Editorial: Interview Flap Mars Media Credibility

Jan 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

CBS News and The New York Times are world-class media organizations with well-deserved reputations for the quality of their journalism. However, we believe neither did itself proud in the recent flap over pop star Michael Jackson’s “60 Minutes” interview and the CBS entertainment special.
We thought CBS did the right thing when it pulled the “Michael Jackson’s Number Ones” TV special off its schedule after child molestation charges were filed against Mr. Jackson in Santa Barbara, Calif. We were less thrilled when CBS said it would air the fawning special if Mr. Jackson gave the network an interview. That simplistic approach was CBS News’ first step on the wrong road.
We think CBS was naive not to have known that the additional $1 million last-minute payment to Mr. Jackson for the entertainment special would be perceived as a quid pro quo arrangement-money for both the interview and the special.
The New York Times compounded the problem with an article directly linking the extra money to the “60 Minutes” interview. The story depended on unnamed sources of dubious credibility, including a disgruntled former employee. While the Times article was correct that CBS was on weak ground with its claims of journalistic purity, we believe the great Gray Lady did not accurately report the facts.
For a newspaper that only recently suffered through the Jayson Blair phony journalism scandal, this kind of use of blind sources seemed to be another poor decision.
CBS, too, has been through enough incidents in recent months that it should have been more sensitive. It was only this past June that CBS and The New York Times were engaged in another messy situation over a letter sent to former POW Jessica Lynch that appeared to offer both news coverage and entertainment specials for her exclusive story.
The network later had to explain that it wasn’t actually offering news coverage in return for a business deal.
In our complex society, an increasing number of ethical issues are being raised about business deals that blur the lines between news and entertainment. Despite competitive pressures, great news organizations know their integrity does matter and that it can be damaged as much by what is perceived to break journalistic standards as by actual infractions.
The immediacy of today’s news distribution sends a flash across the globe in seconds, and it is difficult if not impossible to reverse the impression that first break makes. That is why it is so important to make the right decision in the first place for the right reasons-in terms of both perception and reality.