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NBC News Hires Chelsea Clinton: Is There a Case for Nepotism?

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Craig Ruttle / AP

Chelsea Clinton speaks during a session at the Clinton Global Initiative on September 22, 2011 in New York.

Across America, families are wracked with doubts about whether the next generation will ever be able to enjoy the opportunities afforded to their parents. But as it turns out, there’s still hope for you, Young America! You can have the opportunities your parents did, and even some they may never have dreamed of. As long as your parents are really, really famous.

This, anyway, is the experience of Chelsea Clinton, the 31-year-old former First Daughter, who will be joining celebrity offspring Jenna Bush, Meghan McCain and Luke Russert as an employee of NBC News. Reports the New York Times, Clinton will work on “Making a Difference,” NBC’s series of pieces on volunteerism. At least, until the former hedge-fund employee and IAC board member tires of her job and seeks another. Maybe she would like yours!

The announcement has already stirred a fair amount of snide reaction from other, non-American-royalty members of the media. The St. Petersburg Times’ Eric Deggans dubbed NBC the “Nepotism Broadcasting Network.” Glenn Greenwald of Salon sarcastically hailed “America’s meritocratic, watchdog news media.” Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted that Clinton accepted a job as a journalist, yet is refusing to be interviewed about it, a stance he calls “hypocritical and intolerable.”

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As someone who grew up in a rented house, not the White House, with parents whose connections to politics and media consisted of my Dad yelling at the NBC Nightly News, I’m annoyed that Clinton should get a job for having famous parents. All of which is compounded by NBC’s mealymouthed refusal to say that that’s essentially what this was. NBC News President Steve Capus told the Times, “It’s not about Chelsea Clinton saying, ‘Here I am; I want to be a TV star.’” Rather, “Mr. Capus said an intermediary contacted him in July with word that ‘she was kicking around what she wanted to do next.'”

See, it wasn’t about Clinton telling NBC to make her a TV star. It was about her intermediary telling NBC to make her a TV star. If you haven’t had this kind of luck, maybe your intermediaries just need to step up their game!

So, OK. However capable she is, Chelsea Clinton’s newest career turn is not, by any reasonable definition of the word, fair. She is starting a job she simply would not have were she not famous. But is that in itself a reason she should not be hired?

I have no idea whether Clinton will be any good at her job as TV correspondent. Quite possibly she won’t. But all other things being equal, fame—earned or inherited, deserved or not—quite simply is often an asset for an interviewer. People will sometimes talk to a famous person on camera because they recognize them and there’s an element of comfort. Famous people will sometimes more readily open up to other famous people, either because they have a connection, or because they believe the celebrity (or child or celebrity) knows what it’s like.

George Stephanopoulos, for instance, came to ABC from being a Clinton operative and White House communications director; a job related to journalism, perhaps, but not exactly working his way up covering the police beat. But his contacts earned in politics were undoubtedly an asset. Journalists and interviewers who start out anonymous but become famous can find that fame is a force multiplier; Oprah Winfrey worked her way up, for instance, but once famous, she could get celebrities to open up on her couch because she was Oprah, a peer, someone who gets it. Luke Russert, meanwhile, should be under no illusions that he would have his job were his last name Kowalski; but favoritism or no, he did end up having one of the most politically notorious interviews of this year, with Anthony Weiner and his “certitude.”

Don’t get me wrong: I find the idea of someone landing a plum career opportunity mainly because of who her parents are absolutely galling. I would hope most people do, at least on some level; we may not agree on much in America, but I would hope a country that was born out of rejecting a monarchy still has a healthy sense of disgust at people getting jobs because of who their parents are (common as it may be). But I have to at least accept that Clinton could end up surprising me and being good at this job, and for reasons that are not entirely fair.

And if she washes out? I just hope her backup career ambition is not newsmagazine TV critic.

(MORE: Read more Jim Poniewozik on TIME’s Tuned In Blog)

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