An offer you can refuse

The selling of Cybill to the Enquirer

A celebrity gives an interview to a hometown magazine. No problem until a supermarket tabloid offers the writer a big fee for reprint rights.

By Ed Weathers

Ed Weathers is manuscripts editor for Memphis magazine and a freelance writer.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 4 (July 1990), p. 5.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

Interview a rich, famous, beautiful movie star? Not a bad assignment, right? Not bad at all.

When Larry Conley, editor of Memphis magazine, asked me to profile Cybill Shepherd, a Memphis native and star of the late TV show “Moonlighting”, I knew it was a plum assignment.

But as I was to discover, there’s a dark side to success such as hers: Everybody wants a piece of the rich and famous, and some will pay big money to get it. Before it was over, I was tempted by that big money myself.

Although I’m a part-time staff member of Memphis magazine, I accepted the Shepherd assignment as a freelancer and retained rights to the finished product.

As it turned out, Shepherd was remarkably frank in the interview, going into special detail about her battles on the “Moonlighting” set with producer Glenn Gordon Caron and co-star Bruce Willis.

The resulting profile ran in the March 1990 issue of Memphis magazine. Soon after, USA Today ran a one-line mention. A few days after that, Ken Neill, the publisher of Memphis magazine, got a call from The National Enquirer. Having seen the USA Today blurb, an Enquirer editor offered to buy reprint rights to the story. Neill told him I owned the rights.

Without offering advice, Neill informed me of the call. Fifteen minutes later, I was talking to the Enquirer. The editor there said he hadn’t read my story himself, but, relying on the opinion of one of his reporters, he offered me $600 for the right to reprint parts of the Shepherd profile. I told him no. I explained that Shepherd had agreed to sit for an interview with Memphis magazine, not The National Enquirer. I told him that both my credibility and that of Memphis magazine would be jeopardized if, after someone agreed to do an interview with us, they found their words published elsewhere. We might lose future interviews, I said, and it would also break an implied promise every writer makes to an interviewee — namely, that the interview will appear where she expects it to appear.

I then pointed out that the Enquirer could certainly do a story about our story, without paying me or Memphis a thing. The editor said that’s what they would probably do, after they consulted their lawyers about how much they could quote. That ended our conversation.

I felt very high-minded at this point, but the fact is, I had already contemplated selling reprint rights to the Shepherd profile to a respected New York magazine, and I had never considered the ethical issues involved. I’m not sure I ever would have if the inquiry hadn’t come from the notorious Enquirer.

Over the next few minutes I called several friends to brag about myself. One asked if I couldn’t try to get Cybill’s permission to sell reprint rights. I replied that Shepherd had already expressed her disdain for certain “supermarket” tabloids. Besides, I said, I wouldn’t put her on the spot that way.

Should I sell her out for $600 or not? She shouldn’t have to decide.

That wasn’t the end of it. About an hour after our first conversation, the Enquirer editor called me back. He had now read my article himself. He said it was terrific. (He was a nice man, with good taste.)

He offered me $5,000 for reprint rights.

I gulped, broke into a sweat, and grew dizzy. Then I said, No, if it was wrong for $600, it was wrong for $5,000.

Then he said, “Do you have a price?”

Gulp. Sweat. Swoon. “No, I guess not,” I said, trying not to think about it too hard.

He said he understood, then asked if he could interview me for the story they would do about my story. I agreed. When we were through, he offered to pay me for being interviewed. At first I said okay, since if I’d written him a story about doing the interview, I’d expect to get paid. Later, I changed my mind. I called him back and told him I didn’t want a fee for the interview. It smacked of checkbook journalism, I said. It also still meant trading on Shepherd’s relationship with Memphis magazine.

Everyone was mighty proud of me. Ken Neill and Larry Conley thanked me for protecting the magazine’s reputation. Shepherd’s secretary thanked me for not selling Cybill out to the tabloids.

My 15-year-old son said, “You did what! You could have bought me a car with that money!” Oh, well.

In the March 27, 1990, issue of The National Enquirer was a full-page story entirely about my interview with Cybill Shepherd. It was a fairly accurate account with proper credits given. Neither I nor Memphis received a penny for it.

Knowing what I know now, would I still consider reselling the Shepherd interview to another magazine? Yes, but only after asking Shepherd’s permission and only if I thought she might consider it good publicity (if it was a magazine she respected, for example). Would I have sold the article to the Enquirer if they had been willing to reprint the whole thing verbatim, or if they had given me control over the final product? No, not without Shepherd’s permission.

Would I write an article for money about my Shepherd/Enquirer experience? Yup. You’ve just read it.

 

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