NBC News made the most of the footage and interviews it purchased from a group of skydivers involved in a spectacular weekend accident, playing the story across two segments of the “Today” show this morning.
In a second instance of apparent “checkbook journalism” by the network in the past week, NBC ’s news division paid more than $100,000 to the survivors of the mid-air collision. It bought the exclusive right to show their helmet-cam footage of the accident and interviews with the two pilots and nine skydivers. The assembled group told their stories on “Today” to host Matt Lauer.
NBC outbid ABC News, among others, for the story, although “Today” didn’t mention the specific financial arrangements behind the skydivers’ appearance. Instead, it said repeatedly that NBC News had “licensed” their footage “exclusively.”
Paying for interviews has long been considered a breach of ethics by journalists. The practice is often regarded as the province of marginal news organizations, such as the National Enquirer. But TV organizations often compete for newsworthy footage by compensating those who took the footage.
The skydiver story marked the second time in just a few days that NBC News has engaged in paying its sources; last week, news surfaced of its financial negotiations with the family of Hannah Anderson, the California teenager who was kidnapped in August by a family friend, who allegedly murdered her mother and brother. Anderson is being compensated to participate in an NBC-produced documentary.
Lauer conducted two interviews with the skydivers at “Today’s” studio in New York, first after 7:30 am, and then after 8 am. Both periods are prime viewing hours for the program, which is trying to recapture the top spot in the morning ratings it lost to ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
The skydivers, who weren’t identified by name on-screen, told of the harrowing moments during and immediately after one of their planes flew atop another, causing one of the planes to break apart and catch fire. All of the skydivers and one of the pilots made it to safety by bailing out of the two planes. The pilot of the second plane, who was interviewed during the second segment on “Today,” was able to land his damaged aircraft.
Neither Lauer nor the skydivers explained if human error or mechanical failure caused the accident, but one skydiver recalled her reaction as the second plane neared the one she was in: “Closer, closer, closer. This is too close!” she said.
Another skydiver, a young woman, teared up recalling the chaos of the collision, the fireball of the first plane, and the shower of debris that followed them as they dove out of the plane.
Asked by Lauer if they would ever go skydiving again, all 11 said yes.
NBC News paid the 11 participants to appear exclusively on NBC for the next two weeks, preventing TV rivals from getting the story. It will stretch its investment by producing a segment about the accident for its primetime magazine show, “Dateline NBC.” It also has posted clips on “Today’s” web site and reported on the story on “Nightly News with Brian Williams.”