and they have to act like a business to survive—even if that means bidding for a big interview?
They're businesses, they're definitely businesses, but [they must consider] what's in the best interest of protecting [their] brand? I'm not saying they shouldn't do it, I'm just outlining the traditional arguments of why it's considered to be unwise. And even though all news organizations, except for public broadcasting, are businesses, the sense is that what you're gaining from an audience for one program isn't worth the potential damage that you might do for the credibility of your brand if people think you're paying sources.