ObamaCare isn’t the only thing crashing all over the landscape this week. Both of the long-planned biographies of Hillary Clinton have been scuttled, first at CNN, then at NBC.
The popular narrative about these cancellations is that angry Republicans forced the networks to drop their projects, which would have amounted to enormous in-kind campaign contributions for Clinton’s probable 2016 presidential bid. It is very curious that anyone could have failed to anticipate this complaint. Major news networks really should not be preparing biographies of likely candidates on the eve of an election. It’s hard to imagine them making an even remotely flattering documentary or movie – the NBC project would have starred Diane Lane as Hillary – about a Republican under the same circumstances. Even if the result offers some criticism, it can’t help but elevate the stature of the chosen candidate among all competitors, most definitely including primary competitors from the same party.
The Republican National Committee was happy to take some credit for scotching the Hillary biopics. “This was only the first step in the Republican Party taking control of our debate process,” crowed RNC spokesperson Kirsten Kukoski. “The purpose of our party’s debates is to better inform our grassroots and those participating in Republican primaries and caucuses. Now that CNN and NBC have canceled their Hillary Clinton infomercials, we will work on developing a new debate model that will address the timing, frequency, moderators and venues that will come in the next few months. Any media organization looking to be part of the debate process will have to comply with the new system.”
Politics often boils down to standing atop dead dragons with a wooden sword and claiming credit for the kill. Republican criticism (with support from others who thought the Clinton project inappropriate) may well have played some role in the thinking of network executives, who desire access to primary debates, and probably worried about losing prestige and the veneer of impartiality before their audiences. However the ratings might look at present, neither CNN nor NBC wants to become a boutique niche network.
But the aspiring director of the CNN documentary, Charles Ferguson, wrote at the Huffington Post about encountering stiff resistance from people in the Clinton orbit:
The day after the contract was signed, I received a message from Nick Merrill, Hillary Clinton’s press secretary. He already knew about the film, and clearly had a source within CNN. He interrogated me; at first I answered, but eventually I stopped. When I requested an off-the-record, private conversation with Mrs. Clinton, Merrill replied that she was busy writing her book, and not speaking to the media.
Next came Phillipe Reines, Hillary Clinton’s media fixer, who contacted various people at CNN, interrogated them, and expressed concern about alleged conflicts of interest generated because my film was a for-profit endeavor (as nearly all documentaries and news organizations are). When I contacted him, he declined to speak with me. He then repeated his allegations to Politico, which published them.
Ferguson encountered Bill Clinton at an event last June, and says “he proceeded to tell me the most amazing lies I’ve heard in quite a while” after conversation turned to the 2008 financial crisis. He realized the Clintons might not be eager to have a biographer discussing their role in the crisis (a safe bet, given their reaction to the ABC miniseries “The Path to 9/11,” which showed us what Bill Clinton was doing while Osama bin Laden gathered his strength.) Ferguson displays a lot of sympathy and understanding toward the Clintons and their financial dealings, but it didn’t get him very far with their inner circle:
I would have loved to explore all this. But when I approached people for interviews, I discovered that nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film. Not Democrats, not Republicans — and certainly nobody who works with the Clintons, wants access to the Clintons, or dreams of a position in a Hillary Clinton administration. Not even journalists who want access, which can easily be taken away. I even sensed potential difficulty in licensing archival footage from CBN (Pat Robertson) and from Fox. After approaching well over a hundred people, only two persons who had ever dealt with Mrs. Clinton would agree to an on-camera interview, and I suspected that even they would back out.
Somehow Ferguson manages to blame this partially on the Republicans – as if the Clinton machine cares a whit about what the RNC thinks! – describing the squelching of his project as “a victory for the Clintons, and for the money machines that both political parties have now become.” Which doesn’t explain why the NBC project assumed room temperature at roughly the same time, with NBC insiders complaining about pressure from the Clintons.
“I still believe that Mrs. Clinton has many virtues including great intelligence, fortitude, and a deep commitment to bettering the lives of women and children worldwide. But this is not her finest hour,” Ferguson laments. What does it say about the Clintons’ mania for control that they couldn’t abide a biography prepared by someone who sees Hillary that way?