Live With Paris Hilton

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

“NBC News doesn’t pay for interviews, period.” That categorical denial came this week from Allison Gollust, a spokeswoman for NBC News, in explaining the reason her network wouldn’t pay $1 million for the post-prison Paris Hilton interview that will air instead on tonight’s “Larry King Live.”

But she’s wrong. NBC News has paid for interviews. So have CBS and ABC. They just don’t like it when the seller goes public with the terms of the deal — or when, as in the case of Hilton, it’s not worth the price.

More than three decades after a broadcast network first wrote a check for a news interview — in 1975, CBS News paid former Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman $100,000 for an interview with Mike Wallace — the networks still cringe when they get caught. They shouldn’t. The Tony-nominated Broadway drama “Frost/Nixon” expertly documented the triumph and legitimacy of checkbook journalism, in showing how President Nixon’s greed (he got a reported $600,000 to talk to David Frost, after NBC and CBS dropped out of the bidding) led to the broadcast unraveling. If only television executives had learned as much from that experience as Nixon did, we’d all be watching Hilton answer tough questions from Meredith Vieira on NBC tonight, instead of fielding softballs on cable.

But network news heads still publicly pretend as though making deals for interviews corrupts the experience — even though history has repeatedly proven the opposite, and as though they haven’t done it for decades. When Nixon’s agent Swifty Lazar came calling in 1975, then-NBC News president Richard Wald justified his willingness to bid $300,000 because the interview was tied to Nixon’s memoir, and thus not “news.” By then the networks had paid for “memoirs” with the likes of Robert Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan, Russian dissident novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and presidents Johnson, Eisenhower, and Truman.

The Hilton deal dissolved simply because the $1 million price proved embarrassing. The network news divisions don’t write checks without making sure they’re getting a good deal; such negotiations often involve guarantees of promotion, appearances on multiple shows, payments for photos and transportation, and the cost of hair and makeup professionals. After reflexively holier-than-thou newspaper reporters wrote stories casting the networks’ discussions with Hilton as corrupt, there seemed no point in buying more bad publicity.

Instead, Hilton will appear tonight with Mr. King, on a broadcast that offers as its main virtue a sympathetic, affable host. It’s the best deal she could cut in the wake of so much bad press. But it would have been a ratings bonanza for NBC — and a bargain, given the cost of primetime entertainment shows — had they paid the $1 million and let Ms. Vieira have her way with the pouty heiress. The “Today” show co-host has two decades’ worth of tough, award-winning journalism on her résumé, and would have delivered a delicious hour of television as a sparring partner of America’s most celebrated blonde criminal since Bonnie Parker. The payment would have made perfect sense to the average viewer, who understands that all television programming has its price.

The networks still contend that business deals with interview subjects restrict their reportorial freedoms. But in “Frost/Nixon,” we observed how Mr. Frost broke a written agreement with Nixon by opening with a Watergate question — and with no consequences. Had NBC succeeded in striking a deal with Hilton, it similarly wouldn’t have affected Ms. Vieira’s strategy. If anything, she might have even been tougher and more aggressive, if only to prove her editorial independence. And if anyone thinks they need a check from Barbara Walters to guarantee a sycophantic celebrity interview, they’ve never watched her work.

When the networks say they don’t pay for interviews, they’re lying. Even when they don’t fork over cash, the broadcast networks routinely offer other financial rewards in return for access. A few years ago, CBS News offered a “60 Minutes” interview proposal to Private Jessica Lynch — in writing — that included an MTV appearance, a possible Simon & Schuster book deal, and the guarantee of airtime on the CBS Evening News. When Michael Jackson gave a “60 Minutes” interview to Ed Bradley in 2003, the New York Times reported that the network paid the singer $1 million for it; the network denied it, but CBS News sources later said they’d been told that a deal had been made — without their knowledge — to pay Mr. Jackson for a network primetime special to promote his new record, in return for exclusive “60 Minutes” access. Even if no money changed hands, it was a business deal, and a smart one; the Jackson interview delivered the show its highest ratings among 18-to-49-year-olds in four years.

Meanwhile, these supposed moral transgressions have turned print journalists who police the television news business into a smug, superior-sounding bunch. “Isn’t this a dangerous precedent?” wrote New York Times columnist James Reston in 1975, when the Haldeman interview appeared on CBS. “The practice blurs the line between entertainment and information.” At the end of “Frost/Nixon,” it was Reston’s own son — an adviser to David Frost — who declared, “It was tough to tell where the politics stopped and the showbiz started.” Once network news executives acknowledge the truths of their checkered moral past and their current shady practices, then maybe that will free them to openly write checks at the proper moment — and perhaps even to snag interviews with the likes of Richard Nixon, a high point in the medium’s history. Thirty years later television remains something of a spectacle, but it’s safe to say that no one will ever want to see a play about Paris Hilton and Larry King.

The New York Sun

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