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RNC threat to networks over Hillary Clinton programs: Is it wise? Is it real?

Reince Priebus, the RNC chairman, warned CNN and NBC that if they don’t cancel plans for programs on Hillary Clinton they could lose out on GOP primary debate coverage.

The head of the Republican National Committee (RNC) has threatened to ban CNN and NBC from 2016 GOP primary debate coverage if they do not drop two Hillary Clinton projects that are in the works – a move dubbed both hasty and unwise by political and media observers.

NBC has plans for a miniseries starring Diane Lane, while CNN is acquiring a feature-length documentary that will run theatrically before airing on the cable channel. Both are planned to air well in advance of the 2016 election – a race in which Ms. Clinton is assumed by many to be running.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus calls both projects thinly veiled attempts to put a “thumb on the scale” for the 2016 election. He informed each network by letter that if they have not agreed to pull the programming prior to the start of the RNC’s Summer Meeting Aug. 14, he will seek a binding vote of the RNC stating that the committee will neither partner with either in 2016 primary debates nor sanction primary debates that they sponsor.

The move is contrary to the best interests of voters, CNN suggested.

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“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 network said in  a statement Monday afternoon.

NBC, meanwhile, appeared to sidestep the issue. Spokeswoman Liz Fischer said in an e-mail that the following is NBC’s only comment on the RNC threat: “NBC News is completely independent of NBC Entertainment and has no involvement in this project.”

The NBC project will be handled by the entertainment division. Political debates are typically covered by the news division.

While many miniseries and TV movies have ruffled feathers of both political parties in the past – and networks have changed plans in response (think CBS shuffling “The Reagans” over to Showtime back in 2003) – there is little precedent for this current brinksmanship.

The networks have no room to wiggle, says Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor from Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “This crosses a line,” he says, adding “this is an Edward R. Murrow moment for them.” Both the networks have no choice but to stand up for the integrity of their independence as broadcasters, he says.

Priebus accuses the networks of intentional political manipulation. In his letter to NBC, he writes, “Your company has expressly stated that your choice to air the miniseries in the near future would avoid concerns of running afoul of equal time election laws.” This suggests a deliberate attempt at influencing American political opinion in favor of a preferred candidate, “not to mention a guilty conscience,” he continues.

But this move could backfire on the RNC, points out Bill Rosenberg, political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He likens it to the empty pedestal on-air moment that ensued in a 1980 debate.

Then-President Jimmy Carter refused to participate in a three-way with candidates Ronald Reagan and John Anderson. Instead, the broadcast showed his empty spot.

“It only reflected badly on Carter,” Professor Rosenberg points out.

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What these accusations suggests more than anything is the state of affairs within the Republican Party, says journalism professor Mark Tatge, from DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “The Republican Party is in a state of disarray,” he says, suggesting this is little more than an effort to gain publicity for a message intended to rally the RNC base, “and get donations from Hillary-haters.”

The party has many concerns heading into the 2016 election, agrees Tufts’ Professor Berry, noting that this shows just how “scared the Republican Party is of a Clinton candidacy in 2016.” He notes that the GOP is shrinking, currently representing fewer than 20 percent of registered voters.  “As minority populations are growing and the white population is dwindling,” he says, national elections “are becoming increasingly difficult for Republicans.”

But given that neither Clinton project is finished, the RNC move may be more theater than anything else, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “It’s akin to the baseball player who yells at the ref after a call he doesn’t like,” says Professor Thompson. “He doesn’t actually think the call will be reversed,” he says. But, he knows the next few calls will have just that extra layer of attention to fairness because of the extra scrutiny, he adds.