NBC under fire for hiring Ronna McDaniel, sparking on-air dissent

NBC under fire for hiring Ronna McDaniel, sparking on-air dissent

A chorus of MSNBC personnel took to the airwaves Monday to voice a stunning public protest of their own company’s decision to hire former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel as a paid contributor.

A day after NBC chief political analyst Chuck Todd told “Meet the Press” viewers that McDaniel “has credibility issues that she still has to deal with,” hosts on the network’s cable affiliate — including Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, Joe Scarborough, Lawrence O’Donnell and Jen Psaki — echoed the rebuke, citing her support of Donald Trump’s baseless claims of a stolen 2020 presidential election.

“NBC News is, either wittingly or unwittingly, teaching election deniers that what they can do stretches well beyond appearing on our air and interviews to peddle lies about the sanctity and integrity of our elections,” Wallace said on her show Monday afternoon.

“Our democracy is in danger because of the lies that people like Ronna McDaniel have pushed on this country,” Psaki said during MSNBC’s 8 p.m. hour.

Maddow, MSNBC’s top-rated star, devoted the first block of her show to addressing the “inexplicable” hiring. She described McDaniel as “someone who hasn’t just attacked us as journalists, but someone who is part of an ongoing project to get rid of our system of government.”

It’s hardly the first time that a network has faced blowback for installing a former political operative into a high-profile news role. Psaki’s own hiring two years ago raised concerns that MSNBC was allying itself too closely with the Biden White House, where she had served as press secretary.

But this time, the behind-the-scenes grumblings and outside criticism have been amplified by the unusually outspoken complaints from the network’s top news stars.

“NBC has an insurrection on their own hands,” observed Frank Sesno, a George Washington University professor and former CNN Washington bureau chief. “They really colossally blew it.”

Representatives for NBC News declined Monday to comment on the backlash. McDaniel also has not commented.

In offering her own critique, Scarborough’s “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski on Monday morning emphasized that she doesn’t object to McDaniel’s political ideologies — but to her actions as a party chief who sided with a president and candidate who sought to overturn the election.

“To be clear, we believe NBC News should seek out conservative Republican voices to provide balance in their election coverage,” said Brzezinski, whose co-host husband is a former GOP congressman. “But it should be conservative Republicans, not a person who used her position of power to be an anti-democracy election denier.”

“We welcome Republican voices,” Reid echoed on Monday night. “The reality is: This isn’t a difference of opinion. She literally backed an illegal scheme to steal an election in the state of Michigan.”

Since Trump began his first campaign for president more than eight years ago, television networks have struggled to balance a desire to welcome voices that reflect the pro-Trump perspective with a resolve to adhere to basic standards of truth — a challenge that has only been magnified in the wake of the 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection.

The networks have also sought to do so without attracting the ire of their own employees and the viewing public, almost always with limited success.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign, championed the value of on-air ideological diversity but said that producers face a pundit supply issue.

“The networks have really struggled to find Trump loyalists to consistently come on air,” he told The Washington Post. “To be good at it, you have to be a serious person. You can’t just be conspiracy monger and succeed in that role. They have tried to find serious people coming out of Trumpworld and have not found a lot of appetite.”

Over the weekend, MSNBC President Rashida Jones and other executives called network anchors to remind them that individual shows can make their own decisions about whether to book pundits like McDaniel, according to a person at MSNBC close to these conversations.

But an MSNBC producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, said it was hard to imagine she will end up on air there.

“I don’t know what shows would book her because even if there was one who wanted to, would there be internal blowback?”

Maddow said Monday night that she interpreted Jones’s comments to mean that McDaniel will not appear on MSNBC at all.

“We were told this weekend in clear terms that Ronna McDaniel will not be on our air,” she said.

Like NBC, CBS News set off a firestorm in the spring of 2022 when it hired former Trump administration official Mick Mulvaney as a paid on-air contributor. Network brass explained the decision at the time as part of a strategy to gain access with Republican officials who appeared likely at the time to regain control of Congress after that year’s midterms.

Carrie Budoff Brown, the executive in charge of NBC’s political coverage, made a similar argument to NBC employees on Friday. Citing McDaniel’s “expert insight and analysis on American politics and the 2024 election,” she wrote that “it couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team.”

That argument carried little weight with progressive voices and press critics on social media. It also did not convince Todd, who appeared on Sunday’s “Meet the Press” after host Kristen Welker grilled McDaniel about a range of topics, including her past comments questioning the integrity of the 2020 election.

The comments made by Todd and the “Morning Joe” hosts were notable because it’s rare for NBC employees to voice criticism of the network, said Tate James, a network video journalist who leads the union unit representing digital employees.

“They are the NBC establishment, and even they see the executives messed up on this,” he added.

During the first Trump presidential campaign and administration, CNN also sought to capture the voice of his supporters. But some pro-Trump contributors like Jeffrey Lord were loudly criticized while others washed out due to a variety of controversies and scandals.

Most recently, the network cut ties with former Republican senator Rick Santorum in 2021 after he derided Native American culture in a speech.

Steve Cortes, a self-described “happy warrior” for Trump, served as a paid advocate for him on CNN until he was sidelined in 2019. He expressed surprise at the backlash NBC has faced for hiring McDaniel.

“This melodrama at NBC reveals how systemically broken the legacy media platforms are in America,” Cortes told The Post. “Ronna is not even right wing. She is a milquetoast corporatist Republican who is largely reviled by the populist Right — and yet MSNBC propagandists cannot stomach hearing from a moderately conservative voice.”

CNN also faced backlash in 2016 over the hiring of ousted Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, both because of his past hostility toward journalists and because of a contractual provision he secured preventing him from disparaging Trump, which many believed would taint his commentary.

ABC’s daily chat show, “The View,” has also struggled to fill the Republican-leaning chair, often opting for conservatives who have broken with Trump. Meghan McCain served that role until leaving the show in the summer of 2021. She’s since said the show’s co-hosts treated her poorly because of her conservative orientation. The seat is now filled by Alyssa Farah, the former Trump White House communications director who has since become a fervent critic of her old boss.

While controversy often flares when networks hire pro-Trump contributors, their tenures are often quiet. Mulvaney only lasted about a year at CBS News; he now serves as a contributor for the cable news channel NewsNation.

While Maddow called on her NBC bosses to “reverse their decision” to hire McDaniel, that’s unlikely to happen, according to the source familiar with the network.

Some industry-watchers argued that the controversy could even serve to improve the network’s reputation among conservative-leaning viewers wary of the network’s ideological leanings.

“MSNBC will be more interesting if it has the occasional conservative voice,” Conant said, “even if it ends up just serving as a punching bag.”

It’s not easy serving as a pro-Trump pundit, he added. “You’re going into a hostile environment where you’re going to routinely be asked to defend Trump’s most controversial statements. You’re signing up to be criticized day in and day out by your on-air colleagues. Every time you do a segment, it’s going to be one against three.”

McDaniel is reportedly earning a six-figure sum from NBC over the course of a year. But Sesno suggested that networks should limit its pundits to one-month contracts — to gauge if they are actually serving the audience by illuminating complex issues, rather than spouting talking points.

“They need to be completely explicit about who they are bringing on and about what the expectations are,” the CNN veteran said. “If they lie, if they misstate, if they engage in mis- and disinformation, and things that are provably false, they need to be stopped in their tracks somehow.

“And if they’re going to do that repeatedly,” he added, “they shouldn’t be paid by that news organization.”

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