The news that NBC was hiring Chelsea Clinton as a news-thingy struck me like a thunderbolt.
No, it didn't. Like, you, me and cousin Martha in Sudbury could care less. What is done by NBC News is largely unwatchable, and most of it is utterly irrelevant to Canadians.
Still, there's some nattering about it, so let's pay attention for a few minutes. According to reports, NBC has hired Ms. Clinton as "a full-time special correspondent for NBC News."
Which sounds kind of like describing a part-time gig as a full-time gig because it's "special." NBC's announcement suggests her stories will be part of the series called Making a Difference on NBC Nightly News. The series is one of those network-news-genius ideas, trotted out in hard times, that celebrate folks (they're always called "folks") who step up and help improve their communities. In times that aren't hard times, mind you, such news programs celebrate the rich who pay little or no tax, and their bling.
Excuse my skepticism and all. Perhaps Chelsea Clinton is a nice and smart person. She's doing her PhD at Oxford, apparently. So we can't just jump to the outrageous and utterly unfair conclusion that Chelsea Clinton is NBC's Ben Mulroney. But NBC is in dire straits. A network floundering for some time, and hiring a famous daughter of a former president, is craven.
In the U.S. media world the Clinton hiring is causing a small fuss. Not just the mindless gee-whiz coverage that characterizes celebrity-news buzz. The internal machinations of NBC News are a mystery to me. (Let's be clear – very few Canadians pay the slightest attention to U.S. network news, their morning shows or the supper-time news programs.) So I read with interest a column this week by the distinguished Eric Deggans, TV critic for the St. Petersburg Times and frequent contributor to CNN on media issues.
Deggans notes that NBC has recently hired "a grand total of five high-profile children of celebrities, most with little or no network TV experience." He points out that at NBC Chelsea Clinton "... joins George W. Bush's daughter Jenna Bush Hager, John McCain's daughter Meghan McCain and the late Tim Russert's son Luke Russert, along with Kathie Lee Gifford's son Cody Gifford, who provided movie reviews in summer of 2010 as part of an internship talked up on air." There's a small army of people best described as "children-of" toiling at NBC.
The issue here is brand-name celebrity trumping experience. The hiring of Chelsea Clinton draws attention to NBC News. It's worth noting though, that although hired as a reporter, or "correspondent," she is declining to speak to any journalist about her new gig. This only underlines her remoteness from the day-to-day business of being a news reporter, whether for a TV network or an itsy-bitsy campus magazine. No doubt Clinton's first appearance on an NBC News program will draw eyeballs, welcome news for a network struggling to find hit shows, whether in drama, comedy or the newsmagazine genre.
Just as some broadcasters become addicted to the short, sharp ratings high delivered by a controversial reality-TV concept, NBC seems addicted to "children-of" hirings in order to generate buzz.
But there's also a larger trend becoming evident here. It's the same urge to hire celebrity names that compels sports broadcasters to hire ex-professionals to do sports analysis, instead of real reporters. Of course, there are some instances of former professional sports athletes providing cogent analysis. But, in the main, the viewer is being sold on the dubious idea that the former players have unique perspective or are connected to the sport in a manner that means they have the inside dope. Some viewers will fall for this idea, but others learn, with a sinking feeling, that the ex-professional is no journalist.
There's another aspect to the Chelsea Clinton hiring, I think. It's the use of such people by the mainstream media that makes a portion of the audience – especially the young – skeptical about whether the mainstream media have any integrity at all. It's not a matter of bias or a suspicion that a TV network has a hidden agenda – it's the feeling that news reporting is now viewed as such a trifling matter by media companies that anyone with a famous political parent can do it.
In the sports area, the same skepticism about celebrity reporting has driven many serious, thoughtful sports fans to the internet. There are many websites, covering all areas of sports, that contain far more serious analyses and perspective than what an ex-professional jock offers on TV.
The Web is as full of nonsense as television, it must be noted. But my point – and I do have one here – is that the hiring of Chelsea Clinton is another sign of the terminal decline of network news. Thank goodness for newspapers. Right?