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!”