MSNBC's Conrad Murray Documentary Raises New Questions About Checkbook Journalism (Analysis)

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NEW YORK -- A British documentary about Dr. Conrad Murray that was licensed by NBC is again raising the thorny issue of pay-to-play in television news. 

Michael Jackson and the Doctor: A Fatal Friendship is set to air at 10 p.m. Friday on MSNBC. It was produced by U.K.-based October Films and what’s it all about? productions. Zodiak Rights, a subsidiary of Zodiak Media Group, distributed the documentary, brokering licensing deals with NBC, Nine Network in Australia and Channel 4 in the U.K.

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The documentary "explores the surreal world inhabited by Jackson in the last three months of his life and examines his fatal friendship with the doctor he handpicked to care for himself and his children," according to a press release.

The Jackson family has cried foul over the documentary, and on Wednesday the co-executors of Jackson's estate (John Branca and John McClain) sent an outraged letter to NBC demanding to know “how much money in total was paid for this privileged access” to Murray. The letter -- addressed to Comcast chairman and CEO Brian L. Roberts, NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke, business operations president Marc Graboff and MSNBC president Phil Griffin -- characterized the documentary as “reprehensible” and called on the company to “exercise proper judgment” and refrain from airing it.

An MSNBC spokesperson tells The Hollywood Reporter that Fatal Friendship will air as planned.

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On the issue of payment, a spokesperson for October Films said: “No fee or payment was made to Dr. Murray by October Films, save for a contractual notional $1.” But the licensing fee for the film was in the low- to mid- six figure range, say sources. The Los Angeles Times reported that filmmakers began shopping the film in October and were asking "close to $500,000" for U.S. rights. Part of that package was an interview with Murray prior to the verdict. 

“NBCUniversal licensed the documentary from Zodiak Rights,” the network said in a statement. “In connection with the documentary, NBCUniversal had the opportunity to conduct a promotional interview with Dr. Murray. Neither Dr. Murray nor his legal defense were compensated in any way.”

But the absence of money flowing from NBC to Murray has clearly not insulated the news division from criticism. Sources say that MSNBC executives have been inundated with angry e-mails from the public.

The companies secured rights to Dr. Murray in November 2009, before he was charged in the manslaughter death of Jackson. Murray’s former publicist told the LA Times that they allowed Murray to participate in the documentary because the companies agreed not to air it prior to the verdict.

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On Monday, Murray was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for administering the fatal dose of propofol that killed Jackson in June 2009. He has been remanded to custody to await sentencing.

The following morning, Savannah Guthrie’s pre-verdict interview with Murray aired on NBC's Today

News divisions have been on the defensive over the longtime practice of licensing personal photos and home video from interview subjects as a fig leaf to paying outright for interviews. ABC News president Ben Sherwood, who took over from David Westin in December, denounced the practice after it was revealed that ABC News paid $200,000 to the family of Casey Anthony and another $15,000 for a photo of a snake from the meter reader who discovered the remains of Anthony’s daughter Caylee. (The snake was in the same area where the body was found. The meter reader was interviewed on ABC.)

Sherwood’s public stance on the practice of checkbook journalism ignited a war of words last summer between ABC and NBC. An NBC News spokesperson told Adweek: “We were happy to hear about this change in ABC News policy. We agree that their recent activity has been bad for journalism and the news industry. And we welcome them back to the practices that we work hard to uphold.”

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This prompted the following rebuttal from an “ABC News insider”: “NBC News lies about its practices, does not disclose the habitual payments it makes for interviews and then has the gall to get up on a high horse. Someone ought to remind NBC News that the higher they get up on that horse, the farther they will fall as their rank and recurring hypocrisy is exposed.”

The Murray documentary was shopped to several cable networks as well as ABC, say sources, but it's unclear if ABC passed on it. It was not shopped to CBS.

Jeff Fager, who was named chairman of CBS News in February, also has disavowed the practice, telling THR in an interview this summer: “If we don't get the story because we're not going to pay for it, we don't get the story. There are plenty of other stories. I think that's how we distinguish ourselves from others.”

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@THR.com
Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie

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