Jenna Bush Goes All Hank Hill

Last weekend, MSNBC’s Alex Witt interviewed former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager.

The subject of the interview was a campaign Bush Hager is promoting to get school districts to switch their bus fleets from diesel-powered to propane-powered, a move she says would be less costly, healthier for kids, and better for the environment.

Sounds reasonable enough–diesel is a notoriously dirty fuel. But there was something squirrelly from the get-go about the whole segment. Witt introduced Bush Hager as a “contributing correspondent for NBC’s The Today Show,” which she is, and as a “spokesperson for the Propane Education and Research Council” (PERC), without explaining what PERC is.

Turns out PERC is an industry trade group funded by one of those “check off” schemes that are common in agriculture. PERC is busy giving small grants to school districts around the country that convert their buses to propane, using Bush Hager as the media draw.

I know that there’s a lot of flux and experimentation going on in journalism, with “new business models” and all that. And much of that is necessary given the tough revenue environment news organizations are operating in. But since when is it ok for a network news correspondent to also be a spokesperson for an industry trade group (I contacted NBC and PERC and confirmed that each pays Bush Hagar for her work for them), and to then come on the network to promote her industry’s agenda? Are there any other correspondents who have this sort of deal (who aren’t named “Bush”)?

Another question worth asking is whether the policy Bush Hager is promoting is worthy or not. You can certainly make a case that propane for school buses is both cheaper and better for the environment than diesel. A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy tentatively comes to that conclusion (though ironically it turns out that recent advances in adapting propane for the transportation market were paid for by the Obama stimulus). Then again, as another study by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction makes clear, propane is often cheaper than diesel only when you factor in a federal tax credit.

Moreover, propane isn’t the only alternative to diesel for fleets. There’s also compressed natural gas (CNG). Indeed, there’s a war going on between the propane and CNG industries for the market to convert diesel school buses to alternative fuels, with each side claiming benefits for its fuel.

So basically what’s going on is that NBC is allowing Bush Hagar to use her journalistic credentials and access to shill for one side in this marketing war. This, folks, is next-generation influence peddling.

Just to be clear: if NBC wants to hire Bush Hagar to be a journalist, that’s fine. And if PERC wants to hire Bush Hagar to be a spokesperson, that’s fine too: those who make a living selling “propane and propane accessories” deserve our respect.

I just don’t think she ought to be allowed to do both at the same time–and in the same TV interview.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.