NBC's $600,000 Correspondent

Chelsea Clinton

NBC's $600,000 Correspondent

By R. Alan Clanton | published June 20, 2014 |
Thursday Review editor

The next time your Comcast bill goes up, you may want to thank Chelsea Clinton for that slight increase.

Yes, that Chelsea Clinton, daughter of the former President, and daughter of the former Secretary of State who may become the next president.

Why blame Chelsea? Because the fuzzy lines between celebrities and journalists are getting hard to sort out these days, and it can be even more difficult to separate the political celebrities from the garden-variety actors-turned-political-activists. That means your cable bill won’t go up because of Brad Pitt or Sean Penn or Sarah Jessica Parker, though in their own indirect way perhaps they drive up the cost of content also.

But, as we have learned lately, the offspring of presidents are sometimes useful to have around the shop when it comes to network news. For example, Jenna Bush Hager is a Today Show correspondent, and Bush’s reporting has, so far, received modest praise from news observers and other journalists, a few of whom were at first resentful of Hager's being placed in such a prominent role without first working her way up through the ranks. But the daughter of George W. Bush is hard-working, and by any measure appears to be learning the lessons of news reporting quite well. Her Today Show segments have become increasingly tight and well-crafted.

Chelsea Clinton, as it turns out, is being paid a cool $600,000 to be a correspondent for NBC News. A reasonable high-end salary, perhaps (ask NBC’s Jim “Mik” Miklaszewski, Savannah Guthrie or Pete Williams if they think it is reasonable), but there’s a hitch. The 34 year old Chelsea has only done a handful of reports for NBC News in more than eight months of work. NBC aired two of those recently completed segments on education this year. Chelsea Clinton has produced no original work since the start of 2014, and only a small body of work during 2013.

The young Clinton was originally hired by NBC back in mid-2011, but as plenty of folks around the NBC offices and studios have noticed, she hasn’t produced much in the way of reporting. In fact, reviews by media watchdog groups have figured out that Chelsea has done only 14 appearances since she was hired. This has driven some of the water-cooler conversation into a narrative of resentment: the daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton may have been hired more for public relations purposes and political access than for any real journalistic work. Her extremely high salary, coupled with a conspicuous absence from the studio, has become a problem for NBC News and its parent company NBC Universal.

When Clinton has done work for NBC, its quality has ranged from fair-to-middling (a report on the Maya Angelou Academy), to soft and fluffy (a profile piece for Rock Center on author Judy Blume), to awkwardly fawning (an interview with designer Stella McCartney). None of it has been hard news, but in her defense, correspondents are often niched to work certain types of stories, and Chelsea’s have most often fallen under the rubric of public service or philanthropic activity, reporting closely aligned to her parents' foundation.

Chelsea Clinton’s typical reporting is in the area of community service and charitable giving, often featuring local or regional programs which provide a service or outreach. A few news analysts say that these pieces—while largely inoffensive—fall to easily into the category of puff piece. One insider described Chelsea’s work as “cheerleading.”

The $600,000 salary is considered pricey, even for a celebrity reporter, but especially for a cheerleader. But what apparently irks some veterans at NBC (and other networks as well) is that Clinton produces so little work, and so little of substance at that. Veteran reporters at lower ranks among network affiliates also complain that Chelsea leapfrogged past decades of hard work and seniority to land in her unchallenging role as occasional correspondent. NBC has reportedly become sensitive to the internal complaints—as well as the outside scrutiny now facing its arrangement with Chelsea—and has announced that the daughter of the Clintons will be featured in two upcoming segments, with more planned for the near future.

NBC News and its parent company NBC Universal are both owned by cable TV giant Comcast. Comcast, in its recent bid to complete its massive merger with cable titan Time Warner, has acknowledge that in its effort to meld the two companies into one unit, some layoffs must occur, and cost-saving—especially on salaries and hourly wages—will surely be a factor in the newly reorganized Comcast structure. Merged call center operations, a combined field workforce (installers, repair technicians) and outsourced or streamlined tech support operations will surely follow—with the expected number of employees phased out of jobs and into unemployment. This had prompted some industry observers to question the value of Chelsea Clinton’s robust $600,000, especially in light of such a small output of news work.

Jenna Bush Hager’s salary has not been disclosed, but NBC insiders say her pay range is measurably less than Clinton’s.

“Comcast likes to cultivate its political connections,” a source Thursday Review spoke to who asked not to be identified because of their frequent work with the Philadelphia-based Comcast, “and Comcast has always been careful to curry favor on both sides of the political aisle. NBC has a reporter from both of the recent political dynasties because NBC will seek to maintain that balance, both from a newsgathering perspective and because it aligns with Comcast’s way of thinking.”

But some at NBC News say that while balance and objectivity are crucial to any news operation, the salaries being paid to political celebrities—and the offspring of former U.S. presidents—diminishes the value of skilled veteran news reporters earning far less money.

NBC has responded by promising new and additional reporting by Chelsea Clinton in the near future, but did not comment publicly on the controversy over her salary.

Comcast purchased NBC Universal in 2011, buying a majority stake from General Electric in a complex deal that took two years to complete and required numerous regulatory hurdles. Comcast bought the remaining shares of NBC Universal in parcels over the course of the next two years.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Kings of Content: Why Comcast is Inevitable; Thursday Review; February 28, 2014.

Comcast: Don't Worry, Be Happy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 9, 2014.