It’s no surprise whatsoever that Chelsea Clinton didn’t electrify broadcast journalism with her debut Monday night on NBC’s “Rock Center With Brian Williams,” because she has no experience in broadcast journalism. She didn’t cut her teeth with live coverage of strip-mall blazes in Sacramento. She never did weekend weather in Wichita Falls. She didn’t blow the lid off mail-order ham scams in Des Moines. (Who — besides everyone working in TV news who did each and every one of those things — says you have to do all that?)
Rather, what was surprising to see on Monday night’s show is how someone can be on TV in such a prominent way and, in her big moment, display so very little charisma — none at all. Either we’re spoiled by TV’s unlimited population of giant personalities or this woman is one of the most boring people of her era.
Which is well within her rights to be.
Except on television. As soon as NBC announced its opportunistic addition of Clinton as a very special correspondent to its news staff last month (using the broadest definition of “news” to include the sort of uplifting, socially concerned puff pieces Clinton will contribute), all sorts of longstanding bargains have been nullified. Clinton, who turns 32 in February, is officially past the “hands-off” restrictions firmly negotiated with the media when she was 12 and her father, the president, and her mother, the almighty, insisted that the press not write any stories about her.
That weird treatment extended well into her adulthood, creating a kind of Gen-Y Greta Garbo in plain sight, a mystery figure entirely undeserving of the intrigue and fascination accorded her. Having earned degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Columbia (and still working on her doctorate at New York University), Clinton is now ready to put all that schooling to one of the easiest tasks on the planet: feel-good journalism about folks just makin’ their way.
Her first effort took her to Pine Bluff, a small town in (as Brian Williams reminded us) “her home state of Arkansas” (and it’s a good thing he reminded us, because nothing whatsoever about present-day Chelsea Clinton seems at all Arkansan — whatever that would seem like). There, she profiled Annette Dove, a woman who runs an after-school center called TOPPS (Targeting Our People’s Priority with Service), which predominantly serves black, very poor children.
Clinton will continue such segments as part of NBC’s “Making a Difference” featurettes, which are not unlike ABC News’s “Person of the Week” segments, and, frankly, not unlike the article and photos laid out in the center of most newspapers’ Metro pages — so many points of light that one eventually becomes inured to them, especially when one is on the hunt for news. Coincidentally enough, “Rock Center’s” first half-hour consisted of an epically long report from the also newly hired correspondent Ted Koppel — who got his start in broadcast journalism 48 years ago — on the precarious void that will remain after U.S. troops pull out of Iraq this month.
Stories from the Chelsea beat, meanwhile, are all meant to do a few things, very quickly: Highlight some bright spot of good news in otherwise bleak circumstances; indicate how viewers might help out the situation, if so inclined; and (this is never once said, but almost always palpable in the empathetic eyes of the reporter) ennoble the reporter herself, and thereby ennoble the network. This is why Clinton says she is doing television — to make a difference.
Who among us will tell her that’s not what TV does, not really?