The first big universal kerfuffle of the 2016 election season, which is still many hundreds of days away, isn't about policy, or the readiness of a particular candidate, or anyone's governing philosophies, or anybody's "gaffes," or the ongoing economic quagmire in which the American middle class remains hopelessly mired. Rather, it is about some forthcoming infotainments. NBC and CNN are both at some pre-production stage of forthcoming features on Hillary Clinton, and everyone is completely freaking out about them. Which is quite a luxury to have in America, circa right now.
Yesterday, former Obama administration press secretary Robert Gibbs opined that many would find these forthcoming films to be "unsettling and uncomfortable," which are words that more aptly describe snuff films, torture-porn, or the things that Amanda Bynes is doing on your driveway. But Gibbs is hardly alone in expressing some measure of pending shock or worry. He's joined by a bunch of other political elites (on both sides of the ideological divide), a bunch of news industry professionals, and probably the Clintons themselves. But what's the argument against such films?
Well, it was RNC Chairman Reince Priebus that began beating a drum against these projects, and he did so on the grounds that the existence of Clinton movies were a de facto promotion of Hillary Clinton's potential candidacy for president. However, Priebus didn't merely criticize -- he issued an ultimatum: if CNN and NBC went through with their plans, well, he was going to keep his candidates from appearing on those network's primary season debates.
Look, it's not as if Priebus doesn't have a lot of other problems to worry about. In fact, there was this whole "RNC autopsy" thing that laid them all out in detail, and I'm not at all sure how much progress has been made in solving them. For instance, the "autopsy" had a lot to say about the need for minority outreach, but now Republicans seem content to gamble on the possibility that they don't need amenable minority voters, they need to find the "missing white voters." (This makes Priebus' antagonism toward CNN even more puzzling, actually, because nobody works harder to find missing white people than CNN.)
What's more, Priebus should actually be concerned about limiting the number of debates that take place in the primary season. As Alex Pareene notes, the 2012 primary debates provided too many opportunities for GOP candidates to say dumb things, and offered too many pretenders the free airtime to propel themselves temporarily to prominence. And there's a good argument to be made that since the purpose of a primary debate is to allow base voters to puzzle out the distinctions between their candidates, it's best when they're governed by those candidates' ostensible ideological allies.
But Priebus ineptly opted to raise the stakes considerably, forcing NBC and CNN into making a choice, and risking the possibility that he'd fail and look weaker for giving them the ultimatum in the first place. Fortunately for Priebus, he got a bailout from Media Matters head David Brock, who wrote CNN and NBC expressing concerns that the Clinton projects raised "too many questions about fairness and conflicts of interest ahead of the 2016 election."
Of course, what seems to have gone unnoticed is that Brock's stand on the matter came after his charges had taken their shots at Priebus. But no matter: now that we had both factions raging at the infotainment machine, the issue suddenly gained traction. And the motivations that led the two men to their ultimatums -- Priebus' desire to make things easier for his candidates, Brock's presumed desire to allow Clinton to control her own "narrative" -- similarly faded into the background.
Soon enough, a number of NBC News professionals were raising (or renewing) their own concerns. On Thursday, Andrea Mitchell sympathized with those demanding the scuttling of the projects. She echoed concerns lodged by her colleague, Chuck Todd, who, unimpressed with the "firewall" erected between NBC's news and entertainment divisions, called the situation a "total nightmare." Frankly, Todd has a point. That "firewall" should be mocked, and anyone who doubts the overarching demand for synergy between the two divisions is being painfully naive. I place the odds that Chris Matthews is going to successfully refrain from speaking at length on Hardball about NBC's Hillary biopic at less than zero.
Peggy Noonan also managed some compellingly lucid (and fun!) thoughts on the matter, suggesting that beyond the fact that news/entertainment "synergy" was a given, in all likelihood, any Clinton biopic would simply be a "botch":
It will be a drama about Hillary’s wonderfulness and when it’s done they’ll privately screen it and an executive will say, “We’re going to be accused of liberal bias, we’d better balance it a little.” So they’ll reshoot some scenes and insert things that might make Hillary look bad, but they’ll choose the wrong things, stupid things, and it will make the whole effort look cheesy. Even with Diane Lane. Who’s a ridiculous choice, but so what?
From there, Noonan launches into an imagination of "what the movie will look like," and at first, you are like, "LOL, here's Peggy being Peggy," but once you are halfway through, you realize that Noonan is actually getting it perfect. In fact, I shouldn't be surprised if her "Treatment For Proposed Hillary Clinton Biopic" isn't much better than the one in pre-production. (Overall, Noonan has such a good feel for the beats and arcs of typical "made for TV" movie Velveeta that I am forced to conclude that she's really hiding her light under a bushel.)
But even Noonan's only half-right about all of this! It's NBC that's producing the soft-focus, Emmy-for-Diane Lane vehicle. CNN is working on an entirely different sort of project. Theirs will be a documentary, directed by the far-from-frivolous Charles Ferguson, whose best known work was "Inside Job," a documentary about the financial crisis that lacerates both Wall Street and Washington. As Frank Rich points out, it's Ferguson's involvement that's likely brought about this unusual Priebus-Brock alliance:
It seems that almost no one debating this has seen the Oscar-winning documentary "Inside Job" directed by Charles Ferguson, who CNN has hired to do its Hillary documentary. It is a scathing (and superb) takedown of the Wall Street financial establishment that looted the country during the bubble and precipitated the crash. My guess is that David Brock has seen Inside Job, and that might explain in part why Media Matters is against Ferguson taking on the assignment for CNN: It’s impossible to imagine that Ferguson would do a hagiography of Hillary, whose husband’s administration empowered many of the villains in "Inside Job."
Basically, we have a lot for people to be mad about. Priebus is probably ruing, specifically, NBC's soft-focus biopic-cheese. Brock is likely concerned about the damage that a warts-and-all documentary might do to Clinton's candidacy. But if these forthcoming features were on, say Chris Christie, they'd probably simply swap motivations.
Similarly, I'd say it's laudable that the Andrea Mitchells and Chuck Todds of the world are worried about the potential conflicts of interest that might arise, or the damage that corporate synergy might do to their news division's overall integrity. But let's remember that Mitchell, spouse of Alan Greenspan, is like a living, breathing conflict-of-interest (Mark Leibovich remarks that Mitchell trying to steer clear of conflict is "like an owl trying to avoid trees"). And as for the concerns of damaged integrity, well ... I think that The New York Times' David Barstow, for one, would find those concerns to be awfully quaint.
I suppose that in the end, this is a tough nut to crack. Things should be as fair as possible for everyone participating in electoral politics, but a world where political organizations could successfully put the clamps on biopics and documentaries would be a very strange and bad place in which to live. It's right for journalists, caught in these corporate entities that produce news and entertainment, to want a clear path through these thickets of controversy. At the same time, it's awfully ridiculous for them to pretend that they are merely passive participants in all of this. They have platforms, and if they can't bloody well nut up and use them to contend against claims made in Diane Lane movies, then what good are they? Additionally, it's not like these news divisions aren't going to offer up hazy, biopic-y gloss and dross about Hillary Clinton's Life And Times if she becomes a presidential candidate. They'll simply trot out their Meachams and Beschlosses and Kearns Goodwins and do it all under the high-falutin' penumbra of academia.
So, after a lengthy consideration of the matter, I think that I am going to simply fall back on one of my personal truisms: if there is a thing that makes life hard for so many media and political elites, from all sides of the ideological spectrum, then it has my blessing. The more difficult that things get for those people, the more I love it. So carry on, makers of Hillary Clinton movies! Just please, please try, as best as you can, to not suck.
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