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SPJ Accuses NBC of 'Checkbook Journalism'

The Society of Professional Journalists has taken NBC and its Today Show to task for what it calls 'checkbook journalism.'

Over the Christmas holiday, the network paid to fly David Goldman and his son home from Brazil on its chartered jet after Goldman won a high-profile custody battle for the boy.

During the flight back, NBC took the opportunity that being about 30,000 feet in the air affords, and landed an exclusive interview with Goldman.

In its statement, the SPJ said that "by making itself part of a breaking news story on which it was reporting - apparently to cash in on the exclusivity assured by its expensive gesture - NBC jeopardized its journalistic independence and credibility in its initial and subsequent reports.

"In effect, the network branded the story as its own, creating a corporate and promotional interest in the way the story unfolds. NBC's ability to report the story fairly has been compromised by its financial involvement."

The network has denied that it paid for the interview and told Broadcast and Cable that, "NBC News has not and will not pay for an interview.

"The Goldmans were invited on a jet NBC News chartered to fly home to the U.S. on Thursday, Dec. 24. NBC News has followed this story since the Goldman's story first ran on Dateline nearly one year ago -- David Goldman since has appeared on Today seventeen times."

Essentially, NBC's defense seems to be that because it covered the story so extensively, it somehow had full rights to ownership of the story and was then able to handle its coverage any way it wished.

The SPJ, on the other hand, thinks the network has sacrificed its neutrality and objectivity by paying for the flight.

It seems pretty clear to us that if the Today Show was really interested in handling this as a hard-news story, it crossed a rather serious ethical line. Even if we are to believe that this wasn't the network's intent, the appearance is damning.

Additionally, NBC is not doing its news division any favors with its curious defense in this matter.

Notice that in their explanation, the network's hierarchy decided to throw the Today Show and its news department into the same pot.

By not differentiating between NBC News and the Today Show, one could take it that the leadership of the network condones this kind of newsgathering technique from all of its news teams.

We find this hard to believe, because it's fair to surmise that many viewers see the Today Show and NBC News as two separate entities.

The network's one-for-all, all-for-one approach in explaining away this incident has opened a can of worms here.

If NBC truly does condone this type of newsgathering technique from all its staff, it would then rightfully call into question what type of journalistic tenets (if any) were being followed the next time NBC News scored an 'exclusive' interview with a newsmaker. Did the network acquire the interview thanks to some good shoe-leather hustle, or because it was Johnny on the spot with a favor or two?

If the brass at NBC had come to the defense of just the Today Show, and not NBC News as a whole in this case, it would have made it no less grievous, but easier to swallow. That it chose to defend its whole newsgathering team at the network by condoning the way this interview was obtained is concerning.