R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor
Sunday, August 18, 2013: Almost exactly four months ago I wrote in these very pages that “Americans love their sequels.” I was making a comparison between the motion picture sequel—now an entrenched part of the Hollywood business model—and the political rematch, now seemingly also standard fare.
I referred to what is known in politics as the “BCD” phenomenon: Americans born after 1957, those who reached voting age by 1976, had never known a presidential election that did not include the name of a Bush, a Clinton or a Dole…not until 2008. That hiatus from BCD was short-lived.
The irony of my admittedly strained analogy between movie retreads and political reruns is that along the increasingly blurry boundary between show business, Hollywood and electronic news (some might argue that that boundary has been nonexistent for years now) the strange and the surreal become commonplace. Entertainment and music types weigh-in on any issue large or small, Hollywood stars can—and frequently do—run for public office, and octogenarian actors appear at political conventions without an approved script. But that’s the nature of show business. Or politics. Well, maybe both.
Let’s be clear: Hillary Rodham Clinton is running for President. Her campaign began 15 minutes after Barack Obama took his second Oath of Office this past January. Some might argue that her campaign never ended from 2007-2008. Though she has been cagey and non-committal in public and in recent interviews, she has a formidable campaign team already in place and actively making calls to the right people.
And though there are other Democrats and Republicans in the early stages of testing the presidential waters, Hillary Clinton—alone among them—stands as the presumed front-runner: a predictable rerun, perhaps. Besides, even after her long, bruising primary and caucus battle with Obama, which ended a little over five years ago, it was widely assumed she would remain in the arena. And in the wide wake created following the 2012 elections, there are few Democrats willing to challenge the presumption of a Clinton candidacy in 2016. Even vice-president Joe Biden, who is unwilling to close the door completely on his own prospects, seems pre-shrunk when compared to Clinton.
That means the script for the sequel is back on the table, polished and ready for production, with at least one GOP heavyweight willing to step into the role of contender—former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Talk about a Hollywood reboot. That’s the nature of show business.
Still, we just can’t seem to leave the graves of Paddy Chayefsky and Marshall McLuhan alone. And right now, a nasty, stagey, scenery-chewing brawl has ensued over the entertainment value of Clinton’s legacy and her de facto candidacy.
On Friday, August 16, after weeks of heated discussion and public debate, the Republican National Committee agreed to ban both NBC and CNN from participation in debates or forums between GOP candidates in the run-up to the 2016 elections. The vote was unanimous. Why the ouster of thr two revered news networks? Because both CNN and NBC are in production on their own major documentaries (NBC’s film is a docudrama to be aired as a mini-series) regarding the life of Hillary Clinton, and both film projects are believed to be—at least to many conservatives—little more than big-budget marketing devices crafted to establish Clinton’s candidacy as inevitable and the next big thing.
In its statement, the RNC said that the projects were a “thinly-veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election.” Other Republican strategists and media watchers say, at the least, both networks should agree to offer equal time for similar documentary programs which explore the lives of potential GOP candidates.
CNN was quick to respond, stating for the record that its documentary was still in production and that the GOP’s criticisms were unfounded, and surely premature. “The project is in the very early stages of development,” said the CNN statement, “months from completion with most of the reporting and the interviewing still to be done. Therefore speculation about the final program is just that. We encourage all interested parties to wait until the program premieres before judgments are made about it. Unfortunately, the RNC was not willing to do that.”
CNN’s response itself is a thinly-disguised attempt, perhaps, to convey what some suspect: that the CNN project might in fact be more unflinching and critical than some in the GOP expect—after all, how can a news organization seriously tell the story of Hillary Clinton while completely sanitizing the dark chapters and removing all the warts.
But NBC’s relationship to the political situation is more complex. Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, is among several top NBC chiefs who openly supported Clinton in 2008, both with cash and through their powerful connections within the entertainment business. Greenblatt also supported Obama in 2012. Though the entertainment division of NBC is wholly separate from NBC News, at least in principle, both fall under the large umbrella of parent company Comcast, which also owns Universal. This means that NBC’s mini-series may experience an even deeper penetration into TV markets and individual homes than the CNN documentary, and may therefore have a bigger impact on voters.
So, for some within the GOP who believe that both programs may be relatively fair in terms of their portrayal of Clinton—meaning the projects will surely include the unflattering episodes from the life of Hillary Clinton—the NBC mini-series, especially, raises enormous concerns over equal time and fairness. But to those who voted at the RNC meeting last week, the implications of Greenblatt’s close political ties to Clinton and to Obama mean that the docudrama will be anything but fair.
