Jackson interview gives CBS bad press

'60 Minutes' talks, special lead to ethics questions

— Suddenly enmeshed in an ethical crisis involving Michael Jackson at a time he should be enjoying a victory lap, "60 Minutes" founder Don Hewitt confesses only to bewilderment.

"This is beyond me," he said. "I have no idea why this (story) has legs, about absolutely nothing."

The murky ties between Ed Bradley's interview with Jackson, broadcast Dec. 28, and the pop star's CBS entertainment special on Jan. 2 have led to charges that CBS essentially paid for news access.

The episode clouds a startling ratings comeback for the newsmagazine Hewitt has run since 1968.

CBS News insists it never pays for interviews, and didn't in this case. Hewitt and Bradley said they were unaware of any financial arrangements with Jackson.

"I don't know what they paid for the special," Hewitt said. "All I know is a story fell in my lap with no strings attached. It happened to be about somebody who everybody is curious about. So we did it."

Jackson's music special had been shelved by CBS' entertainment division in November when the molestation charges became known. The network said it would not air unless Jackson talked about the case with CBS News.

Less than 24 hours after Jackson sat down with Bradley on Christmas night, CBS' entertainment division rescheduled the music special. Jackson wouldn't have been paid for it if the special hadn't aired.

Many of the details are unclear, including how much he was paid. CBS and Jackson's financial adviser have denied a report in The New York Times that Jackson's deal for the special was sweetened after he consented to the "60 Minutes" interview.

The story sparked a brutal round of criticism: The New York Observer ran a front-page illustration showing Bradley and CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves in bed with Jackson, above the headline, "Lost in Neverland."

For "60 Minutes," it's the biggest ethical mess since the 1995 incident captured in the movie, "The Insider," which depicted the newsmagazine caving to pressure from CBS lawyers and not airing a whistleblowing report from an ex-tobacco executive.

Nothing about the Jackson story made him uncomfortable, Hewitt said, and the interview had no ground rules.

photo

AP File Photo

Michael Jackson is interviewed by Ed Bradley with the CBS television program "60 Minutes" in Los Angeles, in this Dec. 25, 2003, file photo. The murky ties between Bradley's interview with Jackson and the pop star's CBS entertainment special have led to charges that CBS essentially paid for news access.

"I understand the tobacco thing that we once went through," he said. "That sounded like a legitimate thing for people to be concerned about. They were no more concerned than I was. I have difficulty understanding" the fuss over Jackson.

The network was rewarded with the first "60 Minutes" finish atop the weekly Nielsen Media Research rankings since November 1998. Hewitt said he believes this success is partly responsible for the criticism.

Before the Jackson flap, "60 Minutes" was riding high with the year's biggest comeback story.

No regular series has gained more viewers this season than the 35-year-old warhorse (an average of 15.8 million viewers versus 13.7 million at the same point last year). Among the younger viewers that advertisers desire, it's an even sharper 20 percent jump.

Hewitt also has resisted a view that "60 Minutes" is scheduling more stories to court younger viewers, including with storylines about the porn industry and hiring practices at Abercrombie & Fitch.

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