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In the big interview hunt, what exactly is fair game?

Competitors said CBS News crossed an ethical line by implying U.S. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch could be helped to land an MTV special, TV movie or book deal if she agreed to an interview with the network. Last week, CBS questioned the propriety of NBC’s shared “Dateline"/"Access Hollywood” exclusive with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, and CBS News President Andrew Heyward defended his network by pointing out that the “top practitioners” of the big “get” interview work elsewhere, not at CBS.

It’s always nice when everyone’s right.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Jul. 31, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Lynch caption -- A photo caption that accompanied the “On TV” column in Wednesday’s Calendar said CBS News interviewed U.S. Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch. Although the network made a detailed proposal to Lynch, at this point she has not done an interview with any of the networks.

Television news programs are increasingly driven by the “get,” whether it’s the project-peddling celebrity seeking timely publicity or sudden headline-makers like Lynch awash in their 15 minutes of fame. And while reputable news divisions say they would never sully themselves by paying for such access, they regularly tango up to that line -- resulting in a booking process that, as Heyward said, “cries out for analysis.”

In many ways, the big interview hunt bears a strong resemblance to amateur athletics, another arena where the corrupting influence of money -- and prohibitions against paying the prey outright -- breeds ethical transgressions, providing a strong incentive to break (or at least bend) the rules.

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No one, however, seems to possess the force of will necessary to truly cleanse either system, which would require starting over with guidelines that more accurately reflect reality. Because as it stands, universities prevented from giving athletes cash and news divisions barred from anteing up for interviews are both straddling the line of what’s acceptable, transforming the smudging of boundaries into a practiced art.

College athletic departments and prime-time newsmagazines (or cable news channels) are big businesses, bringing in tens of millions of dollars. Yet these enterprises operate under arcane parameters that fail to recognize their desperate need for raw material to stay ahead of rivals and keep profits flowing -- with NBC’s “Today” show alone, to cite one gaudy example, netting more than $250 million a year.

Because interview subjects and athletes can’t be paid out in the open, producers and coaches must “sell” them on their particular program. These constraints lead to elaborate courting rituals and creative packaging, with news stars uncomfortably cast in a role that forces them to begin as what Heyward called a “kind of seducer” before transitioning back to journalist.

Even that form of seduction can be a dirty business, as demonstrated by Connie Chung’s much-celebrated letter to Gary Condit in 2001 where, before roasting him on ABC, she pledged, “My aim is for you to say what you want to say. I would look forward to the opportunity to meet you and treating you with the utmost respect.”

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Still, that mating dance goes only so far, which is why there’s so much temptation to circumvent the rules by creatively compensating targets under or around the table. The goal is to put forward the most entertaining product -- whether it’s a championship team or highly rated program.

Awash in this win-at-all-costs mentality, the distinction between serious breaches and minor ones is often obscured. Colleges get placed on probation for doling out T-shirts and free calls home to recruits, and a “Today” show booker was reprimanded a year ago for buying an $80 pair of pants for a teenage rape victim. It’s all technically out of bounds, of course, but that’s only because the rules are so ill-equipped to deal with the high-stakes game they’re supposed to govern.

Moreover, as the companies that dominate the TV business grow bigger, their bidding wars will surely become more tangled and bizarre. CBS’ hinted-at linkage to other Viacom divisions in its pitch to Lynch was, in fact, only a small step forward -- and an inkling of what’s to come -- given the kind of synergistic flourishes that have become commonplace.

News programs already blatantly promote sibling entertainment properties, from the cozy relationship between “Survivor” and CBS’ “The Early Show” to the in-house lineup of guests chosen as each fall TV season approaches. And what was NBC’s Lopez-Affleck interview -- spread across “Access Hollywood” and then culminating on “Dateline” -- other than a mutually beneficial infomercial, providing millions in free publicity for the stars’ film while giving the network one of the week’s most-watched programs?

Against this backdrop, the mention of paying for interviews seems a bit less horrifying and more a question of semantics. And while there is merit to the fear that represents a “slippery slope” down the path to tawdry tabloid-ism, the perspective when watching television news today usually says we are staring up that slope, not down it.

Meeting with reporters last week, CBS News’ Heyward insisted the Lynch affair was misinterpreted, stating that the best way to get an interview “is to just stress the ... journalistic strengths of CBS News. And we have to hope that that argument prevails.”

That certainly sounds good, but “journalistic strengths” aren’t always as significant to those with a movie to sell -- or a sudden shot at fame or notoriety to exploit -- as maximizing exposure or a potential financial windfall. And while the intersection of news and showbiz has blurred, it’s clear the Lynch saga won’t be the last time standards are trampled in the stampede for the next big “get.”

As Heyward suggested, what that means for broadcast news is a conversation worth having, but unless there’s a little honesty about where things stand, there’s no foundation to start dredging the cesspool. Until then, booking high-profile interviews will have plenty in common with signing a blue-chip point guard, but precious little to do with journalism.

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Brian Lowry’s column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at brian.lowry@latimes.com.


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