Chelsea Clinton’s Debut – UPDATED

So, Chelsea Clinton made her debut last night on Brian William’s (to me) awkwardly-named Rock Center, and you can watch her piece, here, and even vote for how you think she did.

I voted “boring but I think she’ll get better” even though I thought it an imprecise choice. She was not “boring” — the piece itself, on the generous, inspiring and inspired Annette Dove, and her mission to enhance the lives of disadvantaged kids, was not boring. Ms. Clinton chose an interesting subject, and I do think she will get “better” as she becomes more comfortable with the gig and the camera.

Or, more precisely, if she can become comfortable. Being successful in television doesn’t require room-filling smarts (although they help); it requires being able to look directly into the camera with a sense of personal comfort and enough openness that the viewer feels like he or she is being directly engaged.

Right now, Clinton is not managing that. When she is part of a group, as when Dove teased her on her lack of cooking skills, she seems shy, charming and likable, but when pushed to the fore — whether that means interviewing others or being questioned by Williams — Clinton seems unsure of herself and palpably terrified. I wanted to put a brandy and soda into her hands during the follow-up with Williams, who asked the very good question: how long can Dove, who has put all of her own money into her endeavor, keep going?

Clinton’s answer, sadly, betrayed her discomfort. “She’s trying to train more people to take her irreplaceable place.” I get her meaning, but it sounded awkward, as did most of her answers to Williams.

Discomfort is one thing
— a person can train herself past that — but Clinton has a couple of really glaring weaknesses that would seem to preclude a career in TV-journalism: an inability to read her own copy crisply, and perhaps the worst case of vocal frying I have ever heard in my life. Despite the assertion at TV Newser, that “her voice has a built-in broadcast quality” the truth is Clinton spends all of her time strangled in the deepest part of her vocal register, which gives her an uncharismatic monotone and a sound that after a while begins to grate. Either she has damaged vocal chords, or she is in need of some corrective speech therapy.

All in all, I’d give her a C+ and suggest there is plenty of room for her to grow and get better at this, if she really wants to.

Whether she really wants to will depend, I suppose, on whether human-interest journalism is something she feels genuinely called to (and when we feel called to something we tend to want to give it our very best efforts) or Rock Center is merely a means to an end — a way to gain exposure and learn to work with media toward an eventual run for political office.

If she doesn’t feel called to this — if in fact she is using the gig as on-the-job-training in useful media skills meant for another ambition — then she might be better off simply getting some tutoring and some therapy, and allowing someone who has actually paid professional dues and could use a good-paying, high-visibility job to have their shot.

Deacon Greg Kandra,
who worked for CBS News for almost three decades and knows his stuff is both unimpressed and somewhat annoyed:

She seems a good listener, but not a good talker; this only becomes worse when she’s paired with someone like Brian Williams — who is every bit as poised and polished and professional as she isn’t. And she is burdened with a voice that is sadly, drearily inexpressive. She needs training. Lots of training. And practice. And experience.

That may come. But I can’t escape the unnerving feeling that, professionally or personally, this is someone who just hasn’t earned this, and probably never thought about a career in television until a few weeks ago. Across three decades in this business, I’ve seen too many resume reels from people a lot better: bright, eager reporters her age who have covered fires, listened to police scanners, stood in the rain outside a hospital, called up grieving widows to ask “What are you thinking?,” sacrificed holidays and weekends to sit through school board meetings, lived off bad coffee and stale sandwiches, endured stakeouts during blizzards and live shots during hurricanes and gone without relationships and children and a decently furnished apartment just to have the kind of opportunity now handed on a prime time platter to a marginal talent like Chelsea Clinton.

I wonder if the industry realizes that when they do hand over “a prime-time platter” to untrained, well-connected “marginal talent” they are tacitly stating to the rest of us, “J-school is a joke; it really doesn’t take much to do this job.” They devalue themselves when they make a move like this one.

Over at Hot Air, Ed Morrissey is inclined to thing the a Wapo critic too harsh, and he writes:

I don’t think Chelsea Clinton is the world’s most boring human, but it’s hard to argue that she has any mad skilz for this kind of work, either . . . The whole exercise appears to be intended to promote the next generation of Clintons for public work, and perhaps public office. So far, though, it’s not working. Clinton may not be as bad as Steuver says, but she’s not worth watching, either.

More reactions:
Allesandra Stanley at NYTimes
NY Daily News
Daily Caller
Howard Kurtz
The Wrap
The Public Lives of Famous Children

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • vanderleun

    Actually, J-school IS a joke. Always has been. Always will be. In over 30 years in the business I never ever once hired anyone fresh out of J-School. Only a fool would.

  • Andrew B

    I have always felt that too many conservatives have been grossly unfair to Chelsea Clinton. Her parents are ghastly and should, in my opinion, be enjoying the inside of a Federal penitentiary. Still, that does not make Chelsea an appropriate target for some of the venom heaped on her during her father’s terms.

    That being said, I also despise our country’s slide into hereditary aristocracy. Chelsea Clinton no more deserves a slot on a major network than does Jenna Bush or Amy Carter or Tricia Nixon. The fact that a supposedly serious news channel would offer her a spot shows that they are more interested in dynastic succession than in serving their rapidly dwindling viewship.

  • Diane

    Vocal fry – now I have the name for it. She absolutely needs a voice coach. It was so distracting, I couldn’t pay attention to the content and turned it off.

  • Klaire

    I didn’t think she was THAT bad.

    As for the J school, doub that that matters much, as most college us pretty much useless as far as job schools goes, save for the life sciences.

