NBC’s hiring of Chelsea Clinton as a “special correspondent” in its news division was widely recognized as an exercise in corporate cynicism when it was announced in November 2011.
Now a price tag has been hung on that scandal, with Politico’s reporting that Clinton has been paid a salary of $600,000. The network hasn’t confirmed the figure, but it hasn’t denied it either, and responded to Politico’s questions by asserting that it “continues to enjoy a wonderful working relationship with Chelsea, and we are proud of her work.”
It’s that last part that’s particularly head-scratching, for as a news correspondent for NBC, Clinton hasn’t done anything to be proud of. Quite the contrary. The disclosure raises the obvious question of NBC’s goal in giving a person without any measurable journalistic or broadcasting experience or any particular public following a high-profile job and apparently paying her a top-echelon salary.
The answer is equally obvious. Plainly, it was done to curry favor with the Clinton family.
This was not NBC’s first effort to kiss up to a powerful family, or the last. In 2009, the network hired George W. Bush’s daughter Jenna as a correspondent for the “Today” show. Subsequently Meghan McCain, daughter of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Abby Huntsman, daughter of one-time GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman, had gigs as political commentators on MSNBC.
Clinton’s hiring was announced with an extra helping of PR malarkey, however. To hear the words of then-NBC News President Steve Capus, Clinton represented the second coming of Nellie Bly. “Given her vast experiences, it’s as though Chelsea has been preparing for this opportunity her entire life,” he said.
Clinton’s hiring only underscored the stunting of network news. Talented and experienced journalists have been laid off by the cartload. Precious airtime, especially on the morning shows, has been turned over to celebrity reporting and in-house promotions thinly disguised as news. Original reporting is turned over to freelancers (no benefits necessary, don’t you know) or to local affiliates. What’s happened to the money saved? It’s gone to fatten the bottom line and to finance stunt hiring like Clinton’s.
And how has that worked out? If journalism is defined as publishing information that the subjects of your reporting don’t wish to be made public, then it’s hard to find any journalism in Clinton’s oeuvre whatsoever. Every piece we reviewed appeared to be painstakingly engineered to give no offense to anyone. Even the most rabid anti-Clinton conservatives looking for an objectionable or contrary moment of reporting in Chelsea Clinton’s portfolio would come up empty-handed.
Clinton’s debut piece about a child welfare nonprofit in Arkansas run by an energetic woman named Annette Dove raised issues about the role of society and government in consigning these children to the wayside, but those were buried deeply beneath its syrupy focus on the personal struggles of Dove’s clients and herself. It sounded like an advertisement for George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” dodge -- who needs government social policy when people like Annette Dove are willing to bankrupt themselves to fill in the gaps?
That initial appearance ended inauspiciously, devolving into a companionable chat between Clinton and “Rock Center” host Brian Williams about her difficult upbringing. Williams: “Tell us how you got from your life as it was, say, yesterday, to a life here with us and doing this.” (One would think her life had followed the downward trajectory of the heroine of “Orange Is the New Black.”)
Matters went downhill from there. Clinton did a couple more uplifting pieces about people “making a difference,” then suddenly, like water finding its own level, she was down to fawning celebrity profiles.
She told us how Stella McCartney, the fashion designer daughter of Paul McCartney, has “taken tremendous risks for her principles, including making clear to Gucci from the beginning she would not work with leather.” There was an interview with young-adult author Judy Blume, who with 80 million books in print surely was in desperate need of the spotlight that only Chelsea Clinton and “Rock Center” could train on her.
Last April came the scraping of the bottom, an utterly canned interview with GEICO’s trademark gecko, the segment dressed up as “a look at some of the most popular television advertisements.” A hiring that started out as merely cynical had become its own parody.
None of these segments could have caused her subjects a moment’s lost sleep. They were pre-produced, pre-scripted and fake from beginning to end. NBC put “Rock Center” out of its misery about two weeks after the gecko thing aired. But Clinton was kept on, doing the occasional piece for other NBC News outlets.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Clinton’s career at NBC is its contrast with her own parents’ professional legacies. Her father was president, a job you don’t attain by playing things safe. Her mother’s career has been a lesson in the genuine pursuit of principle, political risk be damned.
Early in her legal career, Hilary Rodham became a groundbreaking advocate for children’s legal rights, creating a record that earned the admiration of that thinking-person’s conservative, Garry Wills. During her husband’s first presidential term, she took on healthcare reform, very nearly the least-safe issue in public policy. After being outmaneuvered for the Democratic presidential nomination by Barack Obama, she accepted the job of secretary of State, an extremely well-stocked minefield for anyone aspiring to higher office. She acquitted herself well, notwithstanding the right wing’s incessant prattling about Benghazi, Libya. And she remains one of the most admired women in American life. Interviewing the GEICO gecko? Not Hillary Clinton’s style.
We’ve criticized Abby Huntsman for her take on Social Security and Medicare, but to her credit at least she has a take and hasn’t been afraid to air it on MSNBC. She’s joining a national debate. That can’t be said of Chelsea Clinton in her NBC career.
One can’t really blame Clinton for grasping at the main chance of a lush offer from NBC News; that’s the American way. But if her goal was to achieve a greater public prominence, the result is she looks diminished. (So does NBC.)
Clinton is obviously an intelligent person. It would be shocking if she doesn’t have useful insights on the issues that have animated her parents’ political careers. NBC News has turned out to be the wrong platform to show them. If she really does want to make a contribution to bettering society, as was suggested by the fatuous PR surrounding her hiring, she should give up the NBC deal and turn her focus to honest work.
Updated at 12:08 p.m. PDT: This post has been revised. During the editing process, changes were made to the headline and text.
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