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Should a journalist accept celebrity interviews when told certain topics are off limits?

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Friday, June 17, 2016

Every so often, publicists will offer an interview with a celebrity but place restrictions on the line of questioning.

If they do this upfront, I will typically say no, especially if said celebrity is not that big a deal. Occasionally, I'll negotiate and work it out. I've had to face this situation three times in a month. And each one ended differently.

Andi Dorfman and Josh Murray during happier days. CREDIT: ABC

Three weeks ago, for instance, a publicist told me I could talk to Josh Murray to promote his presence on a new E! show "Famously Single" but please don't ask him questions about Andi Dorfman's book. For background, the only reason Murray is semi-famous is because Dorfman picked him as her fiance on "The Bachelorette" in 2014. I argued that not to talk about Dorfman's book was absurd given that she trashes him in it. And ultimately, we agreed that as long as I didn't spent the entire interview asking him questions about it, that'd be fine.

I know the protocol of these types of celebrity phone interviews, which are usually 15 minutes with a publicist listening in. It's a mutual dance and hopefully in my case, a respectful one. Over 25 years in journalism, I've done hundreds of these. Sometimes, I'll do four or five in one day. (The better interviews tend to be the ones when a publicist isn't on the line and there is no time limit. I usually can do that with stand-up comics who have time on their hands. I remember talking to Jay Leno after he left "The Tonight Show" and he clearly could have talked another hour.)

For these specific interviews, the celebrity is obviously there to promote something so I will ask them questions about said project. But I usually try to throw in a couple of topics that may not be exactly on topic toward the end. Murray had already prepped his answer for anything related to her book. He politely chose not to answer specific allegations, simply saying he hadn't read it, is praying for her and wishes her the best. The closest to a diss: he called what she wrote "fiction."

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 21: Maksim Chmerkovskiy and Peta Murgatroyd teach shoppers dance moves to help keep active & fit at JCPenney on January 21, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, when I was offered time with Maksim and Valentin Chmerkovskiy of "Dancing With the Stars" fame. They are coming to Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre June 23. The publicist said no questions to Maks about fellow dancer Peta Murgatroyd. (They had just announced a baby.) That struck me as silly. That didn't even seem controversial. But ultimately, Val was the only one available so it become a moot point.

Then yesterday, I was offered one-on-one time with Atlanta's Keshia Knight Pulliam, best known as Rudy from "The Cosby Show" and Miranda on TBS's "Tyler Perry's House of Payne." She is being honored today by the Urban League.

Keisha Knight Pulliam Urban League

But the publicist said I cannot ask her questions about Bill Cosby. I understand why. It's a sensitive topic. Still, I ultimately said no because Cosby has been in the news lately and he helped her career get started. It seems reasonable to get her thoughts on his current situation. I'm cognizant this is a time to talk about her accomplishments. I would ask a single question near the end and she could easily decide to not answer. I realize there are journalists who probably would berate her on the topic and that it's uncomfortable. On the other hand, she's an adult. She has been in the spotlight since she was three. She should be able to take a question from a responsible journalist.

(She has talked about Cosby in very limited ways here and here but not since the latest news about his legal issues.)

I posted the question on Facebook last night whether I'm being journalistically principled by saying no - or am I being petty. The debate ultimately became more interesting to me than any interview I would have done with her.

The comments were split down the middle. Here are the opponents who deemed me petty:

Linda Duncan Brown: She was a child when she worked with him. She had no control over him. She is being honored for HER accomplishment. Why would you want to take this special occasion that is all about HER and cover it in ugly sauce?

Angela Watson: You sound ignorant. She has nothing to do with Bill Cosby or his issues. Your lack of respect is disgusting and you have no ethics or integrity. [Angela wins points for being the harshest commenter!]

Arlene V. Clarke: Petty! I'm sure there are lots of other questions you could have asked. Working with Bill Cosby does not define her or the work for which she's been honored.. Petty, indeed!!

Miss Bee Petty. You are on a pretty high horse for withdrawing what is arguably part of the honor she worked to achieve because she won't tattle on her recollection of a person she was associated with through the choices of other adults in her life. She was a child and you are punishing her for her silence on matters totally outside of her control and possibly her knowledge. If she had choices about her situation you would still be on shaky ground.

Liss Tedder-Simmons I'm sorry but that's petty. She has no control with what happened with Bill Crosby. She is also probably over discussing him. She just wants positively in her life and she is doing good things and wants to be recognized for her accomplishments. She is not her "fathers" keeper.

