NBC Entertainment's plans to produce and air a miniseries about Hillary Clinton just ahead of the 2016 presidential election raises serious questions about NBC News coverage of the former U.S. Senator and secretary of state and whether it will be slanted or tainted by the parent company's commercial interests.
On July 27, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt announced plans for a Clinton-based miniseries timed to precede the 2016 presidential race as part of a new NBC effort "to create 'event' programming that will draw viewers to the shrinking world of broadcast network TV."
NBC's chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd acknowledged the complication this will create in a series of posts on his Twitter account, surmising that "Clinton lovers or haters will assume some sort of NBC News involvement" and assuring his followers that NBC News "has nothing to do" with the miniseries.
NBC News, via Todd, appears to be publicly quarantining itself from NBC Entertainment, though the network itself has yet to address the thorny ethical issues raised by the close nexus between NBC News and NBC Entertainment and the financial interests at stake in NBC producing a miniseries connected to Clinton's potential political future. It remains to be seen whether American media consumers will accept the distinction and whether NBC's reputation for objective journalism will be tarnished by NBC's pursuit of ratings gold.
Even before a script has been written, NBC News is already hyping the miniseries. Maria Elena Fernandez penned a news article for Today's website on July 27 highlighting the film and its producers' choice of Diane Lane to play Clinton. Will NBC News programs continue promoting the fictional account as its air date draws closer?
Previous political biopics have not ended well for the networks that commissioned them. Most notably, CBS was forced to dump its miniseries on former President Ronald Reagan in 2003 after right-wing activists and the RNC convinced the network that the final product did not "present a balanced portrayal" of the conservative icon. Conservatives complained that Reagan was depicted as a caricature, a "disconnected, puppet-like simpleton." NBC runs the same risk - a fictionalized caricature of Clinton may make for more dramatic appeal, but diversions from reality are likely to blow back on NBC News.
In fact, the right is already pressuring NBC to adopt their ideological lens on Clinton or risk being tried and hanged as partisan lapdogs pushing a "puff piece." Fox Nation used the announcement to declare that "the media are now in a full court press to get Hillary Clinton elected president in 2016." Newsbusters commentator Noel Sheppard complained that the series will be a "four-hour puff piece specifically designed to present the former first lady in as favorable a light imaginable in order to assist her coronation." Fox News' America's Newsroom aired a segment in which guest David Webb speculated that the miniseries would be "revisionist history" if it did not include topics like the widely debunked "Whitewater" matter.
As Fox News suggested, will airing a Clinton miniseries pressure NBC to provide equal time to other presidential candidates? Greenblatt attempted to pre-emptively take the wind out of this criticism by noting that the network hopes to air the miniseries before any formal declaration of a Clinton candidacy. According to Greenblatt, this broadcast schedule would avoid the equal time problem. But he's arguing a technicality -- clearly the network is already presuming Clinton will be in the race. Is the network prepared to respond to the equal time criticism and deal with the conflict of interest, even in the absence of evidence to support the conclusion?