Friday, June 22, 2007
Takes One to Interview One
Nelson Chaney: All I know, is that this violates every canon of respectable broadcasting.
Frank Hackett: We're not a respectable network. We're a whorehouse network and we have to take what we can get.
-- Network (1976)
Regular visitors to this site can probably assume by now that I don't hold NBC News in very high regard these days. Over the past few months, I've raged furiously against not one but two separate decisions by NBC that I wholeheartedly believe have brought the entire institution of network news to a shocking new low -- and this was an institution that was happily wallowing in the gutter to begin with.
As it turns out though, unforgivable managerial stupidity comes in groups of threes: apparently firing irrelevant dinosaur Don Imus over an imbecilic comment -- claiming that he didn't deserve a place on the air -- then turning around and giving the run of the network to a murderous son-of-a-bitch who killed 32 kids on a college campus was just the lead up to the network's true goal of digging up the corpse of Edward R. Murrow and pissing all over it.
Apparently, NBC News -- in the final violation of all that is holy in honest journalism -- has agreed to pay Paris Hilton a million dollars for an exclusive interview once she's released from jail.
As if a month behind bars is going to give this preening idiot a sudden IQ boost and a reason why we should listen to anything that comes out of her mouth (as opposed to the usual attenion paid by the media to anything that goes into her mouth).
That obviously isn't the point though.
NBC News, its ethically challenged president Steve Capus -- the man who put on his "serious face" and played moral Twister on live television in an effort to justify his actions regarding Imus and the V-Tech killer videotape -- and its CEO Jeff Zucker are already distancing themselves from the accusation that the venerable Peacock Network is, in fact, paying for its stories.
Unfortunately, given NBC's recent track record, I don't believe them for a second; I have no problem swallowing the idea of the network's once-hallowed news department opening its vast corporate coffers and -- surreptitiously or straightforwardly -- dropping a huge sum of cash into Paris's red, itchy lap.
Likely, as with Matt Lauer's recent interview with Princes William and Harry -- for which it paid 2.5 million dollars -- the network will simply disguise the compensation by filing it under a more legitimate column in its ledger, calling it a payment for pictures, videos, delousing etc. This kind of creative accounting is becoming more and more common as the battle for ratings reaches heretofore unknown levels of bloodlust. The rules that have governed network news for decades -- those intended to keep it from becoming a daily showcase for Mark McGrath's suggestively unbuttoned shiny shirts -- are being circumvented in favor of doing, literally, whatever it takes to get the big story.
In the case of Paris Hilton, this kind of thing is especially despicable because, quite frankly, it's Paris Hilton.
It's not as if we're talking about NBC was ponying up to get an exclusive with Hugo Chavez.
This is a woman who, up until now, has been persona non grata among respectable news organizations -- an unofficial and somewhat ominous Rubicon dividing those still in possession of a modicum of belief in the nobility of the Fouth Estate from a barren journalistic no-man's-land.
This is also a woman who 99% of the public would rather not hear about (or from) ever again, and at least 70% of the public wouldn't mind seeing accidentally gored to death by wild boars.
This is why it's entirely likely that whoever finally checks his or her dignity at the door, digs out that perfect, practiced tone that's equal parts concerned and mildly scolding and sits down for the promotional bonanza that is "Paris Hilton: The Interview" will find that in the end, no one really cares. NBC will have spent all that money and sacrificed what little was left of its ethics for absolutely nothing -- except possibly a heap of ridicule.
Back in the early 90s, several years before I eventually took a job at NBC, I was courted by one of the network's high-powered news executives. At the time, NBC News was the gold-standard; the network of Huntley/Brinkley, Chancellor and Brokaw; the news operation to which many others aspired. Years later, I would be proud to work there. This executive, a man who became my mentor of sorts, told me at the time that in me he saw a young Jeff Zucker.
I remember that, at the time at least, I considered it the highest possible compliment.