Saturday, June 23, 2007

Is Paris (or Rome) Burning?

The New York Times' Bill Carter has done some amazing reporting in the past few days on the fits, starts and apparent dead stop of ABC and NBC to get the first post-jail interview with Paris Hilton. The Hilton family has been portrayed as prostituting their celebutante daughter (imagine that), with a hefty cash offer from network #1 only emboldening them to squeeze network #2 for more.

This one jumped off the rails quickly. The $100,000 ABC was reportedly willing to pay was used to try to negotiate a much larger payday from NBC, which even gave the potential Paris interview a code name -- Rome -- to thwart enemy code-breakers. But even some insiders have had enough: TV Newser has a picture of a very professional sign displayed at the Today/GMA softball game that said: "For $1 million, we'll let you win!" (Today beat GMA 8-7, and there are no reports of money changing hands apart, perhaps, from a few side bets or victory rounds at the bar).
This is an moment-in-time opportunity for news organizations with a conscience to completely opt out of the running, now and forever, for any interviews in which anything of value changes hands.

Will Talk For Food

Among the many delightful tidbits in his articles Carter reports that as her parents' extortion house of cards was imploding Paris called Barbara Walters from jail (for at least the second time) to disavow responsibility for all money demands and to say she'd do an interview for free. Walters took that offer to her producer, Dan Sloan, who said the network simply wasn't interested anymore, at any price, even nada. Dan Sloan for President.

Network news divisions don't pay for news, of course -- perish the thought -- but the networks they are part of will pay for a ratings coup. The stakes
for "gets" have increased as the definition of "celebrity" has widened and if it just so happens that a handful of happy snaps that will appear for a few seconds in an interview sets back the entertainment division a few hundred thousand bucks, no problem. Then the network news star can be tapped for the talking part with clean hands.

The cost for the "collateral material" without an interview? Zero. The added value of family photos given the abundant availability of file footage of someone like Paris, who lives in front of a camera? At least she will be properly clothed in many of them.

This isn't about being polite or even currying a little favor by leaving big tips at the diner when your news crew comes in and takes over the joint, or putting up $10,000 towards a park in post-Katrina New Orleans, or doing a "Special Report" about your anchors hammering nails with "Habitat for Humanity." This is about payment for services rendered, and when the commodity is news it stinks. Paying doesn't even necessarily produce any news, or any news that would have been made without enriching the subject. It gives the subject a incentive to lie.
A "5" On The "OJ Scale"

Paris is now more than a bit toxic -- maybe a "5" on the "OJ Scale" -- but she is still free to call a press conference and see if anyone shows up. She has a strong incentive to rehabilitate herself from her deplorable rehabilitative experience and still has an audience, even if they're now all about watching her humiliations.

I'm guessing that whatever might pass for news would emerge in greater form if she faced a scrum. If Paris doesn't want all that attention (or the almost certainty that it would be carried live by at least by CNN and MSNBC) she's free to phone "Larry King Live" -- which doesn't screen calls but somehow manages to allow big names through -- or "The View," also a live show, and speak to Barbara Walters after all. And just think -- no tedious hair and makeup! [UPDATE: CNN confirms Paris will be on Larry King Live for the entire hour on Wednesday, June 27)

I hope this episode marks the beginning of the end of the wink-and-nod practice of paying for news by any other name. This is an moment-in-time opportunity for news organizations with a conscience to completely opt out of the running, now and forever, for any interviews in which anything of value changes hands.

News organizations who get interviews because bribes are paid just cannot credibly report on Congressional ethics or earmarks or campaign financing or CEO compensation or frankly any kind of graft. If nobody wants to take the first step, let them at least disclose exactly what was traded for the "get" so at least the transparency will give the audience some context. But it's long past time to just say no.

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