Politics

10.02.13

How Team Clinton Shut Down the CNN and NBC Hillary Shows

CNN and NBC have both canceled planned shows about Hillary Clinton. Lloyd Grove reports on a killer operation by Team Clinton to protect her presidential ambitions.

In the Darwinian world of media and politics, hardly any primal force compares to Clinton Clout.

This week’s serial cancellations of two television productions focusing on Hillary Clinton—a CNN documentary and an NBC miniseries, both of which were announced months ago to great fanfare, controversy, and bitter complaints from her partisans and detractors—prove once again that she and her presidential husband have not only triangulated the power map, they’ve pretty much drawn it.

“Lights, camera, no reaction,” crowed Nick Merrill, Hillary’s spokesman since she left public office as secretary of state; he’s one of many operatives and supporters who are busy burnishing and safeguarding her brand as she prepares for a potential White House run.

On Tuesday, Clinton loyalist James Carville praised CNN and NBC for killing their respective Hillary projects, telling The Daily Beast: “That was one of those rare things where everybody thought cancelling was a good idea. Reince Priebus didn’t want it. The Clinton people didn’t want it. There was real bipartisanship here.  This was an idea whose time had not come—and probably never will.”

Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, had sent letters of protest to NBC and CNN executives and announced in August that, as a result of the Hillary projects, which he suspected would be favorable to the 2016 Democratic frontrunner, his party would bar CNN and NBC News from participating in their primary debates.

This is not the first time that the Clintons have prevailed upon a media organization to cancel a project that could run counter to their political ambitions.

Predictably, high-profile journalists at both television outlets—notably Candy Crowley at CNN and Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell at NBC News—went public with their discomfort at the potential for perceived conflicts of interest created by the documentary and the miniseries. Todd, for one, called the NBC project “a total nightmare for NBC News.”

Surprisingly, Priebus was joined in his opposition by Clinton enemy-turned-acolyte David Brock, head of the liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America, who worried that “the right-wing noise machine” would prompt the networks to trash his idol. Brock was especially concerned that the director of CNN’s project was fellow liberal Charles Ferguson, a 2008 Barack Obama supporter who won the 2011 Best Documentary Oscar for Inside Job, a film which partially blamed Bill Clinton’s Wall Street-friendly economic team for policies that led to the financial meltdown and subsequent Great Recession.

“Ferguson is perceived as kind of a lefty—which worries both the right and the Clintons,” said an erstwhile Clinton administration official, who requested anonymity so as not to antagonize a former president and a possible future one. “Which is why their supporters are forced to crush it.” This ex-official added: “There’s obviously opposition on the right to Hillary’s candidacy but there’s also anxiety, nervousness, on the left, that she’s not ‘left’ enough.”

In a fascinating confessional in Monday’s Huffington Post, headlined “Why I Am Cancelling My Documentary on Hillary Clinton,” Ferguson described being triple-teamed by Nick Merrill, Brock, and “media fixer” Philippe Reines, who was Clinton’s press consigliere in her Senate office and at State.

Merrill, tipped off to the project well before CNN’s formal announcement, “interrogated me,” Ferguson claimed. “[A]t first I answered, but eventually I stopped.” Merrill advised him there would be no meeting with Clinton. Reines also “interrogated…various people at CNN,” Ferguson continued, and “expressed concern about alleged conflicts of interest,” but refused, unlike Merrill, to speak with Ferguson and didn’t comment for this story. (The Clinton camp disputed Ferguson’s characterizations. A person familiar with their dealings emailed me: “‘Interrogation’ is misused in the piece.  In the meeting with Ferguson, there was an accusation of stonewalling him. This was a matter of trying to get basic questions answered, which neither he nor CNN would answer. So if you’re talking about stonewalling that seems like a better example.” Ferguson, through his representative, declined an interview request.)

Brock, who in his former life as a conservative investigative journalist had written about Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions in Arkansas—for which he later apologized to the president—published screeds against the proposed CNN documentary in Politico and Media Matters, which Ferguson interpreted as a message to the Clinton faithful not to cooperate. They didn’t. Ultimately, the filmmaker said he couldn’t persuade anyone—Democrat or Republican—to sit before his cameras.

CNN issued an anodyne statement on Monday: 
"Charles Ferguson has informed us that he is not moving forward with his documentary about Hillary Clinton. Charles is an Academy Award winning director who CNN Films was excited to be working with, but we understand and respect his decision." NBC, which had proudly announced that prominent actress Diane Lane would star in the network’s Hillary miniseries, quickly followed CNN in acknowledging the spiking of its vaunted prime-time vehicle. “After reviewing and prioritizing our slate of movie/mini-series development, we’ve decided that we will no longer continue developing the Hillary Clinton mini-series,” said NBC’s terse press release, offering no further explanation.

“It goes without saying that they have a lot of clout,” said the former Clinton official, “and they have a lot of people who will protect whatever they see as being in their interests. Hillary Clinton might very well run for president and a lot of people want to, if not curry favor, then protect their franchise.”

This is not the first time that the Clintons have prevailed upon a media organization to cancel a project that could run counter to their political ambitions. In September 2007, Politico reported that GQ, the Condé Nast men’s magazine, killed a story about Hillary Clinton’s dysfunctional presidential campaign organization under threat of being denied access to Bill for its “Man of the Year” issue. According to Politico’s Ben Smith, now editor in chief of BuzzFeed, the former president’s spokesman Jay Carson suggested to GQ editors that Clinton would not make himself available if the magazine published the dishy article about internal squabbles in his wife’s campaign by Atlantic writer Joshua Green.

GQ editor in chief Jim Nelson decided to spike Green’s piece, claiming that it didn’t meet his expectations, and the Bill Clinton cover story, focused on a trip to Africa, went ahead as scheduled. “Hillary didn't kill the piece; I killed the piece," Nelson insisted to the Washington Post, adding that "the story didn't end up fully satisfying ... I guarantee and promise you, if I'd have had a great Hillary piece, I would have run it."

Green—who, like Nelson, didn’t return phone calls on Tuesday—said at the time that "GQ told me it was a great story and a hell of a reporting job, but they didn't want to jeopardize the Clinton-in-Africa piece. GQ told me the Clintons were unhappy and threatened to revoke access to Bill Clinton if the Hillary story ran."

The former Clinton official said, in that case and the current one, Team Clinton was acting out of legitimate political necessity. “What should they do? It seems like a good idea to me,” said the former official. “There are maybe eight people in Manhattan who care about the process, and there’s millions of people who would potentially see the documentary and the miniseries. You do the math.”