NBC’s Ronna McDaniel Hire Wasn’t Politics, or TV, as Usual

For the past week the best drama on NBC — apologies to Dick Wolf — has been in the news department.

On Friday, NBC News announced that it was hiring Ronna McDaniel, the former chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, as a political analyst. By Sunday morning, Kristen Welker was grilling Ms. McDaniel on “Meet the Press,” after which the former host Chuck Todd told his successor on-air that their bosses “owe you an apology.” By Monday morning, the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” condemned the hire. By Monday night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow likened it to hiring “a mobster to work at a D.A.’s office.”

And by Tuesday, Ms. McDaniel was officially out as an NBC News contributor, having lasted not even a half-Scaramucci.

Not long ago, a TV news outlet hiring a former political bigwig might have occasioned grumbling from members of the other party, critiques from journalism watchdogs or anonymous griping among the staff. But it happened, and life went on. This kind of full-on, on-air revolt was something else — because Ms. McDaniel’s hiring was something else.

The fiasco at NBC was in part a sign of how media outlets are struggling to cover politics in unusual times. But it was also a battle over how willing they should be to normalize ideas and actions that, in the post–Jan. 6 era, go well beyond politics as usual.

The staff rebellion over Ms. McDaniel, after all, was not about her views on entitlement reform or health-care policy. It was about her statements and actions around the attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Throughout November and December of 2020, she supported former President Trump’s efforts to throw out the election results to stay in office, and at one point in the effort called Michigan election officials to ask them to delay certifying the state’s results.

And although she didn’t back Mr. Trump’s most far-fetched election-theft scenarios, she continued to say, as in a 2023 interview with Chris Wallace, that she didn’t think President Biden “won it fair.” (Doing damage control in her interview with Ms. Welker, she called Mr. Biden “the legitimate president.”)

By hiring Ms. McDaniel, NBC may not have endorsed those claims and acts. But it sent the message that they don’t disqualify you from getting a six-figure deal to offer hot takes on TV.

Networks will sometimes hire former political insiders for reasons of access; a CBS executive cited this as a motive for the network’s controversial 2022 hire of the former Trump official Mick Mulvaney. Sometimes the motive can be optics and public image: Networks worry about allegations and perceptions of bias, and after all, conservatives watch “NCIS” and “Law & Order” too.

For its part, NBC News has said that it brought on Ms. McDaniel for journalistic reasons; a network executive said upon announcing the hire that she would offer “an insider’s perspective on national politics and the future of the Republican Party.”

And yes, news organizations have an obligation to help viewers understand the world, even if it means hearing from people they don’t like. That applies even to outlets like MSNBC that have a particular political leaning — knowing thy enemy sometimes means listening to thy enemy.

That’s what interviews are for! But TV news has long been a revolving door for former politicos — Michael Steele, Donna Brazile, Sarah Palin, Jen Psaki and so on — a practice that deserves skepticism in itself. Can you really rely on well-connected partisans to give you unvarnished analysis about their once and perhaps future colleagues? Would viewers be better served by news networks’ seeking out a wide range of voices than hearing predictable takes from regular panelists? Isn’t it better to leave the reputation-laundering to “Dancing With the Stars”?

More important, though, is the question of whether McDaniel is in the same category as those past hires. Which is to say: Is election denialism — and not just denialism but overt steps toward overturning a legitimate election — now just another political hot topic that reasonable people can disagree on, like tax rates or energy policy?

It would make life easier if it were, not just for NBC but for every news outlet trying to keep the facts straight while trying to cover a political movement whose leader has put an election lie at the center of its belief system. Actions like hiring Ms. McDaniel can read like a kind of willful denial, an attempt to wish back into existence a political normalcy that no longer exists.

Yet the base-line job of TV news remains to favor true things over false ones. Another is to put people on the air that viewers can trust. Political contributors might have opinions and preferences, but they should at least shoot straight.

But Ms. McDaniel, when interviewed on “Meet the Press,” gave a novel explanation for enabling Mr. Trump’s election-theft fantasies: She never believed them in the first place. “When you’re the R.N.C. chair, you kind of take one for the whole team, right?” she said. “Now I get to be a little more myself.”

Well, that’s good to know! But if Ms. McDaniel was willing to be a little less herself to keep a job then — when what she said might have mattered — why wouldn’t she be just as willing to say anything to keep this job now?

Maybe saying what you don’t believe in order to get ahead is an excusable quality in a party bureaucracy. In a good news organization, it’s a sign that you should look for another line of work.

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