Is the RNC really threatening to take its marbles and go home? Or is it actually losing its collective marbles?
Republicans are – not entirely rationally – unhappy that there are two documentaries in the works on former Secretary of State and potential 2016 presidential contender Hillary Clinton. So incensed are they that one of the most talked about, written about and compelling characters in modern American politics has warranted documentary treatment that RNC chairman Reince Priebus is threatening to refuse GOP debates to CNN and NBC, should they dare to run the programs. Said Priebus in a statement:
It's appalling to know executives at major networks like NBC and CNN who have donated to Democrats and Hillary Clinton have taken it upon themselves to be Hillary Clinton's campaign operatives. I hope Americans will question the credibility of these networks and that NBC and CNN will reconsider their partisan actions and cancel these political ads masked as unbiased entertainment.
There's someone's credibility on the line here. And it's not that of any TV network.
What legitimate news network would allow itself to be bullied into censoring its programming to appease the head of either major political party? What would Priebus want next – a promise not to cover campaign speeches by Democratic candidates?
Priebus points out that Democrats howled when Citizens United sought to run an election-eve movie about Hillary Clinton, claiming the film was thinly-disguised campaign advertising that violated the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act. That's true, but the situation is not parallel. The Citizens United production was a hit job, not a documentary.
And the idea that any documentary about Clinton would not include such unhappy scenes such as troubles in her marriage, her inability to get health care reform passed in the 1990s and her polarizing impact on the electorate (not so much now as years ago) is absurd. It's not as though Clinton is an unknown, and that any film about her will catapult her potential candidacy. When you're one of the most famous women in America, there is such a thing as bad publicity.
Priebus has even given a deadline for his demands, like some movie-of-the-week extortionist: drop the docs by August 14, the ominous voice warns. Or the GOP primary candidates are dead to you.
Is that really such a threat? There were numerous primary debates in the last election cycle. And not only did they not distinguish the networks (whose representatives asked some fairly frivolous questions at times), but they embarrassed the participants. What's the memorable moment from the 2012 GOP primary debates? Was it Mitt Romney, explaining clearly and convincingly why and how he could be so opposed to a health care plan for America that is remarkably similar to the one he helped write in his (onetime) home state of Massachusetts? No, it was Texas Governor Rick "Oops Perry failing to recall the third U.S. Department he wanted eliminated.
The whole no-debates episode is eerily similar to an actual episode of the HBO series "The Newsroom." In that storyline, the fictional network ACN wants to host the GOP primary debate, but wants a new format, one in which the participants are asked tougher and more candidate-specific questions. The newsroom staff performs a mock debate, which is quickly rejected by the GOP officials negotiating the deal, since they fear it will embarrass their field (to his credit, one of the GOP officials suggests that this might not actually be a bad way to thin the herd, which is what a good debate should do).
ACN, and its star anchor, Will McAvoy, say no. The younger GOP representative asks two other figures in the newsroom if they want to become "a star, and take McAvoy's place on the GOP's terms. Both delivered two-word answers that can only be uttered on cable television. CNN and NBC might say the same – albeit in language allowed on network news.
Maybe Priebus hasn't seen the show; it's left-leaning and preachy and makes Republicans, the tea party in particular, look pretty bad. But the GOP officials, he might want to take note, end up coming off as complete fools.