NBC News’ Ronna McDaniel blowup was inevitable

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The most revealing moment of Ronna McDaniel’s first—and, it turns out, only—time as an NBC News political analyst came at the very end of her appearance on Meet the Press. 

After a tense line of questioning from moderator Kristen Welker over her past as head of the Republican National Committee, McDaniel shot back “I represent 50% of this country, whether you like it or not.”

McDaniel won’t be “representing” anyone on NBC again: The network has sacked her amid an employee revolt. NBCUniversal News Group chairman Cesar Conde took responsibility for hiring and then un-hiring her in a memo to staff on Tuesday evening. “No organization, particularly a newsroom, can succeed unless it is cohesive and aligned,” he wrote. “Over the last few days, it has become clear that this appointment undermines that goal.”

I interviewed Conde earlier this month for a forthcoming profile in Fast Company. At the time, I didn’t know that McDaniel’s hiring was in the works. It was a closely held secret within NBC, which may have been part of the problem because management didn’t perceive just how poorly her hire would be received among the rank-and-file. According to three sources involved in the McDaniel blowup, senior management knew her arrival would cause some controversy. They just severely underestimated how contentious it would ultimately be. 

Through spending time with Conde recently—and listening to him talk about representing and reflecting the many different factions of America, about NBC News being a free and trusted platform in an era of high paywalls and even higher distrust—I heard the rationale for hiring McDaniel in the first place . . . and the reason for cutting her loose.

The news group, which Conde has overseen since 2020, has something for everyone, which is why it’s such a valuable part of Comcast’s portfolio. The group includes English and Spanish language news coverage; local and national and international reporting; old-fashioned broadcast and new-age streaming; MSNBC shows favored by progressives; and CNBC shows favored by conservatives. McDaniel was the powerful chairwoman of the RNC until just last month, so surely there’d be room for her somewhere, right?

Alas, no.

In the overly simplistic portrayal of politics that McDaniel advanced on Meet the Press, she claimed to represent 50% of public opinion (with Democrats presumably representing the other half).

That’s never how U.S. politics has actually worked (consider third-party supporters, nonvoters, etcetera) and certainly not in 2024. Perhaps McDaniel could claim to represent the 25% to 30% of Americans who consistently describe themselves as Republican; then again, she was shooed out of the RNC chair post by the de facto leader of the party, Donald Trump, so she doesn’t stand for any obvious constituency.

Furthermore, in the McDaniel era, the GOP shrunk and struggled. Trump’s deflating loss in 2020, the House GOP’s ongoing dysfunction, and Democrats’ gains in off-year elections have all heightened Republicans’ fears about further losses of power in the years to come. This, in turn, may be accelerating antidemocratic attitudes within the party.

And that’s what this episode is really all about: How to appropriately represent the views of all Americans, including a sizable minority who have soured on the system we all grew up calling “democracy.” This isn’t just about McDaniel or NBC; it’s about every reality-based news organization that’s wrestling with Trump’s unreality.

Conde and company faced this issue last September when Welker debuted as the new moderator of Meet the Press. Welker landed an interview with Trump but approached it with care, recognizing that he still utters dangerous lies about the 2020 election. NBC pretaped the interview rather than airing it live. Welker pushed back on some of Trump’s claims and embedded several fact-checks when the interview played on NBC. Executives at the network cited this approach as an example of journalistic excellence; numerous media critics, however, said the fact-checks were insufficient and questioned why Trump was interviewed in the first place. (One obvious answer is that he controls a major political party.)

Carrie Budoff Brown, NBC’s senior vice president of politics, explained McDaniel’s hiring last week as a matter of ideological diversity, saying, “It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team.”

But rank-and-file staffers disagreed—again, not because McDaniel is a right-wing voice, but because she is tainted by Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results. As Welker stated during Sunday’s interview, “The RNC helped the Trump campaign assemble fake electors in Michigan, provided a platform for Trump lawyers to hold that news conference with Rudy Giuliani alleging a global conspiracy to rig the election against Trump, and you yourself called the election ‘rigged’ multiple times.” 

In other words, McDaniel was an enabler of Trump’s election lies, although she now says Joe Biden is the legitimate president. 

MSNBC host Alex Wagner channeled the view of many colleagues when she said on air Tuesday night, “Election denialists do not belong on the payroll of a news organization. People who seek to undermine democracy should not be contracted to work at an institution that seeks to preserve it.”

By then, Conde had announced that McDaniel’s deal was scrapped and apologized to “team members who felt we let them down.” 

Wagner and other MSNBC hosts applauded his action. “I really appreciate working at a place that was able to say ‘we got this one wrong,’” Chris Hayes said on air.

Importantly, the internal uproar against McDaniel reached far beyond the anti-Trump broadcasts of MSNBC; journalists across the news group also made their concerns known, according to several sources. Speaking on Meet the Press after Welker interviewed McDaniel, former moderator Chuck Todd pointed out 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.”

Todd’s extraordinary televised remarks confirmed that Conde had a serious problem on his hands. After all, well-intentioned efforts to broaden the tent and welcome new voices can’t work without some degree of participation from those already sitting inside. Conde subscribes to the philosophy of “servant leadership,” whereby the goal of the leader is to serve the staff; undoing McDaniel’s appointment was in service of restoring their trust.

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