Checkbook Journalism: A User's Guide

The Society of Professional Journalists is scolding NBC News for buying its "exclusive" interview with David Goldman—the father of that Brazilian kid—by chartering a jet to fly father, son, and NBC reporter back to the U.S. Shocking, indeed.

If the SPJ is going to issue a statement of condemnation every time a network news organization shells out cash or services in exchange for an exclusive interview, it is going to be one busy little professional society. NBC News in particular has been so free with the cash over the years that we can't quite figure out why the Goldman case tripped the SPJ's pay-to-play detector, as opposed to, say, the time Today hyped its exclusive get with a couple of gatecrashers who were under contract to appear exclusively on NBC Universal properties or the time CNN, the New York Post and ABC News all paid the Flight 253 hero Jasper Schuringa for blurry photos and the chance to interview him.

As shameless practitioners of "checkbook journalism," we thought we'd offer a handy user's guide for producers, consumers, and scolders.

1) Nobody Admits to Paying for Interviews (But They All Do)
NBC News spokeswoman Lauren Kapp has a hot-key for writing "NBC News does not and will not pay for interviews" in statements responding to stories about how they paid for interviews. It's true, in the same sense it's true that Eliot Spitzer paid that nice lady to come visit him in D.C. and she threw in the sex for free. Usually the sleight of hand lies in the word "interviews"—networks will pay for anything except the actual words spoken by their interview subjects. So when NBC News paid Octomom for a three-day exclusive engagement on Today, it was legitimate remuneration for the broadcast use of her copyrighted home videos, not some gross pay-to-play deal. In the Goldman case, the subterfuge is actually in the meaning of the word "pay." NBC News does not "pay" for interviews like a trashy tabloid, it just provides goods and services like private jet travel at no cost to people of public interest who are willing to exclusively talk to NBC News employees.

2) Disclosure Is a Relative Concept
It doesn't matter if you pay someone to say something, so long as you tell everyone that you've paid them, right? We're all sophisticated media consumers, and can judge for ourselves whether or not the moneygrubbing fameball of the week is being forthright, cashing in, or both. So NBC News did the right thing by noting, in its Christmas Eve Nightly News broadcast on the Goldman's reunion, that "the Goldmans were invited on a jet NBC News chartered to fly back to the U.S." There! It's all out in the open now, and any viewers of yesterday's Today exclusive interview would surely have seen the Nightly News disclaimer, which explains why Today made no mention of the chartered flight, because doing so would have been redundant.

3) It's Better to Just Cut Out the Whole Journalism Part
When NBC News aired a "documentary" about the death of Farrah Fawcett last summer, no alarm bells went off over at SPJ HQ because there was no pretense of NBC News staffers being involved—they just bought the whole thing from Fawcett's family and put it on TV. The same principle applied to Vanity Fair's publication of Levi Johnston's account of what it's like to get Sarah Palin's daughter pregnant and to our publication of Balloon Dad's pal's confirmation that the whole thing was a hoax. They were published as freelance pieces, and their authors were compensated as such.

4) For Checkbook Journalism to Work, People Have to Be Interested in the People You Are Buying
That's why Paris Hilton's $1 million gambit fizzled—she had a $100,000 deal with ABC News in place to give the network her first interview after getting released from jail, and overplayed her hand by trying to parlay it into a $1 million deal with NBC News. When news of the negotiations broke, it gave everyone a chance to stop for a second and realize paying $1 million for an interview with Paris Hilton is a colossal waste of money. She ended up on Larry King Live. We can't really figure out why anyone cares about the "Christmas Miracle" involving a Jewish guy named David Goldman, but we suppose it's within reason to divert the GE corporate jet down to Brazil to make the interview happen.