Stop the Chelsea moaning; she’s “somebody”
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