Who knows if they would have been good or bad, schmaltzy or searing, partisan or apolitical. But all questions of quality or any fleeting impact on the 2016 presidential election cycle aside, it was supremely irritating to learn yesterday that CNN and NBC were cancelling a planned documentary and mini-series on Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Neither project had met with an enthusiastic reception. Republicans, eager to limit the number of primary debates that would require their candidates to tack right in front of a national audience, used the projects to threaten to pull out of planned collaborations with the networks. Some Democrats, including Media Matters founder David Brock, expressed concerns that, eager to appear balanced, the networks would give credence to long-discredited charges against the Clintons. But that neither network was able to resist this petty political fight and articulate a sharp, confidence, independent vision for their projects speaks to two larger issues: How dominant the horse-race narrative has become, and how little faith CNN and NBC have in their ability to find new angles on and facts about a woman they may be covering intently for at least two years to come.
Charles Ferguson, who was set to direct the Clinton project for CNN, announced that he could no longer continue the assignment because: “When I approached people for interviews, I discovered that nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film. Not Democrats, not Republicans – and certainly nobody who works with the Clintons, wants access to the Clintons, or dreams of a position in a Hillary Clinton administration.” It’s surprising to me that a political filmmaker would be shocked by Clintonland’s ability to close ranks, or the family’s interest in keeping mum while Mrs. Clinton decides if she wants to run for president.
But it’s even more telling that CNN apparently isn’t interested in finding a replacement for Ferguson. Being frozen out is hardly a compelling reason to quit a project–instead, it’s a strong argument to continue reporting, a skill set that, at least in the past, has supposedly been part of CNN’s edge over its competitors at MSNBC and Fox News. Maybe Jeff Zucker, now CNN’s president, has never heard of a write-around. But in the particular matter of the Clintons, someone might direct him to Alec MacGillis’s profile of Bill Clinton’s former body man, Doug Band, who has tried to use his connections to the Clintons to make himself wealthy. Neither the Clintons nor Band commented for the piece, but MacGillis still managed to give readers a fascinating look at the former president’s emotional needs, his wife’s judgement, and their work together.
If Zucker wanted some sort of Clinton exclusive, he might have been disappointed by his staff’s inability to land it. But one-on-ones are only or necessarily the most interesting or revealing way to explore the lives of fascinating people who have exercised great power over our national life, and who have sat for many, many interviews over the course of their careers. The practiced talking points of extremely experienced interview subjects are frequently less revealing than discussions with people who are less accustomed to voicing their opinions and telling their stories. Giving up because Hillary Rodham Clinton wouldn’t sit for an interview is an extremely limited way of conceiving possible story-telling about the Clintons.
NBC’s cancellation of its miniseries is disappointing for similar reasons. Diane Lane was set to play the former Secretary of State and First Lady in a four-hour project created by Courtney Hunt, who’s known for her innovative, tough female characters when she writes fiction. A long project could have provided a wide angle on Clinton’s career, and it might have, blessedly, gone beyond the conventional talking points about her life. And the gift of a biopic is that it can pick unusual angles or inflection points in a subject’s life, rather than simply repeating the events that everyone talks about already. One of the reasons Rodham, the feature about Hillary that’s in development, is so refreshing as both a story about the Clintons and as a biopic is that it does precisely that, identifying Rodham Clinton’s work on the impeachment of President Nixon as the real seminal moment in her life, a time when she stepped out as a lawyer, the period during which she decided to marry Bill Clinton, and the period in which, by laying out the legal framework to conduct an impeachment trial, she unwittingly set up the next great drama of her life.
A project with that kind of boldness and creativity should have been exactly what NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt, who just extended his contract through 2017, and thus far, has shown little of the flair for commissioning unusual stories that served his creative reputation, was looking for. But instead, he’s scrapped it, and will focus on as-yet-unidentified other projects instead.
Maybe it’s silly to get hugely frustrated with the programming decisions of two networks that seem largely at sea. But I had the precedents that have been set by this, the decision that making party committees happy is more important than providing independent perspectives, that the only way to do journalism is in collaboration with the subjects, that we can’t have exciting, fictionalized takes on important figures that intervene in current events. What CNN and NBC have done here is laid out diminished expectations for their own role in the upcoming presidential debate, and diminished ambitions for their journalism and fictional storytelling, and they’ve done it to themselves.