An Open Letter to Chelsea Clinton, Journalist

Can she prove her critics wrong by doing serious work at NBC News?

chelsea full.jpg

Dear Chelsea Clinton,

Congrats on your new job at NBC News. Since we're journalistic colleagues now, and because I'm an advocate of solidarity among those of us born during the winter of 1980, I'm writing to offer advice about how you can prove your critics wrong. You've seen the criticism, right? Glenn Greenwald thinks that you're making a mockery of meritocracy and the notion that journalism should challenge the powerful. Jack Shafer posits that you're valuable to your new employer because your family connections and fame will help you land interviews with  celebrities.

I can see how you'd find that unfair. You're an intelligent woman with diverse work experiences and educational credentials from Stanford, Oxford and Columbia, a resume more impressive than at least some of the broadcast journalists NBC hires.

By virtue of growing up in the White House, around a father who was a president and a governor, and because your mother has been a senator and a secretary of state, you have rare insight into how government actually works in this country. Your husband is a former Goldman Sachs employee who runs his own hedge fund, so I'm sure you know a lot more than the average broadcaster about the financial sector too. If part of being a good journalist is grasping how the world works, and another part is having lots of sources, who wouldn't want to hire you?

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Were I a managing editor I'd be tempted. But I'd have reservations too. Would you treat the profession seriously? Would you buy into its civic mission? How would you handle the moments when your duty to expose the truth conflicted with the interests of your parents, their professional contacts, your husband, or his professional contacts?

I hate to add to the pressure you're facing.

But how you behave in your new position is going to affect how a lot of people feel about America's ruling class. Among Tea Partiers, Occupy Wall Street protesters, and a lot of moderates who haven't even taken to the streets, there's a feeling that there is a corrupt solidarity whereby powerful people help one another at the expense of the average American. There's suspicion of folks who graduate from elite colleges; distrust of Washington, D.C., insiders; and bad feelings about people who work on Wall Street. You're tied to all three groups.

For that reason, you know that there are a lot of decent people doing their best to work honorably inside each one of them -- and that the pathologies of those groups affect us all. It's one thing to see misaligned incentives, dishonesty, and occasional corruption inside those worlds. It's another thing to assume a professional obligation to shed light on them. Yes, I understand that the primary duty in your new job will be to "spotlight people who are making volunteer commitments to improve the lives of others in their community," a perfectly respectable beat.

But if you really intend be a journalist, as opposed to just playing one on TV, as so many broadcasters do, it isn't that simple. An off-duty cop has a professional and moral obligation to intervene in a robbery; a doctor is effectively on call if anyone starts choking in a restaurant or falls ill on a trans-Atlantic flight. There may not be a direct analogy to journalism, but take it from me: It would be unthinkable for any non-celebrity editorial staffer at NBC News or CNN or the New York Times to know about a major story of civic import and to neither pursue it nor pass it along to a colleague.

There are a few exceptions.

No one expects you to betray the confidence of your parents or husband. Best to avoid reporting on matters that directly affect them anyway. But given your access to powerful people, smarts, and social connections, if you can't come up with some phenomenal muckraking stories about what's broken in America, you're not trying very hard. In fact, that's the beat you should work toward if you're serious about using your unique experiences and privilege on behalf of the public good. Any number of people are perfectly capable of doing feel-good segments on volunteerism. Very few journalists enjoy the advantages you'd have reporting on health-care policy or international development or the intersection of finance and government.

So are you serious about participating in the Fourth Estate? Or is the cynicism of your critics justified?

I hope it's the former.


Conor Friedersdorf

Image credit: Reuters