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Hilton case exposes checkbook journalism

June 23, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo learned the hard way that decisions involving Paris Hilton brought sharp scrutiny.

Her 23-day sentence -- and the subsequent controversy over her early release and reimprisonment -- unwittingly exposed the overcrowding of L.A. County jails. Now, in the latest example of the odd alchemy worked by the socialite's celebrity, Hilton's attempt to land a lucrative media deal has unintentionally brought discomfiting attention to a practice the networks would rather keep quiet: their willingness to compensate subjects for exclusive access.

On Friday, executives at ABC, NBC and CBS all said they were no longer interested in interviewing the heiress after details of a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations with her family were made public, torpedoing Hilton's efforts to secure a major network venue for her first post-jail sit-down. The abrupt turnaround came after intense jostling among the news divisions for an exclusive.

Hilton's family triggered the scrutiny this week by telling ABC that NBC was willing to pay close to $1 million for an exclusive upon her release, a story NBC promptly disavowed. But outrage built over the prospect that Hilton could profit from her stint in jail for violating terms of her probation for alcohol-related reckless-driving charges.

A Hilton spokesman later released a statement saying she was not being compensated for any interviews.

Hilton would not have been the first to profit from such an arrangement. Television news divisions have long found ways to woo prospective interview subjects without paying them directly, whether through posh hotel suites, Broadway show tickets or "licensing fees" for home videos.

"It's the way that the networks have been doing business for years," said Joe Angotti, a former senior vice president at NBC News. "It's always bothered me, and it bothers me more now that I'm out of the business. They feel that it does not cross the line as long as they don't write a check. It's a very fuzzy line, obviously."

One longtime network producer familiar with the booking wars said most major broadcast interviews involved some form of indirect compensation, such as first- or business-class plane tickets, limousines and five-star meals.

"It's all built around the idea of plausible deniability so that extremely reputable journalists can say with a straight face that they didn't pay for the interview," said the producer, who did not want to be quoted by name discussing internal practices. "It's just seen as the cost of doing business. And as the competition has increased, there's been a sense of, 'What more can we do to up the ante?' "

Network executives defended their tactics, insisting that paying to use personal footage or putting interview subjects up in hotels did not amount to checkbook journalism.

"NBC News doesn't pay for interviews, period," said Allison Gollust, a spokeswoman for the news division. "There are situations in any news story where the licensing of material is part of the booking, but I think everyone understands what is reasonable and what's not."

This week, ABC executives said they had lost their bid for an exclusive with Hilton to Meredith Vieira, co-anchor of NBC's "Today" show. Hilton's camp indicated that NBC had offered the family a better deal: a licensing fee of $750,000 to $1 million for the use of personal videos and photos, besting ABC's offer of $100,000.

But when word of the negotiations leaked out, NBC said it had no commitment from Hilton and would not pay for an interview. However, the network continued to negotiate for a sit-down that did not include any form of payment, according to an NBC source.

At the same time, the jailed socialite and her family -- apparently fearful of losing a major network interview altogether -- frantically sought a deal with ABC's Barbara Walters.

The lobbying took the form of a flurry of late-night phone calls. Just before midnight Friday on the East Coast, Hilton's mother, Kathy Hilton, who is a friendly acquaintance of the ABC host, called Walters at her home and told her that the 26-year-old wanted to do the interview with Walters, no strings attached.

Around 2 a.m., Walters received a call from Paris Hilton herself.

"She expressed her regret that all kinds of negotiations seemed to have gone outside her control and she only wanted to do this with Barbara," said an ABC executive who did not want to be identified discussing internal matters.

In the morning, Walters received another message in her office from Hilton's father, Rick Hilton, reiterating the family's interest in having her do the story.

Irked by the machinations, Walters and her producer, David Sloan, decided against it.

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