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Paris Hilton and Checkbook Journalism
June 25, 2007

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

It seems that the locals aren't acting very neighborly toward Paris Hilton.

Hilton's home happens to be in West Hollywood, just above the famed Sunset Strip. And residents who live near the troubled heiress' digs have reportedly signed a petition requesting that she move somewhere else.

Folks didn't seem to mind having Hilton as a neighbor when she was out drinking every night. But now reports are circulating that claim she's changed her life, found God, and is reading the Bible.

Hey, there are some things that just can't be tolerated in Tinseltown.

Meanwhile Larry King won the Paris post-jail interview sweepstakes by default.

NBC and ABC backed away from a Hilton interview. CBS also let it be known it wasn't interested.

However, the reason for the sudden chill toward Hilton had less to do with the heiress and more to do with the networks' reps.

Networks have been trying to distance themselves from numerous reports that have implied that, in an attempt to obtain an exclusive post-jail interview with Paris, checkbook journalism may have been at work.

The New York Post started the ball rolling when it reported that NBC agreed to pay up to $1 million for a "Today" show sit down. The report ignited other stories about media bidding.

ABC and NBC News were then forced to publicly insist that they do not pay for interviews and that neither had a deal with Hilton.

However, an ABC executive has said otherwise. According to the executive, the Hiltons had taken NBC up on a $1 million offer for the licensing of family photos and a video because it was more lucrative than ABC's $100,000 bid.

For decades news organizations have frowned upon checkbook journalism primarily because the practice implicitly taints the credibility of sources. Cash payments provided in exchange for news may give a source an incentive to inflate a story. The hotter the account, the more money it is worth. In all of the jockeying, truth may be lost in the mix.

The nets have been cleverly getting around the rule by paying money for what they call "licensing" of photos, videos or made-for TV movie rights.

Some examples include the following:

  • NBC scored exclusive interviews with the two U.K. Princes, William and Harry. Coincidently, the Peacock network paid a reported $2.5 million fee to air a concert in July that commemorates the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana's death.

  • ABC News paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to Steve Irwin's widow for footage used in a Barbara Walters primetime interview in Fall 2006.

  • Prior to the 1970s, paying for stories was fairly routine. It is an acceptable practice in Europe.

Disclosure is the key. Now if we can only get the networks to quit the charade.

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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