Politicians and TV networks would seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Except when they mix as well as oil and water.
Political figures gain much-needed publicity and a forum for their issues and talking points when they go on-air for interviews and live debates. TV-news operations gain ratings and buzz. Occasionally, however, everything goes south.
The Republican National Committee’s vote to keep CNN and NBC News from hosting its party’s primary debates due to planned projects about Hillary Clinton is just the latest political dust-up to take place between TV networks and the powerful figures that often fill their airwaves.
The RNC said Friday it made its decision based on CNN’s plans to air a documentary on Clinton, who many speculate could be a candidate for U.S. President in 2016, as well as a planned miniseries from NBC Entertainment that would feature actress Diane Lane as the former First Lady and U.S. Secretary of State. The RNC has in the recent past indicated it would prefer to limit the number of primary debates, particularly because candidates attack each other in the process, which can ultimately diminish the appeal of the one who emerges as the front-runner.
The skirmish reflects a simple truth about newsgathering on TV networks – it often gets lumped in with the other stuff the media outlet puts up on the small screen. In both cases, the proposed Clinton projects are not part of the daily material CNN or NBC News broadcasts to viewers.
At CNN, the project is part of a new focus on docu-series and documentaries meant to fill the schedule when hard news is often at an ebb. The Time Warner cable-news network has in recent weeks begun filling its Sunday nights with docu-series featuring Anthony Bourdain and Morgan Spurlock, as well as one in which producer Ridley Scott looks back at a massive breaking-news event from the past and adds fresh perspective and never-before-seen footage.
CNN said in a prepared statement that the Clinton documentary “is in the very early stages of development, 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 encouraged all interested parties to wait until the program premieres before judgments are made about it. Unfortunately, the RNC was not willing to do that.”
At NBC, the proposed Clinton miniseries operates even further afield from the network’s newsgathering arm; the series is actually a project being contemplated by NBC Entertainment, which programs the Peacock’s prime-time hours and other parts of the day.
In a statement it has used over the past several days as word of a potential RNC decision began to surface, NBC News said “NBC News is completely independent of NBC Entertainment and has no involvement in this project.” NBC Entertainment said in a statement that “this particular mini-series – which has nothing to do with the NBC News division – is in the very early stages. The script has not been written nor has it been ordered to production. It would be premature to draw any conclusions or make any assumptions about it at this time.”
The hard fact of the matter is that politicians and TV networks will inevitably clash – sometimes in public, and sometimes just behind the scenes.
Sarah Palin, then a Republican candidate for U.S. Vice President, saw her image take a shellacking in 2008 when she submitted to an interview with Katie Couric, then anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” During the interview, Couric asked Palin questions about foreign policy and what periodicals she read. Palin was largely seen to have fumbled the answers, and the interview, which aired in September of that year, is often cited as a key factor in how Palin –and, by proxy, the campaign of John McCain, the Republican nominee for U.S. President – was viewed by the public.
CBS also causes sparks with then-U.S. Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1988. In a live interview, “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather and the politician spoke in raised voices as the Vice President expressed dismay while the anchor continued to ask him questions about his alleged role in the Iran-Contra affair.
During the interview, Bush took aim at Rather for walking off the set in mid-broadcast during a much scrutinized incident in 1987. ‘It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran,” Bush famously said. “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?”