By: Allan Wolper
Chelsea Clinton, the new “NBC Nightly News” correspondent, strolled to the offices of TOPPS, Inc., a nonprofit community service organization in Pine Bluff, Ark. Two Pine Bluff police officers kept an enthralled crowd away as the daughter of former President Bill Clinton, accompanied by an NBC crew, hugged Annette Dove, the acclaimed African-American woman who runs the agency.
The media, ever fascinated by the Clinton family-inspired myth that Chelsea is only now becoming a public person, spent millions of words analyzing her performance on camera: her voice, her hair, her television presence.
The story was an enormous success.
Dove, who has done much for the impoverished children of her Jefferson County area in rural Arkansas, received $200,000 in cash contributions from viewers one week after the piece ran, according to NBC.
It was a natural first piece for Clinton.
TOPPS — formally known as Targeting Our People’s Priority with Service — is a favorite in the rural Jefferson County area. The Pine Bluff Commercial, the local daily paper, has featured TOPPS on its front pages, and local television stations have reported its good works.
The Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas has sent its students to do volunteer work at TOPPS. And the Pine Bluff police use TOPPS as a resource to deal with the city’s juvenile crime problems, although Capt. Greg Shapiro said he had never before sent a security detail to TOPPS when reporters went there to interview anyone.
Clinton’s piece, part of an “NBC Nightly News” regular segment called “Making A Difference,” also aired in December on “Rock Center” with Brian Williams, an NBC primetime news program. The piece and the incredible reaction it received seemed an afterthought.
What NBC wanted its viewers to know was that the venerable old network — now part of the Comcast media empire — had hired a former First Daughter for its news division. Because that was the news.
Brian Williams, an anchor who has appeared on Saturday Night Live, seems to be enjoying NBC’s recruitment of bold-faced correspondents. “Hopefully, our journalism will speak louder than any name,” he said about the program. “If it doesn’t, perhaps people will tune in to ‘Rock Center’ hoping to see Tina Fey.”
Things are just as twisted at MSNBC, the sister station of the network.
Last month, Lawrence O’Donnell, one of the political talking hosts on MSNBC, brought Meghan McCain, an MSNBC special correspondent and daughter of Arizona Sen. John McCain, on his program.
Her job? Explain why Sen. McCain, her father and one-time bitter rival of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, had endorsed Romney for president in the New Hampshire Republican primary.
“The whole McCain family likes Mitt Romney,” Meghan said of the man her father beat for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, noting how handsome the Romney sons are. A perspective NBC got exclusively.
Perhaps the next NBC exclusive could be Chelsea interviewing Bill Clinton, her father, on what he thinks of President Obama’s chances of being reelected. However, Chelsea might not get that gig. Jenna Bush Hager, one of the twin daughters of former President George W. Bush, could argue that she already interviewed Bill Clinton and could do a better journalism job than his daughter.
A moment to digress: The general media reaction has been to ridicule the young women working for NBC. Don’t blame them. They didn’t hire themselves. NBC gave them their jobs, and they don’t seem to care what anyone thinks about it.
The latest First Family hiring depresses Meg Heckman, Web editor of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, who covered the 2008 New Hampshire primary that pitted President Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton.
“Journalism is not supposed to be about the messenger,” Heckman said in a telephone interview. “It needs to be about the message. This just is another example of how journalism keeps heading down the road to ‘celebrication.’”
That’s why Heckman believes the First Daughter Television News Syndrome is so dangerous.
“I am astounded how hard it still is for young women to be taken seriously in journalism,” she said. “Putting a female celebrity on the air and saying she is a journalist simply promotes the perception. And it certainly is the wrong message to be sending to all college journalism students.”
The irony, of course, is that Chelsea Clinton has a well-earned reputation for despising journalists. She routinely turns aside media questions and refuses nearly all requests for interviews — claiming it would violate her privacy. The best example of this occurred 15 years ago when Clinton arrived for her first semester at Stanford University with a Secret Service detail, totally disrupting the campus.
Jesse Oxfeld, then a columnist for The Stanford Daily, the school newspaper, wrote about the chaos. The paper’s editors killed the column, noting that Oxfeld had violated an edict to protect Clinton’s privacy and treat her like just another anonymous student.
In this case, killing the message didn’t work. Oxfeld posted his column on the Internet and took advantage of the name recognition it brought him to launch a journalism career, which included a stint as online editor of Editor & Publisher.
“‘Rock Center’ is an hour-long prime-time entertainment show,” said Oxfeld, a former media writer for New York Magazine before becoming a theater reviewer for The New York Observer, a Manhattan arts, politics, and entertainment weekly newspaper. “She’s a famous name. It’s how network television works.”
Chelsea Clinton is a celebrity playing news correspondent.
The New York Post proved how much of a celebrity when it reported that Clinton might leave the network after her first 90-day contract was over — the kind of hysterical gossiping that might accompany a rumor about an alleged departure of Brian Williams.
“I spent a whole day on that (unfounded) rumor,” said Matt McKenna, a spokesman for the Clinton family.
Kevin Smith, chair of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists and an instructor at James Madison University, sees a darker side to the ongoing political infiltration of the networks — especially the hiring of Chelsea Clinton.
“There is a myriad of conflicts attached to her,” he said. “She has made a career out of advocating for various social organizations. She carries a lot of conflict baggage. There is the potential for a lot of problems there.”
Smith was especially disturbed to learn that Clinton is a member of the board of directors of IAC/ InteractiveCorp, an Internet media holding company, earning $50,000 a year. She will receive another $250,000 in stock benefits. IAC has major interests in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, and Match.com. The company publishes Newsweek and is controlled by media mogul Barry Diller.
Clinton is also on the board of the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, according to NBC spokesperson Amy Lynn. Lynn said Clinton’s board memberships were cleared by NBC’s lawyers and do not violate NBC’s code of ethics. She also confirmed that, contrary to reports, Clinton is not leaving NBC.
When Brian Williams was announced as the anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” he promised he would preside over good-old-fashioned journalism.
But his on-air endorsement of Chelsea Clinton’s hiring violates that pledge. “As you might have heard, NBC is making an announcement that we are very proud of. Chelsea Clinton will be joining NBC News as a special correspondent …,” he told his audience.
A statement totally in lockstep with the powers that be at the network. It is one more step to network news becoming irrelevant and explains why so many college students — including the ones at my school — get their information from Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show.”
Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University.