Stop the Chelsea moaning; she’s “somebody”

By Jack Shafer
November 14, 2011

Allow me to be among the first working journalists to welcome Chelsea Clinton to the Fourth Estate. Clinton, as you probably read in this morning’s New York Times, has taken a job with NBC News as a full-time special correspondent and will cover stories for the network’s do-gooder “Making a Difference” series.

Please read no snark into my Clinton welcome.

Yes, I know that many of you will deplore the fact that somebody like Clinton with no real journalistic experience but plenty of connections has won a high-ranking reporting position at a broadcast network. Your thought balloons about cronyism, already passing over my office, read, If Chelsea wanted to be a journalist she should have gone to journalism school or gotten an internship and parlayed that into a job covering crime for a paper in the boonies, and then over the years worked her way up.

But Clinton, who will turn 32 in February, isn’t the first high-profile political spawn to use the family name as a media-career springboard. The Times article notes that President George W. Bush daughter Jenna Bush Hager is an NBC Today correspondent, and presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain contributes to MSNBC. Caroline Kennedy has published nearly a dozen books about patriotism, the Bill of Rights, courage, and poetry and Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford, has published two volumes of mystery fiction. Ron Reagan, Michael Reagan, and Maureen Reagan all leveraged their father’s prominence into jobs behind the microphone. Maria Shriver, whose uncle was President John Kennedy and whose father, Sargent Shriver, ran for vice president, capitalized on her family connections to get a job as a reporter at a Philadelphia TV station in 1977 straight out of college at the age of 22. She moved to CBS News six years later. You know the rest.

The promotion of the under-talented sons and daughters of the politically connected to fancy media jobs seems to violate our great, national, meritocratic creed, as does the assignment of politicians such as Joe Scarborough, Susan Molinari, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Eliot Spitzer, and George Stephanopoulos to their respective media slots, and the addition of Republican hacks Palin, Huckabee, Kasich, Santorum, and Gingrich to the Fox News Channel payroll.

But the reflexive disdain for cronyism ignores the essence of TV news: Like the movies, TV news thrives on a star culture that is so devolved that almost anybody with name-recognition, positive or negative, can be considered a star, as hooker-happy Eliot Spitzer proved. And there’s nothing a network likes to do more than to steal a star from another network.

Only as a last resort will TV producers put nobodies on screen. They want somebodies, and even a minor member of Congress can qualify if they’re not too ugly, not too old, and not too tongue-tied. The political somebodies listed above may look like nobodies to you, but in the world of TV news they’re rainmakers whose status as semi-celebrities makes it easier to book other semi-celebrities on their political talk shows.

“Somebody” status appears to be inheritable, as the offspring of presidential stock keep proving. There’s something atavistic about our culture’s fascination with presidential sons and daughters. Do we consider them a kind of faux royalty, as American princes and princesses? (My friend Mark Feldstein says, “Maybe we should go direct to monarchy, and save everybody a step.”)

Or do network executives (and book publishers) detect genuine power in the children of presidents that the more discerning miss? Take Chelsea Clinton: If so much of what passes for network news is about celebrity wrangling, would any world leader, corporate chief, or movie star dare turn down an invitation from her to appear on NBC lest they offend her parents? Especially seeing that NBC has assigned Clinton to a feel-good news beat, there will be no downside to agreeing to talking to her on camera. As a NBC reporter, she won’t be a rainmaker. She’ll be a typhoon, flooding the airwaves with one big celebrity “get” after another.

The hiring of Chelsea Clinton doesn’t so much debase the TV news currency as reveal its true value. Lack of experience is no bar to becoming an on-air personality because there’s always money for staff to back up the neophyte. Journalism is less a profession than it is a description–that is, anybody with a good idea and some sources and a modicum of literary talent can commit a worthwhile (or watchable/readable) act of journalism. It hurts journalists to hear this, but there really are no bars to entry. If I can be a journalist, why can’t Chelsea Clinton?

Go ahead and beat up on Chelsea Clinton all you want. But the crony journalism that got her the job is an effect, not a cause of the quest for celebrity journalism.

