Checkbook Journalism at NBC

The Society of Professional Journalists has properly condemned NBC for the journalistic ethics sin of “checkbook journalism”—paying subjects for exclusive news interviews. Following the happy conclusion of the protracted child custody dispute between American father David Goldman and his son’s Brazilian step-father, NBC flew the re-united father and son back to the U.S. on a charter flight, then featured them in a Today Show interview.

The Society said its journalistic ethics committee was “appalled” that  NBC made itself part of the story, and that the arrangement called into question the network’s “neutrality, integrity and credibility.” Now that last part is clearly wrong: NBC lost all of those a long time ago. And the network’s laughable response to the Society’s charges prove it.

“NBC News has not and will not pay for an interview,” NBC said. “The Goldmans were invited on a jet NBC News chartered to fly home to the U.S. on Thursday, Dec. 24.NBC News has followed this story since the Goldman’s story first ran on Dateline nearly one year ago — David Goldman since has appeared on Today seventeen times.”

We are to assume, apparently, that Goldman and his son were prepared to swim home from Brazil.

The Society of Professional Journalists is right, and NBC is embarrassingly dishonest. The flight is indeed, as the Society called it, “an extravagant gift” to ensure NBC exclusive interviews, video footage and Goldman’s future loyalty. “By making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting – apparently to cash in on the exclusivity assured by its expensive gesture – NBC jeopardized its journalistic independence and credibility in its initial and subsequent reports,” the Society stated. “In effect, the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC’s ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement.”

Well, of course. NBC’s protestations of innocence are nonsense; it would never let a politician who hitched a ride on the corporate jet of a company seeking government business get away with the lame distinction it is making (well, unless NBC really liked that politician…). There is no difference between giving someone a free airplane trip and paying him the money the trip would cost. This comes as no surprise, however. It is hardly news when journalists  pledge devotion to journalistic ethics until it is useful or profitable to ignore them. As the major network news organizations get squeezed harder by cable news competition and print media finds itself losing ground to the internet, this once sly tendency is increasingly blatant. It will get worse

As Al Jolson used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

Unfortunately.

4 thoughts on “Checkbook Journalism at NBC

  1. The Society of Professional News Journalists is about 25 years too late on this issue.

    Why don’t they take on something more current? Like news that isn’t news but is in fact opinion? Like “journalists” who are partisan in the extreme and can’t find a middle ground in which to report “news?”

    Give me a break. The Society of Professional News Journalists is a dead organization. They rear their archaic heads on THIS issue?

  2. I have to agree that THIS issue shouldn’t have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

    I think that anyone that knows the Goldman story associates it to NBC. That Dateline episode was epic and they kept feeding Goldman as much airtime as he desired to keep his fight alive and relevant. Undoubtedly, David Goldman formed strong bonds with NBC personnel, and his fight may have hinged on the involvement of NBC. His loyalty to NBC isn’t because of the plane ride home. His loyalty exists because NBC gave him airtime, told his story in a compelling manner, encouraged him to keep fighting, and ultimately, the greatest gift NBC gave David Goldman, was his son.

    I can’t say NBC is clean in this, but put yourself in Goldman’s shoes. You are fighting an international child custody battle and NBC has given you time and attention to sway public opinion and build support. During the time since your battle began, you don’t appear on other networks for one reason or another. Whether you pay for your flight on a commercial jetliner or you board the NBC express, who David Goldman was giving his next interview to was a foregone conclusion.

    • That’s all fine and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that a media outlet can’t use GIFTS to suck up to a subject, and NBC knows it. When the ties between subject and interviewing organization are too strong, questions are raised: is the interviewer avoiding embarrasing questions? Is the interviewee hyping his story to make it better? In a situation where providing the flight has no benefit to NBC, I would expect it to be EASIER for them to say, “Gee, would like to fly you back, but it would be a conflict.” If they didn’t think that then, when will they think it? It is causing a stink now precisely because it is so blatant. The station might as well have handed over a couple thousand bucks to Goldman “to help you and your son settle in.” What’s the difference? Would you make the same arguments as above regrading that?

  3. Again, I don’t think NBC is clean in this, but for a better understanding of my angle – See the movie “Spartan” by David Mamet (my favorite filmmaker).

    I fully believe you are correct in your assessments of NBC and fully agree that they became a part of the story, and not just reporters of the story. Gifts are inappropriate in any journalistic scenario.

    However, given NBC’s dual role in this situation, I have to applaud their decision to get Sean and David on a flight and out of Brazilian jurisdiction ASAFP. If I were David Goldman, it would have been excruciating to sit in an Airport for 8 hours or more waiting for a flight, even boarding a flight, knowing that the airplane is probably under Brazilian control and if called back, would turn around.

    Given the insanity of the Brazilian court system for the past 5 years, I wouldn’t want to give them 24 hours to change their mind. I believe NBC was completely ethical from a humanitarian front while being completely unethical from a journalistic front.

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