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Republican Chairman Threatens to Block 2016 Primary Debates If NBC, CNN Proceed With Hillary Clinton Projects

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus has fired off letters to CNN’s Jeff Zucker and NBC’s Robert Greenblatt, objecting to plans for movie projects about Hillary Clinton and going so far as to threaten not to cooperate in presidential debates in the 2016 cycle.

CNN recently announced plans for a feature-length documentary about Clinton, while NBC announced a miniseries about the former Secretary of State that will star Diane Lane.

In his letters, Priebus suggested that the projects were a “thinly veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election.”

“it’s appalling to know executives at major networks like NBC and CNN who have donated to Democrats and Hillary Clinton have taken it upon themselves to be Hillary Clinton’s campaign operatives,” Priebus said in a statement, calling “their actions to promote Secretary Clinton” “disturbing and disappointing.” He called them “political ads masked as unbiased entertainment.”

Copies of the letters were posted on the Republican National Committee website.

Priebus wrote that if the networks have not agreed to pull the programming before the RNC’s summer meeting on Aug. 14, he will seek a “binding vote” that the RNC will not partner with the networks in 2016 primary debates or sanction debates that they sponsor.

A spokesman for NBC had no immediate comment. NBC News issued a statement in which it said, “NBC News is completely independent of NBC Entertainment and has no involvement in this project.”

CNN’s project, made through its CNN Films unit, is expected to premiere in 2014, with a theatrical run prior to that. In a statement, CNN said, “Instead of making premature decisions about a project that is in the very early stages of development and months from completion, we would encourage members of the Republican National Committee to reserve judgment until they know more. Should they decide not to participate in debates on CNN, we would find it curious, as limiting their debate participation seems to be the ultimate disservice to voters.”

But at NBC’s recent press tour presentation, Greenblatt said that the Clinton miniseries would air before she announced any bid for the presidency, which, if the past is any guide, would come after the 2014 midterm elections. He cited concerns of providing equal time for all candidates, an issue that has arisen before with entertainment programming, including the showing of reruns of “Law & Order” featuring Fred Thompson after he announced his bid for the presidency in 2007.

As a cable news network, however, CNN would probably not face such restrictions. Documentaries, news programming and even interview shows like “The Tonight Show” have been exempted from the FCC’s equal time rules. CNN’s Hillary Clinton project is not scripted, but a documentary to be directed by Charles Ferguson, the Oscar-winning maker of “Inside Job.” Even as Republicans have objected that the project would be a promotional platform for Clinton, Ferguson’s projects have been hard hitting about their subjects.

The idea of a Hillary Clinton project was used by conservatives the last time that she ran for president, and it left a legacy. That is when conservative filmmaker David Bossie released “Hillary, The Movie,” a scathing documentary about the First Lady. When the Federal Election Commission deemed it akin to a piece of campaign propaganda that violated campaign finance laws. Bossie challenged the rules, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the historic Citizens United ruling. That makes it all the more unlikely that Republicans would be able to challenge the Clinton movie projects before the FEC.

In an interview with KPCC’s Larry Mantle, RNC communications director Sean Spicer noted that many Democrats in 2007 passed judgment on “Hillary, The Movie” before even seeing it.

Priebus’ threat to withhold debate cooperation also comes as many Republican leaders have bemoaned that the last cycle had too many presidential debates during primary season. An RNC report on the 2012 presidential election recommended many fewer presidential debates, and perhaps greater control by the party over planning and participation.

 

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