Ronna McDaniel mess shows problem of politics-to-pundit conveyor belt

<span>Ronna McDaniel at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in April last year.</span><span>Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images</span>
Ronna McDaniel at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in April last year.Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

It should have been a straightforward appointment in the often lucrative world of political punditry: a former high-ranking party official making the move from actual politics to America’s television screens with a mission to pontificate, opine and spin.

US cable news is littered with such figures: ex-congresspeople, former presidential candidates, reformed spin doctors, one-time campaign leaders. All of them on fat contracts for sitting behind desks and arguing the political talking points of the day.

So it was somewhat of a surprise when NBC’s hiring of former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel triggered a staff revolt, legal fights, endless inches of bad press and a stunning media conflagration that seemed set to burn down America’s premier liberal cable news network, MSNBC. It also ended in McDaniel being canned last week shortly after her appointment was announced.

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But in an American political landscape still being profoundly reshaped by Donald Trump and his conspiracy-laden rhetoric – especially when it comes to the big lie of a stolen 2020 election – more savvy network bosses should perhaps have expected the turmoil.

McDaniel presented a conundrum. On one hand, she had served as Trump’s chosen RNC chair from early 2017, through the turbulence of January 6 Capitol riot, winning re-election to the post in unanimous elections in both 2019 and 2021. Her perspective could be a valuable resource.

But along the way, she had participated in a 2020 phone call pressuring Michigan county officials not to certify the vote from the Detroit area. “Do not sign it … we will get you attorneys,” she had said. She has been far from dismissive when it comes to Trump’s promotion of the idea of widespread electoral fraud in the US. For many McDaniel was not just a career politico; she had sought to help a bid to subvert an election.

For any network, but especially NBC and its liberal MSNBC sibling, McDaniel’s role in being a threat to American democracy could not be ignored. On her first appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday McDaniel said that the Capitol riot “doesn’t represent our country. It certainly does not represent my party.”

But she was immediately grilled as to why she hadn’t said that earlier. “When you’re the RNC chair, you … you kind of take one for the whole team right now. I get to be a little bit more myself, right?” she suggested.

Apparently not. Her words were nowhere near enough to quell a rebellion within the broadcaster. The MSNBC anchors Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough condemned the move, along with Jen Psaki (herself fresh from serving as White House spokesperson), Mika Brzezinski and NBC’s Chuck Todd.

Maddow said the choice to hire McDaniel was “inexplicable” and accused her employer of giving airtime to someone who is “about undermining elections and going after democracy”. Todd said that “many of our professional dealings with the RNC over the last six years have been met with gaslighting, have been met with character assassination.”

The rage continued for several days, and soon McDaniel was gone. “No organization, particularly a newsroom, can succeed unless it is cohesive and aligned,” Cesar Conde, NBCUniversal’s News Group chairman, wrote to staff. “Over the last few days, it has become clear that this appointment undermines that goal.”

Previously it had been typical that the head of talent at a broadcaster made the hires, and newsroom employees went along with it, right or wrong. But these are no longer normal times in America: Trump is virtually certain to be the 2024 Republican nominee and frequently leads Joe Biden in the polls, despite continuing to voice his 2020 election fraud lies.

There’s entirely too much of this highway between working in the White House or in Congress and ending up on cable news

Rick Ellis

“There are continuous arguments at the networks about how to give voice to the conservative side of the equation without giving voice to fringe elements,” said Rick Ellis, author of the Substack newsletter Too Much TV. “If NBC News had said, yeah, we’re going to have her on our shows to hear her point of view, there wouldn’t have been so much squawking. The tipping point was that she was going to be a paid analyst.”

MSNBC already employs one former RNC chair. Michael Steele works as an on-air analyst and host of a weekend show. He, however, did not try to reverse the result of an election.

McDaniel has yet to comment, but Politico reported she is considering legal options and expects to be paid out in full for her reported $600,000 two-year deal. A “person close to McDaniel” was quoted criticizing NBC for allowing its talent “to drag Ronna through the mud and make it seem like they were innocent bystanders”.

The incident plays into a wider debate about partisanship in the US media. The McDaniel’s blowup follows well-publicized efforts by CNN owner Warner Bros Discovery to broaden its political perspective, an effort that led to the firing of the CNN chief executive, Chris Licht.

In statement, the RNC hinted it could pull NBC’s credentials from its convention in Milwaukee this summer. “We are taking a hard look at what this means for NBC’s participation at the convention,” said Danielle Alvarez, a spokesperson for the RNC and the Trump campaign.

But McDaniel and NBC’s predicament also speaks to a larger issue – that of a plush-carpeted corridor between political and media jobs that undermines the integrity of both. In many ways, the only people this system satisfied were the bosses and the pundits. At a time of an extraordinary American election McDaniel and NBC found out that was no longer enough.

“There’s entirely too much of this highway between working in the White House or in Congress and ending up on cable news. I understand that its helpful because they know how government works, but the problem is they’re seen coastal or Beltway perspectives and they push out other voices that would be helpful to have in the mix,” said Ellis.