NBC News correspondent Maria Shriver thinks that the new movie “Still Alice” is important and compelling. Indeed, the Alzheimer’s-themed film, she reported Tuesday on “NBC Nightly News,” could do for Alzheimer’s patients what the Oscar-winning “Philadelphia” did for people living with AIDS.
Then again, Shriver isn’t exactly a disinterested party.
Shriver not only was the reporter on the news segment about “Still Alice,” but she is also one of the movie’s executive producers. Which means that Shriver the reporter was promoting a project that could benefit Shriver the businesswoman.
By long tradition, journalists are obliged to avoid having a personal stake in the stories they cover. Such conflicts of interest potentially undermine the credibility of the journalist and his or her news organization. A vested interest, after all, could lead viewers or readers to conclude that a story was reported not for its news value but for the journalist’s personal gain.
NBC anchor Brian Williams introduced Shriver’s two-minute report by saying that the new film “will make a lot of people think, and it may scare a lot of families” about Alzheimer’s, a deadly disease. He added, “There’s already talk of an Oscar nomination for its star, Julianne Moore.”
Williams disclosed that the movie “is something of a passion project for one of its producers,” Shriver, whose father, Sargent Shriver, died from the disease. But neither he nor Shriver disclosed any potential financial interest for Shriver; executive producers typically help arrange financing for a movie and share in any profits.
NBC News spokeswoman Ali Zelenko defended Shriver’s report by saying, “This was an important public health story about early onset Alzheimer’s — a little-known aspect of one of America’s most deadly diseases. Maria Shriver has long been an advocate for medical research to fight Alzheimer’s. Her connection to the issue is well known, and her link to the film that explores it was disclosed to the audience before the piece aired.”
A representative for Shriver, Jon Liebman, said Shriver is donating her fee from the film, around $15,000, to a charity she is starting for brain research. Her NBC report did not mention this.
Shriver’s story featured interviews with Moore and Moore’s consultant on the movie, a woman named Sandy Oltz, who is fighting early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50. Shriver noted, “Though Alzheimer’s is one of the top 10 deadliest diseases, funding for research is only a fraction of that of cancer and heart disease.”
She also added her own assessment of her movie, comparing it to “Philadelphia,” the 1993 film that starred Tom Hanks as an AIDS patient and Denzel Washington as the lawyer who takes his case for wrongful termination. “A lot of people are comparing this to ‘Philadelphia,’ ” she said in a voiceover. “What ‘Philadelphia’ did for AIDS, ‘Still Alice’ can potentially do for Alzheimer’s.”
As for Moore, Shriver said that “her performance [is] bringing new attention to a devastating disease.”
Shriver has promoted the film on her own Web site, with favorable review blurbs, interviews and the movie’s trailer.
NBC News has made an issue of conflicts among its journalists and on-air personalities before. In late 2010, it suspended then-MSNBC host Keith Olbermann “indefinitely” over contributions he made to three congressional candidates, including Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.). Two weeks later, it suspended “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough, also of MSNBC, for a series of contributions to friends and family members who were running for state and local offices. Scarborough’s suspension lasted two days.
The network’s news division said that it prohibits political donations without a special exception from the news division’s president.
Sony Pictures Classics is releasing “Still Alice,” which is based on a 2007 self-published novel by Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist and writer. The studio is not affiliated with NBC or its parent company, Comcast Corp.