When I heard that Alec Baldwin might be hosting a weekly show on MSNBC, I was delighted: Maybe I wouldn’t have to catch reruns of “30 Rock” to get my Baldwin fix. Let’s hope he doesn’t take any anger-management classes before he starts.
My second thought was that this rumor, if true, will further prove Reince Priebus’ point. Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, made the rounds last week with the usual conservative complaint about media bias. The networks are mixing entertainment and news, he says — Brian Williams making frequent cameos on NBC sitcoms, Tina Fey as Sarah Palin playing on a seemingly endless loop on NBC News. This fusion benefits Democrats, because the entertainment-industrial complex tends toward the liberal.
Priebus’ main evidence was the forthcoming two-network Hillary Clinton extravaganza: a documentary on CNN, a four-part miniseries on NBC. These two productions amount to “an extended commercial for Secretary Clinton’s nascent campaign” for president, Priebus wrote to NBC. There will be no such production about his candidate, whoever that might be.
Priebus is entitled to worry some. With the elegant actress Diane Lane playing Clinton, there will definitely be some glamorizing going on. True, this is not some big-screen Hollywood production — but it’s not a yard sign, either. On television, everyone becomes slightly larger than life, and as Priebus says, the publicity will be free to the candidate. Where’s the equal time in that?
Maybe Priebus can console himself with another definition of “equal time.” Of course these docu-movies will herald Clinton’s public service and path-breaking career, but they will also feature those moments that were less, shall we say, inspirational.
That means giving equal if not more time to the one-name scandals that marked Clinton’s rise: Whitewater, Travelgate, Hillarycare, Monica and, if the shows cover the early years, Hillary-Standing-By-Her-Man after he’d been exposed for spending too much time standing by Gennifer Flowers.
Such choices can be justified on strictly apolitical grounds. Not only did these events actually happen, but a heroine always needs obstacles to overcome, too. It provides dramatic tension. If these movie-mentaries get made, Clinton may well wish her life started after she left the White House.
What’s most interesting about Priebus’s crusade is what he’s going to do if these projects proceed. He chooses which networks air presidential debates for the Republican primaries, and he warns that “if I’ve got NBC doing a miniseries with Diane Lane . . . it makes my choice of moderators much easier.”
Most threats are tempered by the fact that the one making them usually doesn’t want to actually carry it out. This applies equally to countries with nuclear weapons as to parents warning a child he won’t get to go to sleep-away camp if he continues to misbehave. In both cases, following through is going to hurt the threatener as much as, if not more than, the threatened.
Priebus’ ultimatum is that rare threat that’s win-win. If NBC and CNN relent, he’ll presumably be happy. If they don’t, he’ll be happy as well.
He made the case in his post-campaign autopsy of the party that the debates did grievous harm to the Republican brand, allowing viable candidates to share the stage with marginal characters auditioning to be the next Alec Baldwin. While the debates hurt the eventual nominee, self-deporting Mitt Romney, they helped the relatively unknown Herman Cain (now on radio) and Michele Bachmann (who’ll get a show a nanosecond after she leaves Congress in 2015).
The loser who was the biggest winner of all was Newt Gingrich: Before 2012, he was just a failed former speaker of the House of Representatives. Then came the famous debate that moderator John King (of CNN, coincidentally — or not?) opened by asking Gingrich if he had requested an “open marriage” from his ex-wife. Gingrich claimed to be “appalled” at the “destructive, vicious, negative” question. Yet he could barely hide his delight as the audience cheered.
His prize was not to become the nominee but to start, next month, as co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.” Anyone who doubts the phenomenon, tune in to Fox News, where Mike Huckabee, failed 2008 candidate, still has a show.
The most interesting show to watch — and I hope the rumors are true — will be the one on MSNBC. Which Alec Baldwin will be hosting — the cynical Jack Donaghy? The crass Capital One huckster? The mischievous Academy Awards co-host? The political junkie who wanted to run for mayor of New York? Maybe he will settle for playing all these things on TV. Whichever Baldwin shows up, I’m pretty sure Reince Priebus won’t like it.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.