Christopher Mitchell I can see her side. She doesn't want Cosby to distract from what she's their for. It is just good business. These kind of pieces are PR anyway.

Nakebia Fluellen Petty... even though I'm not what you would call a fan of hers I can surely say that her accomplishments have nothing to do with what mr. Cosby was accused of.

Deborah Michele Fagin Petty as hell! You are discussing her, not him! If I was her, I would not speak to you!

Numb Hachoo She worked with Cosby from the age of 5 until 12. Do you think, now at 37, she wants her life to revolve around a man she knew as a child?

Lynn Mitchell Petty...this honor is about her not him

Tami Dickinson I think any questions about Cos might be more appropriate to ask of Phylicia Rashad (I'm not sure I spelled her first name correctly) than maybe Keisha. I think that would have provided a more compelling aspect of your interview than asking someone who was a young girl at the time she worked with Cos. I believe you would have been responsible, though, in interviewing Keisha. She's probably been asked Cos questions so many times that it's taking away from her and her accomplishments. That's probably why they put a stop to them. Just an opinion...

Here are the proponents:

Janet Patterson Voting the former. It is reasonable for you to ask her about the person who jumpstarted her career.

John Bullard: You make your living as a journalist covering entertainment. It is a form of bullying by either the PR person or the Urban League. She is a public figure. Should she expect the question to come up? Yes. In part, has her career been so incredible, so unique, so whatever that she is in a position to dictate how she will face the press? No. There are other outlets who will abide by their rules and do the interview. I doubt 10% of the readers will know about this decision on your part. In future interviews this is your line in the sand and you must keep that in mind.

I believe you made the right decision.

Jane Walker Journalistically principled.

Reid Laurens: You did exactly the right thing. If she doesn't want to talk about Cosby she can decline to answer the question and move on. Placing restrictions on what you can ask is out of line.

Cheryl Harris: Actually I don't think that you are being petty, but I could see of the matter. All journalist like interviews in which they are told that there are no questions off limits. At the same time, Keisha has a different angle of Cosby that the rest of us don't have. She was 5 when she started on The Cosby Show. Chances are Bill was probably more of a father to her than her own father due to the long working hours on the set. He helped her with her homework. She came to him with questions. She probably still sees him through her childhood eyes. After all, he was the guy that brought Marian Anderson to the set when Keisha had to do a paper about Marian Anderson for Black History Month. I am sure she is having a hard time getting her head wrapped around the Cosby sexual harassment saga because she still sees him as her "dad". To a child, your parents are your heroes, so it is hard to view them as human and sometimes it is hard to let that go. Maybe it just hurts too much to talk about it. But to answer your question, I don't think you are being petty. You are a journalist and the Cosby saga is news.

Jaime Sarrio McMurtrie Good for you! Too many restrictions on what journalists can ask. Readers would have the same questions, and we work for the readers, not her. She can decline to answer if she wants to. (Disclosure: Jaime works at the AJC with me.)

Mike Mccarthy As a journalist you have to speak for all of us who never get to interview famous people, you have to ask ALL the questions, not just the hand picked few, otherwise you're no better than say, Dan Patrick!

Teresa D. Southern It would have been the perfect time to speak on his character if she things he's been wronged by the media and accusations.


But I guess this is 😂  #IStandWithRodneyHo



#AnswerTheQuestionAnnaMay or politely decline!

Kimberly Gentry Who is she besides Rudy Huxtable? How could you not ask about Cosby?

Maryanne Kehoe I think she has done this before with other journos-she needs to get her head out of her you know what!

Holland Coward Muscio Public figures should not come with 'rules' for the media

Jerry Friday You inspire me, Rodney Ho.

And some folks were more nuanced:

Atty Brian Poe: Whether principled or petty, you Rodney Ho have a great platform and following (well-earned) - and thus your decision certainly will be felt in less coverage for Keisha . . . That said, I think that Keisha probably wishes to keep her feelings about the situation to herself . . . She doesn't know for sure what happened, and Bill has yet to be convicted of a crime . . . She might have a gut feeling . . . But why express it, when she is not totally sure and when she feels that Bill made a huge (positive) impact on her life and career . . . Why throw him under the bus ahead of a conviction?

Camille Smith Come on, you know Cosby's peeps and her handlers have locked her down on that- and you know the talent is just a puppet in some cases- lol.

Inés Cintrón Obviously, she's not going to bite the hand that fed her, so were you really going to get any "real" information regarding that man?





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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.