Lynch Interview Race Raises Ethical Questions

In just a few short months, Pfc. Jessica Lynch (search) has gone from being a POW to the media's most sought-after interview subject.

Lynch, an American soldier who was rescued by U.S. troops from an Iraqi hospital on April 1 after her convoy was ambushed, has received an array of offers from media bigwigs -- including Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer -- trying to snag the first interview with the young woman.

But CBS is ready to give Lynch access to virtually every aspect of the Viacom (search) media empire to score the enviable face-time, according to The New York Times.

CBS News sent letters, obtained by the Times, to the Lynch family in Palestine, W.Va., pitching a two-hour documentary with other projects sketched out by various branches of its parent company, including proposals from MTV networks, Simon & Schuster publishers and CBS Entertainment -- all branches of Viacom.

"From the distinguished reporting of CBS News to the youthful reach of MTV, we believe this is a unique combination of projects that will do justice to Jessica's inspiring story," Betsy West, a CBS News senior vice president, wrote to Lynch's military representatives, the Times reported.

CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said there was a clear distinction between the request for an interview with Lynch and possible deals with MTV, Simon & Schuster and other Viacom divisions.

Other networks made similar inquiries, she contended.

"Most of the other network proposals did have some entertainment proposals or tie-in attached to them," Genelius said. She did not offer details.

Lynch, who has been recovering from injuries at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (search) in Washington, has not yet spoken to the press.

NBC News' Couric sent Lynch, 20, patriotic books, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's memoir, Leadership, the Times reported, and ABC News' Diane Sawyer sent a locket with a photograph of Lynch's home.

But the media scramble to see who will get the interview first has raised ethical questions concerning how much pull media parent companies should have with potential interviewees.

"The real problem here is checkbook journalism," said Neal Gabler, a media writer and regular panelist on Fox News Watch. According to Gabler, television networks don't want to pay for big interviews, so they employ "checkbook journalism through the back door" by offering potential interview subjects other limelight time with affiliated media outlets.

"I don't think this is necessarily a media conglomerate story so much as it is a media ethics story," Gabler added. "I think the problem is, if you're going to give a quid pro quo for an interview, I think that -- in and of itself -- is journalistically improper. That really becomes the issue."

CBS, however, said it clearly stated in the Lynch proposal that CBS News is independent from the other Viacom outlets and there was no promise of any deal. "We stand by this letter -- there's no quid pro quo stated or implied," West told the Times.

But a Walter Reed spokeswoman who helped the Lynch family sort through media letters said the distinction as to what Viacom branch was making what deal was not all that clear.

"It looks confusing the way the letters are," Beverly Chidel told the Times. "Someone may think, well, you're going to pay me for this, that and the other."

While it's not usual for TV bookers to pull out all the stops to land a high-profile interview, CBS' offer is more far-reaching than most.

MTV offered a chance for Lynch and her friends to be co-hosts of an hour-long music video program on MTV2 and a special edition of Total Request Live.

"This special would include a concert performance in Palestine, W.Va., by a current star act such as Ashanti, and perhaps Ja Rule," the proposal reportedly said.

As the ratings race has become more fierce, TV execs have gotten more creative in their approaches to landing special guests.

CBS' 60 Minutes apparently sent out a similar proposal to the family of Aron Ralston, the hiker who was forced to cut off his own arm after a hiking accident in Utah. The Times reported that CBS asked to film Ralston's rehabilitation and offered to help him contact other Viacom divisions.

"We can put you in touch with CBS Entertainment should you be interested in pursuing a television movie; with Paramount Pictures should you want to explore any movie possibilities; and with Simon & Schuster should Aron be interested in writing a book about his experience," the proposal read. "Those are all options for you to consider, and all things that we can help you with."

"The struggle that we deal with in looking at some of these things is, news is news; news is not to be bought and sold," Ralston's father, Larry, told the Times. "But what's news and what's entertainment?"

As more news operations become consolidated under fewer parent companies, critics say more media wars have ensued over what is a proper courtship and what steps over the line if some branches direct interview subjects to other sibling companies as tie-in deals.

Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News, said his division avoids proposals like that CBS offered Lynch.

"NBC News would certainly not be in the position of advancing projects by other divisions of the company," Wheatley told the Times. "We don't want there to be confusion on this overall policy; that we don't pay for interviews."

Phyllis McGrady, a senior vice president of ABC News -- owned by the Walt Disney Company -- said she isn't opposed to helping a potential interview get in touch with Disney's entertainment division if it's requested.

"If you were looking for a book deal," she told the Times, "we have a publishing arm, Hyperion. I'll give you the name of the person there. But I could never, ever speak for Hyperion."

Lawrence Grossman, a former NBC News president who has argued against media consolidation, told the Times of CBS: "If they didn't think it was a tie-in deal, why would they mention it in the first place?"

Lynch, a supply clerk and a private first class, became one of the best-known figures of the war after her unit made a wrong turn and was ambushed March 23 in southern Iraq. She suffered multiple broken bones, 11 of her comrades were killed and five other members of the 507th Maintenance Company were taken prisoner.

The other POWs from the 507th were released later.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.