The Republican National Committee chairman says he’ll try to block presidential primary debate partnerships with NBC and CNN if the television networks don’t cancel planned Hillary Clinton documentaries.
CNN Films is planning a feature-length documentary about Clinton and NBC Entertainment has a mini-series in the works ahead of a potential 2016 White House Democratic primary bid by the former U.S. secretary of state and first lady.
“As an American company, you have every right to air programming of your choice,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus wrote in a letter dated today to NBC Entertainment Chairman Robert Greenblatt. “But as American citizens, certainly you recognize why many are astounded at your actions, which appear to be a major network’s thinly-veiled attempt at putting a thumb on the scales of the 2016 presidential election.”
If the broadcasts aren’t canceled, Priebus said he’ll seek a vote at an RNC gathering later this month in Boston that would call for the party to neither partner with nor sanction presidential primary debates affiliated with the networks.
“If they want to move forward and spend millions of dollars promoting one particular candidate before the 2016 election, then we’re going to do what we want to do and we’re just going to shut them out of our debates,” Priebus said today in a Bloomberg Television interview with Trish Regan.
“We know that she is running for president,” he said. “These networks are leveraging the fact that she’s going to run for president, they’re using it to make money and I’m just telling you as chairman of the party, I’m not going to let them depose our candidates while doing this on the other side.”
In his letter, the chairman said the planned Clinton coverage is unfair to other potential Democratic presidential candidates, including Vice President Joe Biden, as well as her prospective Republican general election opponent.
“Secretary Clinton has been in the public eye for well over two decades, so you certainly cannot claim that a series about her political career is any sort of public service or informational docudrama on an unknown individual,” Priebus wrote to NBC. “Quite the opposite is true: it would be most accurately described as an in-kind donation.”
CNN spokeswoman Barbara Levin said in a statement that Priebus is jumping to conclusions.
“This documentary will be a non-fiction look at the life of a former first lady and secretary of state,” she said. “Instead of making premature decisions about a project that is in the very early stages of development and months from completion, we would encourage the members of the Republican National Committee to reserve judgment until they know more.”
The film, which CNN commissioned earlier this year, is expected to premiere in 2014 with a theatrical run prior to airing on the cable television network.
“Should they decide not to participate in debates on CNN, we would find it curious, as limiting their debate participation seems to be the ultimate disservice to voters,” Levin said.
Nick Merrill, a Hillary Clinton spokesman, didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Clinton, 65, has said she has no plans for a second presidential run. She also hasn’t ruled it out.
Erika Masonhall, an NBC News spokeswoman, said in a statement that “NBC News is completely independent of NBC Entertainment and has no involvement in this project.”
It’s not uncommon for politicians and political parties to try to bully media organizations, although it often isn’t successful, said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who studies political communications and advertising.
“They will absolutely air them,” he said. “Hillary Clinton is a high-profile personality that the public is interested in.”
The chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, where some of the early debates are likely to be held because of the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, praised Priebus’ move.
“I will not sign the Iowa GOP up to co-sponsor debates with NBC or CNN unless they pull their upcoming films on Hillary Clinton,” state chairman A.J. Spiker said in a statement. “Given NBC and CNN’s decision to move forward on their films, they’ve attempted to give celebrity status to Hillary Clinton. They are clearly making an effort to influence the Presidential race in 2016 without adhering to their supposed pledge to uphold journalistic integrity.”
In 2011 and 2012, Republican candidates participated in more than 20 debates and candidate forums during the primary season.
Some Republicans maintain that the process ultimately weakened the party’s nominee, Mitt Romney, by pushing him to take more extreme positions that didn’t sell well in the general election.
In March, the RNC released a post-election review that called for a shorter primary campaign season and no more than a dozen debates during that period, with the first no earlier than Sept. 1, 2015. It also said the party should consider penalizing candidates through the loss of convention delegates if they don’t abide by the party’s debate structure, including participation in unsanctioned forums.