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It's Paying for an Interview - No Matter What You Call It

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You would have to have a heart of stone not to tear up a little when you see David Goldman finally getting his 9-year-old son Sean back from Brazil. It is admirable that this man of limited means waged a five-year international war to retrieve his son from his wife's well-to-do and prominent Brazilian family. And what a relief to finish off 2009 knowing that justice has been done, at least in the case of one small family.

However, NBC's decision to pay for a chartered plane to fly David and Sean back to the United States smacks of bribery not justice. Particularly since NBC won the first-interview rights on this morning's Today show as a result of its incredibly "generous" gesture. It has been a solid rule of journalistic ethics that you don't pay for news interviews. The newly renamed Radio Television Digital News Association's Code of Ethical and Professional Conduct cautions: "Professional electronic journalists should not pay news sources who have a vested interest in a story."

Why is this rule important? First, because paid sources (like paid informants) often tailor their answers to fit what they think their benefactors want to hear, not necessarily the unvarnished truth. The notion is that if you pay someone, particularly someone who needs the money badly enough, they will say anything. And this doesn't consequently make for accurate and fair news stories.

Second, the theory is that sources choose to speak to reporters or interviewers for a variety of reasons -- they think they'll get a fair shake, they like this particular show, they've built up a trust relationship with a reporter, they think they'll get the most air time, someone got to them first... a million different reasons or any combination thereof -- but not who's offering them the fanciest hotel room, most expensive meals, or biggest expense allowance.

David Goldman's "exclusive" interview with Meredith Vieira this morning was not paid for... exactly. That is, cash didn't change hands directly for access. But NBC did charter a jet to take the newly reunited duo from Brazil to Florida, at a cost estimated by TVNewser to be between $50,000 and $70,000. NBC's response to the blog? "The Goldmans were invited on a jet NBC News chartered to fly home to the U.S." Also on the plane? NBC News correspondent Jeff Rossen. The network gets the first interview, exclusively, with footage and audio from the plane ride, and, maybe even most important, gets to keep the competition away. What happened to the level playing field?

It's hard to be perplexed as to why journalists have fallen as low as they have in the estimation of the American public when we engage in a bidding war emanating from the tragic kidnapping of a four-year-old. Even as the industry is falling apart, it would be nice to think we still adhere to the most basic of standards.