Times, CBS spar over Jackson interview

There they go again: CBS and the New York Times rang in the New Year locked in a war of words regarding the Eye’s recent Michael Jackson interview.

The latest salvo came Wednesday, after the paper published an article alleging that CBS had effectively paid Jackson to be interviewed for “60 Minutes.”

New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman extensively quoted an unnamed Jackson “business associate,” who claimed that CBS paid for the Jackson interview via the net’s entertainment division. The paper said CBS Entertainment handed Jackson an additional $1 million to air the delayed primetime special “Michael Jackson Number Ones.”

CBS issued a statement in response, calling the story “misleading and false.”

“The origins of this story are unclear as the Times did not see fit to name its single, admittedly disgruntled, source within the Jackson camp,” the web said. “CBS licensed an entertainment special, nothing else. There was no payment for a news interview.”

It was the second time in the past year that the Eye has blasted the Times over an article about its news division. CBS took the Gray Lady to task in June after the paper documented practices the network used in its attempt to score an exclusive interview with soldier Jessica Lynch.

In that story, the paper said CBS had enticed Lynch by offering her potential projects at other Viacom-owned properties, such as MTV, Simon & Schuster and CBS Entertainment. In that case, the paper even backed up its story with a letter written to Lynch’s reps by a CBS exec.

But the Eye accused the Times of selectively quoting the letter and sent out a terse response, referencing the Times’ own recent Jayson Blair scandal: “Unlike the New York Times’ own ethical problems, there is no question about the accuracy or integrity of CBS News’ reporting.”

Interestingly, CBS News and the New York Times are partners in the polling business. Both news organizations have a contractual arrangement under which they conduct joint poll surveys. The operation most recently published and broadcast a poll Dec. 18 regarding the presidential race.

Despite the two run-ins, CBS spokesman Chris Ender said it wasn’t indicative of a larger battle between the two organizations. “The network’s relationship with the New York Times is fine,” Ender said. “But that doesn’t mean we will accept what we believe to be an inaccurate or false story.”

Meanwhile, when asked whether he thought CBS had a larger problem with the New York Times, newspaper spokesman Toby Usnik said he “would refer that question to CBS.”

As for CBS’ accusation that Waxman’s Michael Jackson piece was incorrect, the paper issued a short response: “Our story was balanced and accurate. CBS’ position was set out fully in the second paragraph and in other paragraphs.”

In the end, the debate comes down to differing interpretations of money exchanging hands and the expectations that came attached to that cash. CBS doesn’t deny that it paid Jackson out of its entertainment budget in order to run “Michael Jackson Number Ones,” which airs tonight at 8.

And although the net initially said it would “consider broadcasting the special after the due process of the legal system runs its course” (Daily Variety, Nov. 20), the network later amended its position, deciding it would run the special if Jackson would respond to the charges via a network interview.

Jackson, of course, decided to sit down for an interview with “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley in order to get the special on the air. The “60 Minutes” interview aired Sunday, giving the newsmag its best perf among young adults in four years.

“We certainly wouldn’t have rescheduled the entertainment special if he hadn’t addressed the situation elsewhere on our network,” Ender told the Associated Press last week (Daily Variety, Dec. 29).

And that’s where the CBS-New York Times debate devolves into semantics. The New York Times claims CBS paid Jackson for the special as an enticement to score a “60 Minutes” interview. CBS said an interview was necessary before considering running the special, which it had paid Jackson to air.

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