A few political watchers and media analysts have pointed out that the GOP brass has wanted to get to this point anyway. The long, arduous debate season of 2011 and 2012—though seen as initially advantageous to Republicans seeking to test and sharpen their messages of attack as they approached their showdown with Obama—soon proved to be a largely damaging process for the GOP, and especially front-runner Romney. Those dozens of debates were watched by millions, and each was then endlessly analyzed on cable news forums and blogs for weeks. What had been viewed as a positive proving-ground for the top tier-candidates quickly turned sour, and since last November, Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus has said repeatedly that the negativity and self-immolation inflicted deep, perhaps irreparable damage to the party’s image going into the fall.
Priebus and others within the GOP now think that fewer debates will result in fewer damaging confrontations. Hoping to limit the total number of televised debates to between seven and nine, the recent dustups with CNN and NBC give the RNC the tactical opening they needed all along.
Last week the Republican Party organized a massive email campaign titled “The Liberal Media Loves Hillary,” designed to get partisans to take the two networks to task. The cover letter from Priebus asked followers to sign an electronic petition demanding that CNN and NBC drop plans to air the documentaries. “The executives at CNN and NBC would rather promote Hillary Clinton’s soon-to-be presidential campaign than remain true to their purposted mission of offering unbiased news coverage.”
That many Republicans suspect the two projects will be tilted in Clinton’s favor comes as no shock. Days earlier, GOP co-chair Sharon Day suggested in an email that the networks will gloss over many of the darkest chapters of the Clinton story, including newly expanded revelations regarding fundraiser and money-bundler Norman Hsu, accused by authorities of multiple counts of fraud, money-laundering and theft. Others have asked (and not just conservatives) if these massive documentaries will make room for the Clinton’s current problems arising from their foundation, which ended the year 2012 with a huge $8 million deficit and a series of new questions about how campaign cash and foundation money’s may have been mishandled, and about the relationship between the Clintons and some of those corporate donors, and the complex web of money pipelines between the various entities.
The Clinton Foundation recently moved into a large suite of offices in (are you ready?) the Time-Life Building near Rockefeller Center, and across the street from (are you ready?) NBC Television Studios. This is an obviously unrelated real estate move, but its irony was already too mouth-watering for some conservatives who see conspiracies and collusion between the Clintons and nearly all media tycoons, up to, and including, the Loch Ness Monster.
It is unclear that either CNN or NBC will be greatly moved by the GOP’s action, though a predictable outcome may be pressure—from stockholders, internal, and external—to at least offer a more carefully vetted and screened editorial process to the two film projects. CNN says it intends to screen its documentary first in select theaters next year before it airs during prime time (and the safe bet is that it will be recycled numerous times throughout the following weeks) sometime in the spring.
On the other hand, NBC’s mini-series will no doubt be heavily promoted, and the current brouhaha serves to enhance media buzz about the program, which raises the specter of the age old paradox: ban an art show and hundreds more will appear just to see that the fuss is all about. In this sense the GOP may lose a few short-term points as millions tune in to watch the mini-series, a measurable percentage if which may have been disinclined toward the “story” before the current controversy reached its boiling point. Comcast and NBC get free publicity.
But the downside for the networks is of course lost viewership when those early debates finally begin, possibly in the late summer of 2015. If the GOP makes good on its plan to reduce the total number of pre-Iowa debate to as few as six or seven, the competitors of NBC and CNN become the winners by default. The CNN debate production formula has become an iconic and reliable fixture for those addicted to the political process (though of little interest to those generally allergic to politics in the first place).
But here’s a hypothetical: what happens if one or more of the Clinton documentaries turns out to be so unflinching that it tells the unvarnished truth? Let the chips fall as they will. Grab the dirty laundry and, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, go the hangout route. NBC’s cozy relationship with the Clinton’s reduces the odds that the network of Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw will be the one to present the harsher telling of that story. So that leaves CNN, in my book the more likely news team to deliver something close to truly balanced and unfiltered. Does that mean that at some later point the GOP and CNN shake hands and agree to be friends?
That depends on a lot of factors, and one is that CNN may agree to take a close look at its own editing processes to ensure something akin to fairness. And there is also the legitimate and still non-assessed matter of equal time. Would it be possible to broker an arrangement by which CNN offers up similar airtime for GOP candidates? And if so, how would the two entities manage that template? And which Republican candidates would receive the nod from either their own party or from CNN.
The complexity of those questions makes it unlikely in the current atmosphere that the GOP and the networks will find common ground. In the meantime the GOP may get its strategic wish: fewer live televised debates in the run-up to 2016. Clinton’s team continues to work systematically and diligently to establish the resources and tools needed to proceed with her de facto candidacy.
A huge political sequel is on the horizon for Americans, only this time there will be more commercials and previews while we wait in the theater for the feature presentation to begin.