All day Tuesday, the race-boggling Montana-American Rachel Dolezal embarked upon a tour of our televisions. First, she stopped at The Today Show, during which Dolezal expressed her disdain for those who would “whitewash” her social justice work as a white woman pretending to be a black woman. (“I identify as black,” she told Matt Lauer.)
Next, Dolezal hit Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, and discussed the ways that being the parent of two black sons make her black. “I have really gone there with the experience,” she said. “From a very young age, [I] felt a spiritual, visceral, this feeling of central connection with black is beautiful, you know, just the black experience and wanting to celebrate that.”
Later that evening, she was a guest on NBC Nightly News, where she told host Savannah Guthrie that she is unsure if her white parents, Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal, were actually her real parents. “I haven’t had any DNA tests,” she explained. “There’s been no biological proof... I’m not necessarily saying that I can’t prove they’re not, but I don’t know that I can actually prove they are.”
Clearly, all of this made for great television; Dolezal’s years-long pose as a black woman would have been enough to gawk at on its own, but now that the ruse is up, her continued insistence that she is something approximating un-white despite her Czech, Swedish, and German ancestry, is unfathomable to the point of fascination, if mitigated by disgust.
And yet, of all the news channels in the country, Dolezal’s interviews were confined to three shows on the same network, logically leading to the assumption that NBC shelled out the most cash for the company-wide opportunity to really see what makes this woman tick. It’s apparent that the network paid for Dolezal, her son, and the adopted brother she calls a son to travel to New York City for the interviews—the three were captured by paparazzi photos after arriving at LaGuardia Airport late Monday night.
But the real question is, how much did NBC pay Rachel Dolezal to procure not one, but three network-exclusive interviews?
While it’s considered unethical to pay a source or interviewee in the world of written media, in television it’s a fairly standard practice. In a 2010 Associated Press report republished on the Today Show’s very own website, Andy Schotz, then head of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, said, “Now often the first thing people think of is to get a publicist, a lawyer and an agent and figure out how to make money” from their stories:
News organizations now frequently pay interview subjects for the use of personal photos or videos. Both CNN and ABC paid for a Schuringa photo, reportedly thousands of dollars, and insisted they were not paying for an interview. Yet Gawker.com said Shai Ben-Ami, a Schuringa friend who was helping arrange media appearances, made it clear the Dutch hero wouldn’t speak to an outlet that didn’t buy rights to a photo. Ben-Ami would not comment to The Associated Press.
Morning shows will often bring an interview subject to New York and cover expenses. (It’s not payment for an interview, but it can be a nice vacation.)
Networks can skirt ethics policies by putting their entertainment divisions in charge of an interview, said Nicolla Hewitt, a longtime network news booker. These would seem most likely in cases involving major celebrities.
“Do I think it’s right? No,” Hewitt said. “But is it the new reality? Yes.”
Paul Friedman, a veteran news executive and CBS News senior vice president, said there’s a generational change with more people in the industry who argue that the old standards are too rigid.
In this light, we are very curious how much Rachel Dolezal was paid to tell her story exclusively to NBC, a network the Society of Professional Journalists accused of practicing “checkbook journalism.” And, in the spirit of fairness and equality, we’re prepared to offer money to find out. Do you know how much NBC paid Rachel Dolezal for her story and exclusivity? Does your information hold up to a more rigorous factcheck than Rachel Dolezal’s past?
Email us. We’re offering $1000.
UPDATE: an NBC News spokesperson tells Adweek that NBC that “Rachel Dolezal was not paid—period”:
Not only was this a cash-free interview, NBC didn’t even pay a licensing fee for photos or videos, which is often used to couch pay-for-play TV news interviews. NBC did pay for her flight, hotel stay and some meals, common in the booking process.
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