Chelsea Clinton’s Debut – UPDATED

Chelsea Clinton’s Debut – UPDATED December 13, 2011

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

Browse Our Archives