******

I ran out of time and space to include all the wonderful examples of the crony journalism that results in the hiring of the sons and daughters of famous journalists. Maybe next time. Send tips to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and monitor my meritocratic Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: Chelsea Clinton speaks during a panel discussion regarding technologies for economic empowerment at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, September 22, 2011. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

15 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Very few of the people working on network “news” shows are journalists, as most are entertainers, because the networks have transformed news into entertainment.

So, yeah, who cares?

Posted by KenG_CA | Report as abusive

What is weird about the Times’ coverage – and this post – is the lack of any mention about what she was doing *before* this (working for a hedge fund). If nothing else it suggests that maybe being a hedgie is now officially lower status than being a talking head.

Posted by ErikD | Report as abusive

I don’t know anything about her, but maybe she is there because she is intelligent? Certainly from a European perspective, reading the often poor quality of US journalism (mostly by professionals I guess, ref. this article) , the bar is not too high for a non-professional to compete.

Posted by RobertBaker | Report as abusive

I remember when reporters and journalists were chasing after the White House Clintons, and teen age Chelsea bent over to show them her bum to indicate “Go away and leave us alone” Now she is one of them.

Posted by rukiding | Report as abusive

She could be intelligent but so are the hosts of journalism graduates that come out every year. Unfair competition !!!

Posted by outsiderinsider | Report as abusive

For a country that’s not supposed revolve around ‘x’ amount of family trees there sure is a lot of it going on. Is not america supposed to be immune to the creation of these dynasty families? These crony placements completely lay bare the lie that is the ‘american dream’. If it’s not about who you know in today’s world it’s about who you can buy. Hard work? Effort? Nope, just another kid of the rich that gets mommy or daddy to get them a job. The only thing these people know how to produce goes down the toilet every morning. Hey Jack, did YOU get your job the hard way (you know, earn it) or did mommy make a call for YOU?

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

Luke Russert. He wasn’t even somebody. He was just somebody’s kid.

Posted by hkanders | Report as abusive

Jack, if you abandon meritocracy in the news business you kill the news business.

Period.

Posted by IAmATVJunkie | Report as abusive

There is no shame in taking advantage of your parents’ status (stati?). Maybe that’s the problem…

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive

I distinctly remember several right wing pundits criticizing Chelsea’s looks when she was a teenager. I’m pretty sure she’ll be great at this job and will make more money than any of the silly twits who made their off color comments years ago. It’ll serve them right, and I look forward to it.

Posted by palmer1619 | Report as abusive

I wholehardly agree. She has done her homework on the World and has been an intelligent observer without resorting to ‘Twittering’ to demosnstrate she’s in the ‘in’ group.

I look forward to seeing her and listening to her views. She will do her homework nad stand on her own abilities.

Posted by ghhugh | Report as abusive

I killed my television long ago, it’s all controlled mindless propaganda from the top all the way down to the local clueless bobbleheads.

Posted by americansoldier | Report as abusive

Does anyone outside America care remotely whether this woman is a journalist or not? In fact how many people inside America are bothered? What on earth is this sort of trivia doing on Reuters?

Posted by jonathanlynn | Report as abusive

If Chelsea has half the brains that her mom and dad do, then she is probably smarter than most of the journalist already working.

Anyway, in a world where the number-one rated cable news service offers little real news at all, but indulges in editorializing,rumor mongering, and speculating, then hiring Chelsea Clinton might actually raise the bar!

I say, “Give the lady a chance.”.

Posted by Professor47 | Report as abusive

Have you read Clinton’s new book, “Back To Work?”
It has many suggestions that seem practical and sensible.
I was surprised by the Green Technology ideas, that would
address both economic and environmental problems.
Get this book and read it. Or, like me, take the easy route.
I listen to the audiobook. It’s available at iTunes, amazon and Premieraudiobooks.com I chose Premier as it is cheapest.
This book deserves a wide reading and much discussion.
Clinton’s ideas, I hope will be given a chance to work.
His presidency looks better and better, as I look back at it.

Posted by Wsmythsom | Report as abusive