Consider the postures adopted by mainstream journalists over the race to get Monica--to score the hallowed first interview with Lewinsky. Last week, when Roseanne put a million bucks on the table, and Oprah refused to fork any over, major media types lined up with chests puffed out to denounce checkbook journalism. CNN congressional correspondent Candy Crowley put it this way on CNN's Saturday roundtable ''Reliable Sources'': ''Most reputable news organizations . . . we don't pay for the interview. If Roseanne wants to pay for the interview, that's fine. I'm not sure what . . . Oprah's deal is. . . . I don't consider either one of them news organizations.''

Added ABC News senior Washington correspondent John Cochran, ''I've been trying to find a historical parallel for this. The nearest I can come is David Frost and Nixon. David Frost, a former comedian, pays big bucks to Richard Nixon. Roseanne, comedienne, pays big bucks to . . . Monica. It seems about right.''

But Cochran needn't have ranged so far back in time. Just last December, ABC's PrimeTime Live forked over a six-figure sum for footage of an Australian landslide that killed 18 people. Then, ''by a strange coincidence,'' as the Washington Post'sHoward Kurtz noted at the time, ''the ABC program landed an exclusive interview with a survivor, Stuart Diver, whose agent sold PrimeTime the videotape.''

ABC also famously ran 10 free 30-second commercials for Michael Jackson--worth as much as $1.5 million--the week that Diane Sawyer did her live interview with Jackson and then-wife Lisa Marie Presley in 1995.

Both times, ABC news executives denied any cash-for-conversation deal had been struck. Some skepticism may be in order. In the case of the landslide survivor, ABC insisted, ''We did buy footage. We did not buy an interview.'' But the executive producer of competitor NBC's Dateline said at the time, ''It became very clear that whoever gets the tape gets the interview. No matter how you dress this thing up, you are essentially buying the interview. . . . ''

With Jackson, ABC said it had bartered the commercials for the rights to air videos from Jackson's HIStory album. It was a deal, ABC said, wholly unrelated to the interview--though many wondered why ABC needed to buy videos that MTV regularly runs for free.

Still, what is perhaps most disturbing is that it is possible to concede the network execs' arguments in both cases without absolving them. After the Jackson barter arrangement became public, Paul Friedman, then executive veep of ABC News, declared himself ''unaware of any deal to run commercials in return for the videos.'' But even as ABC News pursued Jackson ''independently,'' ABC entertainment prez Ted Harbert was negotiating with Jackson manager Sandy Gallin--also the rep for ABC sitcom star Roseanne. As part of wide-ranging discussions of ''TV programs and ideas related to the release of Michael's new album,'' Harbert referred Gallin to ABC News.

In an age when media conglomerates construct deals in which journalists are just corporate players, can journalists simply hold to their side of the divide and declare themselves pure?


  • William Weld, the Massachusetts Republican who quit as governor to wage a quixotic fight to be ambassador to Mexico, appeared on ABC's Politically Incorrect last week and made a truly remarkable statement, even for these times. In the course of a discussion of privacy and AIDS, Weld made the following argument in defense of name reporting of HIV-positive people: ''Why all the privacy? Because it's a stigma. If you have more open discussion, maybe it's less of a stigma. I mean, you can catch this stuff from a toilet seat.'' This comes fresh off a September 27 Sunday Times magazine profile that touted Weld's ''liberal social views''--not once but three times. . . .

  • In this Sunday's Times, a story about Richard Gephardt had ''one Democratic strategist'' lauding him as ''the greatest listener in the world. . . . Dick Gephardt will listen to individuals for hours.'' What does Gephardt hear? The Times's Alison Mitchell asked him if he had held ''many one-on-one meetings with House Democrats.'' Gephardt's reply: ''Ones, fives, 10s, 20s, 50s, 100s. You name it. We've done it.'' Even when asked a question that has absolutely nothing to do with money, Gephardt is thinking in denominations.
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