    Some people are just naturals, Megyn Kelly at Fox a good example, smart, spunky, and self confident. Even though I’m not a fan of fox or TV per se, I often enjoy watching Megyn Kelly videos, especially her interviewing style.

  • NY Mom

    Is vocal fry that thing young women are all doing now, where they finish the latter half of sentences in that lower level, deep in their throat? I even hear it in radio conmercials – you’d think a good producer would’ve provided more direction and coaching – but it’s a gawdawful, annoying way to speak.

    Dcn. Greg said exactly what I was thinking. I graduated with a number of Syracuse U’s S.I. Newhouse students and know what goes into the career. Frankly, Miss Clinton exhibits the skills of a freshman, not a professional. I am sorry to see television news windowdressing instead of providing the sharp, dignified and responsible level of work it was once known for.

  • JamesG

    If she is an incompetent tv journalist (I much prefer the Brit-term “presenter’) how the hell did she hold a job at that investment bank (name forgotten) for the past few years. With all respect to presenters investment bankers are very demanding employers, the hours are deadly and the work requires a high level of competence.

    I look forward to some enterprising reporter doing that investigation.

  • Bill M.

    As someone who lives in the same town as the Kardashian sisters, I know from vocal frying, Elizabeth, and Chelsea’s case is mild — more vocal singe than fry.

    Would you be happier if she spoke with Long Island lockjaw? :)

  • Benn

    It’s only fitting that Clinton is working for NBC, they’ve worked for her family for many years.

    Grep Kandra working for CBS? Is that something to be proud of? I’d be ashamed.

  • Wolfwood

    Am I the only person who thinks that vocal fry is almost spine-tinglingly sexy? I can’t be, or else so many young women wouldn’t be doing it. Two commenters at Althouse actually seemed to have nailed it: it’s both an adolescent way to speak and is also a lot like “the bedroom voice.” As someone not yet 30, it makes me think of high school and college and is probably in about the same place for me as music from the 90s and early 2000s.

  • Brett

    I definitely think she can get better — I refuse to believe anyone with half of Bill Clinton’s genes can’t eventually learn how to work a room or a TV camera. She may be pitching low to avoid comparisons with her mother, whose voice has a shrill quality that doesn’t help her limited likeability.

    I proudly hold a degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism which was actually of some value to me during the time I was in that career. But I went into print, which was actual journalism and which didn’t know from Q ratings.

  • Phelps

    It was like watching NPR.

    That isn’t a compliment.

  • Klaire

    Speaking of voices, what TV journalist voice was ever worse than Christiana Amapour(sp?). In the little time I do have to listen to her, it’s painful, like listening to someone talk to you who with a mouthful of marbles, yet she get’s a coveted Sunday Show? I’ll take Chelsea anyday of the week over her.

  • Margaret

    I think she did OK, especially considering this is her first attempt. I thought the portion with Ms. Dove was better than the interview with Brian Williams. I got caught up in Ms. Dove’s story, and I suppose that would be Ms. Clinton’s goal.

    I agree that she should curb the “fried” vocalization because it is annoying and unattractive. I wonder if the other flaws—the flatness of her delivery and the stiffness of her demeanor—are signs of nervousness. If so, she could well overcome them with experience. Whether or not it is fair that she got this job because of her connections, well, that is another story!

  • kevin

    It is funny you say that Klaire. Amanpour’s accent to me is so affected and pretentious that I literally can’t listen to her.

  • Greta

    She was a distraction to the entire story. This would have been a very good story if someone with talent had covered it.

    One thing is certain, you do not fire Chelsea Clinton no matter how bad she is. She is too big to fail.

  • doc

    bah…one more reason to avoid the corporate media. Reminds me of Sowell’s Visions of the Annointed. NBC clearly views Clinton as the annointed and therefore permits her to skip pass little things like experience and training and go straight to the head of the class.

  • Tony Rossi

    I thought she did okay for her first time out. I suspect her problems were caused by a self-consciousness on camera – especially the live TV portion – that should improve over time. Most on-air talent, however, might have worked out some of those kinks in a smaller venue than NBC.

  • Defeminized Voices

    Since the feminist movement, women have dropped their voices in some cases more than an octave. Yes, she is speaking down on the fry. This is where women have been pitching their voices, esp if there is any inhibition involved. It ruins the voice after a protracted period of this abuse. Most women’s voices are quite light/higher-pitched, like our Anchoress here, and are lovely and attractive; there is a girl-like quality that never leaves if the voice is left in its proper realm. However, the fear is, that women will not be taken seriously with that more lilting and attractive feminine (read: natural) sound. It can be difficult to literally rise above this. Vocal coaching is a must but, inner transformation and confidence will be the only things to cement a pricey coaching session.

    I’m a soprano. Even opera conductors and well known diction coaches have thought I was a mezzo or contralto. Why? Speaking too blessed low. Apparently, Bev. Sills was guilty of this too. I do have a 4 to 4.5 octave range, but, tend to lazily sit down on the lower branches; it is hard to take flight and sing like a lark with so much over-weighting of the voice. Habits are hard to break. (Though, this worked great when I sold men’s shoes! Used to get 3 or 4 boxes out the door per man with that Lauren Bacall sound.)

    What is sad is, that women have thought that they had to become more like men to be taken seriously. At least we’ve moved beyond the horrid dark gray suits and bow ties of the 80s and are back to some semblance of femininity. But our voices still need respecting from some of us women ourselves. Then maybe the rest of the modern world will catch up. Really, though, we did this to ourselves.

    I have heard from vocal surgeons, vocal coaches both speaking and singing, and other Type A, professional voice users.