We have Paris Hilton to thank for a recent moment of clarity about celebrity “news”versus the television news previous generations knew.
It wasn’t anything about Ms. Hilton, per se. Rather, it was the behavior of broadcast and cable networks clawing to get the first post-incarceration interview with her following her stint in jail for driving on a suspended license.
The race to land that exclusive generated reports that NBC was considering paying up to $1 million for the first interview. (NBC denied those reports.) ABC reportedly had been considering paying $100,000 for a sit-down with Ms. Hilton.
Charges of paying for the interview flew hot and fast, with unnamed sources at each network implying that their competitors were doing something unsavory by mixing news and money.
In the end, CNN’s Larry King got the first post-jailhouse interview with Ms. Hilton after the other networks passed.
The episode left us thinking that the practitioners of the celebrity news genre should consider a jailhouse hose-down and delousing akin to what Ms. Hilton presumably endured.
It also inspired a proposal that might preserve the integrity of so-called hard news programs while slaking the public’s hunger for celebrity dirt.
A little transparency would go a long way.
Programs that deliver any form of payment—be it travel expenses, meals, cash, promises of book deals, etc.—to interview subjects or their representatives should disclose that practice. The disclosure needn’t be specific. Even boilerplate along the lines of “This program provides direct or indirect payment to some interview subjects”would do the trick. Especially progressive celebrity news professionals could go as far as flashing the notice before the particular items for which value was exchanged.
A key value for networks’ so-called “hard news”divisions is at stake, because being transparent about which programs pay for interviews would help erase questions about whether the practice is infecting other, straight-news telecasts.
No one expects celebrity news programs to play by the same rules as the networks’ evening newscasts. Admitting they sometimes provide value for interviews would air out the industry’s dirty little secret while preserving the integrity of networks’ more serious newsgathering efforts.