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'Rock Center' fittingly ends with one last bit of Chelsea Clinton fluff

I wonder if Brian Williams knows what damage he's done to his career with this show

By David Zurawik

The Baltimore Sun

1:39 AM EDT, June 22, 2013

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It's past midnight at the end of a 14-hour workday, and a sane person would go to bed.

But I feel compelled to drive a last nail into the coffin of one of the sorriest newsmagazines in the history of broadcast journalism, NBC's "Rock Center."

I have been relentlessly critical of this misguided, self-important vanity vehicle of anchorman Brian Williams since it debuted. But the decision of Williams and NBC News management to make Chelsea Clinton a "special correspondent" is what drove me to absolutely loathe "Rock Center."

When Brian Williams ended the broadcast Friday by thanking all the people who were watching, I wondered, based on its must-be-put-out-of-its-misery ratings, if that audience was even large enough for Nielsen to measure.

And it wasn't because "Rock Center" was too edgy, daring or smart for the room.

The arc of Clinton's stories is representative of the editorial trajectory of this show. Williams and Clinton started out saying she was going to shine a spotlight on people whose stories otherwise wouldn't be told (except presumably for her fine sense of noblesse oblige). They compared her work on the show to what her father was doing with his philanthropy.

But she ended up on "Rock Center" interviewing Judy Blume, the Geico Gecko and Stella McCartney in her last three appearances. I don't think any one of them needed Chelsea Clinton to tell her, his or its story. I really don't. And what exactly is the social conscience part of interviewing the Geico Gecko?

I've dissected her awkward and failed attempts at imitating a network correspondent endlessly. So, I won't revisit all the tricks the NBC News producers had to use to try to make her wretched work only semi-painful to watch.

But here was Williams on the last night of his telecast telling America what a woman of accomplishment she was and acting like she and the 40-year-old McCartney were equals.

Excuse me, McCartney is a giant. Her career in the fashion industry is rock starish.

Clinton? She graduated from Stanford in 2001. That's nice. Tens of thousands of living Americans have graduated from Stanford.

What else?

She studied for a Ph.D., but 12 years after earning her bachelor's degree, has yet to write a dissertation. Tens of thousands of folks are walking around who spent lots of years in graduate school but never wrote their dissertation and don't have a Ph.D.

I don't dislike Clinton. I hate what she stands for and the cynicism of Williams and NBC News in hiring her.

I teach college journalism, and I see class after class of kids who, after studying hard and buying into the belief that a free press is crucial to democracy, walk off the graduation stage into a hopeless job market.

But this daughter of the elite 1 percent gets a plum job. Think Williams and NBC News know what a dispiriting message that sent?

Not only did Clinton never study or practice any form of journalism, she went out of her way to show contempt for it, refusing to speak to the press while on her mother's ill-fated campaign in 2008.

But NBC News told us when they made the announcement that it was "as if she had been preparing" for this job "her whole life." And they gave her equal or preferred billing to real network correspondents like Kate Snow.

The only good thing I can say about this last "Rock Center," which fell in the forest of prime-time failure Friday night without a sound, was that Williams didn't bring Clinton on-camera after her taped report to chat. We were spared that final bit of awkwardness and brittle conversation.

As I watched Clinton Friday night, I thought about the online piece Friday from The New York Times quoting unnamed persons allegedly connected to the show saying how sad it was the show was canceled as they tried to stand on the high road of broadcast journalism and wonder what this said about serious long-form TV storytelling.

Please.

First of all, if you really care about journalism, risk something for it: Put your name to your quote.

(By the way, is there any publication in America that uses as many anonymous quotes as The New York Times -- particularly its media & advertising section? I'm shocked when I see a name attached to any quote in a TV story there.)

No tears for "Rock Center." It was one of the worst prime-time newsmagazines in history. It had no core vision, and most of its stories showed that lack of focus.

"Rock Center" got what it deserved by shamelessly showcasing Chelsea Clinton: cancellation.

Maybe, though, the network will be rewarded. Maybe in her beneficence, Chelsea Clinton will talk to NBC News in 2016 on her mother's campaign.