Jenna Bush and the Meritocracy
Adam Serwer is incensed because he has “a lot of friends who spent a great deal of money, and went into a lot of debt, to learn how to be professional broadcast journalists” who are “now struggling to find work” and yet Jenna Bush Hager now has a job on Today despite having only a few years’ teaching experience.
As Glenn Greenwald writes, there’s unlikely to be any outrage on the right over Hager getting a job she’s manifestly unqualified for simply because she’s the former president’s daughter, despite right-wing affectations toward “meritocracy.” There’s something revealing here about the right’s attitude toward those who succeed despite not being privileged — the only way they can make sense of someone like Sonia Sotomayor rising to excellence from modest beginnings is through “preferential treatment,” because what does it say about their own privilege, intelligence, or ability if that’s not the case?
The Sotomayor comparison is a red herring. While I maintained from the moment her nomination was announced that she was qualified and should be confirmed, it’s indisputable that the desire to diversify the federal bench helped her get appointed to ever-higher positions by presidents Bush 41, Clinton, and Obama, likely over people they would have judged more outstanding were gender and ethnicity not considerations. Whether “diversity” is a goal worth pursuing at the sacrifice of other assets we value is a worthwhile but entirely unrelated debate.
There’s no such thing as being “qualified” to go on a morning chit-chat show and yap. It takes technical competence to work behind the camera. To be successful on air requires being attractive and glib. So, Hager’s lack of credentials does not faze me.
Of Today lead anchors past and present, virtually none had broadcast journalism degrees. Indeed, Matt Lauer, who technically left Ohio University a few credits shy of graduating (but was rightly awarded the remaining credits years later for his professional accomplishments) seems to be the only one who majored in that subject. Of course, Hager isn’t a main anchor, she’s going to be an education reporter. And, strangely, she actually has a degree in education and some teaching experience.
To be sure, she got the job because of who her daddy is, not because she’s a world-leading authority on her subject matter. Is that “meritorious”? Nope. But Today isn’t a scholarly society, it’s an infotainment program in competition with Good Morning America for viewers. I guarantee you that Hager has more “merit” in that regard than the J-school grads Serwer knows but the morning news audience does not.
“Merit” is defined in different ways for different lines of work. For example, professional athletes make millions of dollars despite not having gone to an Ivy League institution. Indeed, most didn’t graduate college at all! Ditto supermodels and actors and musicians.
In a perfect world, having a famous last name would not be a huge asset in politics, the media, and the entertainment industry. In reality, the ability to instantly separate from the herd at the outset of one’s career is a tremendous advantage. So, of course, are connections and insider knowledge. But even those fields are largely meritocracies down the line, at least if “merit” is defined as the ability to get elected, sell records, or put butts in the seats.