I don’t like to make too much of all the celebrity heirs who, in an extremely down media market, somehow keep on snagging major journalism gigs. It makes me sound bitter and envious and uncharitable, all of which I sort of am. But how can anyone help it? All the so-called smart people who run the networks keep on hiring them, at vast expense and for no good reason.
And then all the so-called smart people who run the networks get fired for having hired these hopeless, ill-equipped celebrity heirs to absolutely no avail: no lofty ratings, no intelligent analysis of the day’s events, no critical acclaim. And yet it makes no difference. Far from being television pariahs, the sons and daughters of the famous somehow—magically, really—keep on coming, bleating lambs to the slaughter, sometimes even on prime time, when no one sipping a Chardonnay especially wants to see a slaughtered lamb.
There appears to be an inexhaustible supply of them, hordes of famous names panting to be on TV, reporting, of all things, the news. It’s very perplexing; it’s frankly painful to watch. Why are they doing this?
I’m talking here specifically (and as you’ve probably guessed) about the MSNBC news host Ronan Farrow—young, blue-eyed son of Mia and Whomever—and about the former $600,000-a-year ace NBC newswoman Chelsea Clinton. And while we’re at it, Today show correspondent Jenna Bush Hager and, before her, Meghan McCain, a onetime “contributor” to MSNBC who famously declared that she believes the Obamas deserve what she called “an emoticon” of privacy and also provided the world with her (incensed) opinion on the decision by Greta Van Susteren to invite Lindsay Lohan to the 2012 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
In a way, you have to feel sorry for celebrity heirs. A lot of snarkiness has come their way, sometimes because their salaries might appear at first glance a tad lofty, and sometimes because, as you can sort of tell from the preceding paragraph, their contributions are decidedly not. But very often the public outrage their appearances produce has to do with the journalism credentials of these heirs—or rather, their complete lack of credentials. After all, before his network ascension (if you want to call it that), Ronan Farrow was a lawyer. Chelsea was . . . a Chelsea. Jenna was a twin.
Personally, however, these reportorial deficiencies don’t trouble me much. Journalism, I like to explain every year to the damp-eyed students in my investigative reporting classes, is a lot like prostitution in that just one foray makes a professional. It doesn’t require the practitioner to have a license, an education (well not much of one, anyway), or even, as it now appears, years and years of honing the craft.
But it does require a strong, almost brutal intelligence—the kind of probing, relentless instincts and intuition that you get generally from being born unprivileged, unadmired, and, at the start anyway, completely unrecognized.
Thus, in April 2013, when Chelsea Clinton interviewed the Geico gecko for NBC (“Is there a downside to all this fame?”), she proved herself not merely insufficiently qualified for the job she held at the network for three years—but a creature of another caste: the caste, that is, that never needed to acquire any of the hard-won skills of her peers, the caste that does not know how to say “no” to a bad idea. People who, at the outset, cannot find any use for hardheadedness and cunning discover, as time goes by, that these become unattainable. They are not on tap simply because you decide to go on television.
In much the same way as Chelsea, Ronan Farrow appeared last February on an early-afternoon show called Ronan Farrow Daily. (Translation: There’s practically no avoiding it.) In the media, initially, much was made of his well-spent youth—26 and a Rhodes scholar! A guy who says, in a valiant effort to amuse and deflect questions about his paternity, “Listen, we’re all possibly Frank Sinatra’s son.”
But that, I’m afraid, is precisely the problem. It doesn’t matter if young Ronan is the offspring of one celebrity or two, doesn’t matter that he’s passably intelligent and nicely put together in a wide-eyed childlike way that makes you want to put him up for adoption. The point is that Ronan Farrow hasn’t a clue. He doesn’t know which end is up. Doesn’t know, in other words, when to croon or how to hold an audience. Doesn’t know—does this sound familiar?—how to say “no” to a dumb idea.