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NBC in ethics spotlight

February 07, 2009|Matea Gold and Jessica Garrison

NEW YORK AND LOS ANGELES — NBC's "Today" show aired Friday morning the first portion of Ann Curry's interview with Nadya Suleman, the Whittier mother whose controversial birth of octuplets last week has sparked a heated debate about medical ethics.

The network is making the most of the exclusive, stretching the interview out over three days, including a "Dateline" special on Tuesday.

Despite all the airtime devoted to Suleman, left unspoken was the question dogging NBC: Was the mother of 14 compensated in any way for the sit-down?

The network maintains that the news division does not pay for interviews.

But in recent days, Suleman's representatives have said that she has been deluged with offers for her story and wants to use the opportunity to provide for her children. And her family apparently indicated to the networks seeking to interview her that she needs financial help.

According to an executive at a rival media outlet, Suleman's father made it clear to those asking for the interview that he anticipated it would cost as much as $1.2 million to cover Suleman's expenses. After NBC secured the exclusive, Suleman's father told other media outlets that the network had approached them with "a real proposal," the executive said.

On Thursday, Suleman's publicist, Michael Furtney, initially said that whether she is being paid is "between her and NBC." He later said he misspoke and insisted she was not compensated for the interview.

"NBC News does not and will not pay for an interview," said "Today" spokeswoman Megan Kopf. Kopf said NBC was not approached by Suleman's father for money or any other reason.

"Today's" co-hosts did not address the question of payment as they chatted with Curry on the air Friday about the interview. But Matt Lauer -- who twice congratulated Curry for landing the exclusive -- pressed her about how the single mother, who has six other children, is going to be able to afford her large family.

"She says that when she finished her schooling, she knows she'll be able to support them," Lauer said. "But in the near term, immediately, how are these children going to be cared for in terms of the financial costs that it will take?"

"She's trying to figure that out," Curry responded, appearing caught off-guard a bit by the question. "I think it's fair to say that it's all, uh, hit her. She's trying to figure out -- she's worried about how she's going to be able to pay for all of it. But she believes that even though it's difficult to accept help, that her family and her friends and her church will step up."

While network news divisions have policies that strictly prohibit any payment for interviews, it's a common practice in the fiercely competitive world of morning television to compensate sources with hotel rooms, first-class plane fare, Broadway show tickets and so-called licensing fees for personal photos and video footage.

The practice came under scrutiny in 2007 when Paris Hilton sought a payment for the first interview she granted after spending 23 days in L.A. County jails for violating terms of her probation for alcohol-related reckless driving charges.

At the time, ABC executives said they were told by Hilton's family that "Today" co-host Meredith Vieira had won the interview because NBC offered to pay close to $1 million to license Hilton's videos and photos, besting ABC's offer of $100,000. NBC denied that.

After the negotiations became public, both networks backed out, and Hilton ultimately described her jail experience to Larry King on CNN, which said she was not compensated for the interview.


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