NBC analyst one day, Rush's lawyer the next

December 06, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

On Wednesday, Roy Black, the noted Florida defense lawyer and paid NBC News legal analyst, appeared on the Today Show to talk about the case against pop star Michael Jackson.

On Thursday, Black the analyst appeared on NBC's Today to discuss the murder trial of tabloid fodder Scott Peterson.

Yesterday, Black appeared on Today in what was billed as an exclusive interview to vigorously defend his client, Rush Limbaugh. Investigators have seized records to determine whether the top-rated radio talk show host, an acknowledged painkiller addict, violated laws in procuring pills.

Did NBC's arrangement with its analyst ensure the network of an exclusive interview or give Black a lengthy hearing for his client?

Bill Wheatley, NBC's vice president for news, says absolutely not. Although he questioned the "exclusive" label as "silly," Wheatley says the network acted properly by disclosing its relationship with Black on the air. "We've tried hard to keep that separation between his law practice and other cases that he comments on," Wheatley says. "He provides some really interesting and pertinent insights."

A message left yesterday at Black's Florida law office seeking comment was not returned.

Credible mainstream American news outlets do not pay sources for interviews. However, national TV news organizations draw a distinction that newspapers do not, compensating analysts drawn from specialized professions for their insight. TV executives often justify the practice for major stories, such as the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, by noting that commentators are asked to be available for interviews at all hours.

Unlike legal analysts, military and political analysts are generally retired. And critics say Black's case illustrates the blurring of the line between paid analyst and unpaid source, whether the subject of a story or a commentator. The industry Web site newsblues.com, which relayed the episode in a short item yesterday, referred to Black's appearance as a "loss of objectivity."

"It's pretty questionable," says Stacey Woelfel, news director at the University of Missouri-owned KOMU-TV, an NBC affiliate in Columbia, Mo. "You're always treading on thin ice when you pay analysts to come in and work for you." But Black is wearing too many hats, Woelfel says.

Wheatley says the NBC contract with Black explicitly allows him to comment to other media outlets on any case he's handling. Yesterday, Black was interviewed by NBC's Lester Holt on the country's top-rated morning news show.

"[Limbaugh is] being treated differently than anybody else I've ever seen in the history of this country with this situation," Black told Holt. "Thank you for letting me explain this."

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