The meritocracy myth

Back in 2009, Glenn Greenwald had a typically scathing attack on the ruling classes taking care of their own and their progeny and the cozy relationship that has developed between the media and the families of those they supposedly cover.

They should convene a panel for the next Meet the Press with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency. Bill Kristol, Tucker Carlson and John Podhoretz can provide moving commentary on how America is so special because all that matters is merit, not who you know or where you come from. There’s a virtually endless list of politically well-placed guests equally qualified to talk on such matters.

There is no reason to think that things have got any better since those sarcastic words were written and this article confirms that pessimism, saying that NBC News hired Chelsea Clinton for a salary of $600,000 per year.

Kamyl Bazbaz, a spokesperson for the 34-year-old Clinton, referred POLITICO to NBC News, which declined to discuss Clinton’s contract. “We don’t comment on details of existing contracts,” a network spokesperson said. “NBC News continues to enjoy a wonderful working relationship with Chelsea, and we are proud of her work.”

So what exactly was the nature of her work that was so valuable to NBC News? NBC was somewhat vague about their ‘special correspondent’.

As special correspondent, Clinton worked on service-related feature assignments for NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian Williams” until the show’s cancellation in June 2013. Clinton has since worked on packages for NBC Nightly News.

In that time, Clinton’s principal occupation has been the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, where she has been a major force in steering her parents’ charitable work in the final years of her mother’s tenure at the State Department, and since.

So NBC News spends a princely sum so that she can work on ‘packages’ but spend most of her time on her parents’ foundation.

Her work for NBC News was so low profile that in my journeys through the internet I have never seen her name associated with any news story in the past few years. But I was clearly looking in the wrong places. She apparently managed to snag an exclusive interview with the Geico gecko. (You can see the interview here.) That’s the kind of scoop that’s worth big bucks. They seem oblivious to the propriety of a so-called news program creating what is essentially a commercial for one of its advertisers.

The old adage that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters” seems very apropos here.


  1. colnago80 says

    It should also be pointed out that Chelsea’s husband’s parents are both former Congresscritters. We might also include George W and Jeb as sons of former President Bush, who himself was the son of former Senator Prescott Bush.

  2. doublereed says

    Kind of a non-sequitur, but I really like what Ben Bernanke said about the concept of the meritocracy at a commencement speech at Princeton:

    3. The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.

    The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

  3. says

    And the crazy part is that they have so much time to absorb the ideology of the “self-made” individual. I’m sure Chelsea Clinton is a very hard-working journalist compared to Glenn Greenwald, right?

  4. moarscienceplz says

    Now let’s don’t jump to conclusions. Why, I’ll bet NBC pays high seven-figure salaries to every wet-behind-the-ears J-school graduate that knocks on their door. I’m sure such a distinguished news agency wouldn’t give special treatment to Chelsea just because of who her ‘rents are, right? Right?

  5. colnago80 says

    Of course, as outrageous as Chelsea’s remuneration is, the nightly news anchor at NBC, Brian Williams, is paid some 10 million/year. Now that’s real outrage.

  6. colnago80 says

    I don’t see why Jonah Goldberg is on the list. His mother, Lucienne, was hardly in the same category as the parents of the others, except for possibly being a sometime bedmate of Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman. The latter claim is highly dubious.

  7. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    It’s worth remembering that when Michael Young invented the term “meritocracy” it meant “”merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications”- nothing to do with parentage- and his book, The Rise of the Meritocracy, was imagined as being edited after its bloody overthrow. What seems to be taking place in the USA is the influence of a combination of plutocracy and political aristocracy and one of its defects is the absence of merit as a qualification for membership.

  8. Chiroptera says

    Back in the old days, the word for what we call “meritocracy” was “aristocracy.” It had the same features, and was defended using more or less the same language.

  9. Mano Singham says


    Actually, she is not a journalism graduate. She got her undergraduate degree in history and her graduate degrees in international relations.

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    Speaking of our beloved rulers – and because it’s slightly less less OT here than in a cricket thread – check out (via WaPo) the Sunlight Foundation’s new charts of US state legislators plotted by ideology and “effectiveness”.

  11. lorn says

    From what little I’ve heard about Chelsea she has always been interested in charity and public service work. When NBC offered her a lucrative job and all Chelsea has to do is show up once in a while and avoid disgracing the name it would be foolish not to take it. Are you saying that when the offer was made she should have turned it down? Why? Arbitrarily turning down a lucrative and undemanding offer sounds to me like Calvinist self flagellation.

    As far as I can tell Chelsea isn’t spending a lot of time claiming expertise, merit, or special insight. Unlike so many talking heads on the right she isn’t blaming the poor for being poor and claiming that if they were just a little bit more like her they would have prosperity poured out upon them. She doesn’t seem to push and polish her image or offer herself up as an example. Pretty rare for me to hear her name. If her intention was to become a media star she really needs to get a better agent and media consultant. As much as I dislike a lot of the so-called meritocracy Chelsea doesn’t seem to be particularly egregious example of someone claiming to have wealth by virtue of her superiority. If anything she seems a bit shy about her privilege.

    Given that there are plenty of people who get paid millions to associate themselves with this or that corporation and a culture that celebrates celebrity for being celebrities I don’t see her as riding the gravy train very hard. Consider the Kardashians and Paris Hilton. If someone offers Chelsea $600,000 without demanding anything in particular … more power to her.

    On the other hand if she starts offering herself up as a Horatio Alger story and singing “I did it my way” I may adopt a more negative view.

  12. John Morales says

    lorn @12:

    From what little I’ve heard about Chelsea she has always been interested in charity and public service work. When NBC offered her a lucrative job and all Chelsea has to do is show up once in a while and avoid disgracing the name it would be foolish not to take it. Are you saying that when the offer was made she should have turned it down? Why? Arbitrarily turning down a lucrative and undemanding offer sounds to me like Calvinist self flagellation.

    I think you’re missing the point; look at the post title and the post’s content.

    Basically, what is being said is that “meritocracy [is a] myth”; as evidence, this particular example of vicarious nepotism is offered.

    (The post is not about Chelsea Clinton!)

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