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Wanted: Reporter for regular feature segments on NBC Nightly News. No journalists need apply. NBC sent its viewers a miserable message about its brand with the addition of Chelsea Clinton (qualification: onetime residency in the White House, boldface parents) as a reporter for Making a Difference, its segment about volunteerism and community service.
The quality of journalism that we deliver, NBC News implicitly states, is of such a low standard that a rank amateur is qualified to stand in front of our cameras, just as long as she has a famous last name.
Chelsea the newswoman joins colleagues Meghan McCain, whose father was the Republican nominee for president, and Jenna Bush Hager, a double threat as both former first daughter and first granddaughter. NBC News did not initiate this trend: Former first son Ron Reagan’s qualification to be a contributor for ABC’s Good Morning America during the 1980s and ’90s was as a professional dancer (and that famous name).
This Clinton scion’s hiring means that every former president since 1980 has a network TV journalist in the household or extended family. Why?
The urge to hire from political families is an example of what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “quest for innocence” in the political press. News organizations try to square a circle by asserting that they are inside players with access to the corridors of political power while at the same time remaining neutral outsiders, “innocent,” without a partisan ax to grind. Hiring someone whose access derives from blood rather than political activism solves this problem.
Clinton certainly has an insider’s knowledge about West Wing crises, but as a reporter, she carries none of the ideological baggage that hiring a converted political operative (Tim Russert), onetime White House press secretary (George Stephanopoulos), former presidential aide (Diane Sawyer) or ex-speechwriter (Chris Matthews) entails.
The other benefit of hiring a political heir is the freshness of telegenic youth: Chelsea, 31, is less grizzled than James Carville and has a less risque résumé than Eliot Spitzer. Nightly News likely hopes to improve its aging demographic with an on-air face in the target demo, a shift from 15 years ago when inspirational segments were filed by another nonjournalist impostor, “Stormin’ ” Norman Schwarzkopf.
Nevertheless, this particular choice is peculiar: Clinton might know what an inside-the-White-House crisis feels like, but she has zero knowledge of how such a crisis — or any news event, for that matter — is covered by working journalists. Her parents kept her in a reporter-free bubble throughout her childhood; she stonewalled reporters when she stumped for her mother during Campaign 2008; and as recently as 16 months ago, she tried to block the press from covering her wedding, keeping the location secret in an attempt to thwart the paparazzi; and she wouldn’t even give interviews in connection with her hiring by NBC.
And the hiring of the hedge fund alumna reveals NBC News to have a particularly tin ear at a time when mainstream media stand accused by Occupy Wall Street of being complicit in an undemocratic political system as members and mouthpieces of the “one percent,” rather than watchdogs scrutinizing corruption. NBC News has enough baggage with its CNBC brand; now imagine Clinton and Andrea Mitchell appearing on Nightly News during coverage of the next financial crisis: the daughter of the president who deregulated high finance with the wife of central banker Alan Greenspan, who allowed it to run amok. NBC News is reporting from that worldview rather than on it.
You could say Clinton, Hagen and McCain are being exploited as eye-catching props by powerful men projecting an image of insider access. You could say this amounted to their being “pimped out” — unless, of course, you happen to work for NBC News, in which case you would be suspended. Just ask David Shuster, who was suspended from MSNBC in 2008 for using that phrase in connection with Clinton.
There is one group of professional journalists that should feel gratified by her arrival: field producers. Their reporting chops are all the more indispensable as the figures in front of their cameras become purely symbolic.
Andrew Tyndall is publisher of Tyndall Report, which monitors network TV news.
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