Opinion: After a revolt by MSNBC’s primetime anchors, the writing was on the wall for Ronna McDaniel


Editor’s Note: David Zurawik is a professor of practice in media studies at Goucher College. For three decades, he was a media critic at the Baltimore Sun. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

As wrongheaded as it was on so many levels, NBC’s decision to hire former Republican National Committee (RNC) chair Ronna McDaniel as a contributor might actually have done the nation a favor. The highly controversial move has helped drive a crucial conversation about the role of media in our political life at this moment of democratic crisis.

David Zurawik - Mich RouseDavid Zurawik - Mich Rouse

David Zurawik – Mich Rouse

In the end, the company took the only decision it could have on Tuesday when it reversed its decision. In a statement to company employees, Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, said, “I have decided that Ronna McDaniel will not be an NBC News contributor.”

His remarks continued: “No organization, particularly a newsroom, can succeed unless it is cohesive and aligned. Over the last few days, it has become clear that this appointment undermines that goal.”

Reversing the decision to hire McDaniel was undoubtedly the right move. The question now is how much lasting damage might have been done to NBC’s storied news operation as a result of this debacle.

The discussion engendered by the move to hire McDaniel, focusing on the importance of defending democracy, has been going on at least since 2019, when then-presidential candidate Joe Biden released a campaign video characterizing the election as a struggle for the soul of our nation. It’s a conversation that has been roiling America ever since, and it has received new urgency during our currently fraught presidential campaign, with democracy once again on the line.

Renewed soul-searching about the precarious state of American democracy — and journalism’s role in its fragility — followed a searing set of television appearances that started with an outing by McDaniel on NBC’s iconic Sunday morning news program, “Meet the Press.”

In one of the most riveting turns I have ever seen on a Sunday morning talk show, Chuck Todd, the former host of Meet the Press, appeared on the program as a guest panelist just minutes after McDaniel’s interview and blasted his employers for hiring her.

Todd’s condemnation of McDaniel and his chastising of NBC set the media world aflame. Some of the discussion has been at the level of social-media superficial, framing the pushback by Todd and other NBC News employees as a kind of food fight with their bosses. But much of the discussion has been exactly the kind of informed and highly principled analysis that we desperately need more of across all media in the run-up to this presidential election.

“There’s a reason why there are a lot of journalists at NBC News uncomfortable with this because 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 said Sunday.

He added, “So when NBC made the decision to give her NBC News’s credibility, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What does she bring NBC News?’”

Todd’s denunciation of the hiring was followed the next morning by Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski — the hosts of “Morning Joe” — who vowed never to allow McDaniel to enter the set of their four-hour show, a prime piece of MSNBC ratings real estate.

“It goes without saying that she will not be a guest on ‘Morning Joe’ in her capacity as a paid contributor,” Brzezinski told viewers.

The repudiation of the former RNC head continued over the course of the day on Monday afternoon and late into the night, with anchor after anchor on MSNBC devoting part of their show to slamming the parent company for hiring McDaniel.

MSNBC host Nicole Wallace interviewed Yale University professor Timothy Snyder — author of the celebrated book “On Tyranny,” in which he describes America’s slow embrace of autocracy — on his thoughts about NBC’s hiring of McDaniel.

Wallace asked Snyder what makes this particular political operative different from many other hirings of former politicos. There is, after all, a long line of former political operatives joining TV news organizations as analysts and show hosts. Wallace herself worked in the Republican White House under President George W. Bush.

“What NBC has done is invite into what should be a normal framework someone who doesn’t believe that framework should exist at all,” Snyder explained.

“What NBC has done of its own volition is bring into a very important conversation about our democracy — one which is going to take place for the next seven months or so — someone, Ronna McDaniel, who tried to disassemble our democracy. Someone who personally took part in an attempt to undo the American system.”

Then came Rachel Maddow, MSNBC’s prime-time star, the most popular and powerful host on the channel, who devoted a full half-hour of her hour-long show to her dissent over McDaniel’s signing.

“I want to associate myself with all my colleagues, both at MSNBC and NBC News, who have voiced loud and principled objections to our company putting on the payroll 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,” she said about McDaniel. “Someone who still is trying to convince Americans that this election stuff, it doesn’t really work.”

It was two days of the most aggressive, public and passionate pushback by employees against a decision by their bosses that I have seen in 35 years of covering the media.

The conversation on MSNBC went far deeper than the media shorthand of calling McDaniel an election denier and saying that is what makes her employment different than anything that happened before.

Her boss is the same person who called the very product NBC and MSNBC produce “fake news” and the journalists who produce it “enemies of the people” and “scum” as his White House and some of his followers lied to, mocked and threatened them.

NBC reportedly planned to pay his enabler nearly $300,000 to join NBC and MSNBC and sit side-by-side with some of those same journalists and analysts. That’s how this part of mainstream media normalizes disinformation, dishonesty, propaganda and insurrection.

Such normalization would have been just one example of how hiring McDaniel damages democracy. It also encourages bad behavior, with NBC incentivizing others potentially bad actors in our political system to behave as badly as she did.

NBC has damaged its credibility as a news institution by planning to elevate someone who played a key role in trying to thwart the peaceful transfer of power to the same status as journalists who have spent much or all their professional lives trying to inform citizen-voters with fact-based, verified information and analysis — journalism in service to democracy. Some reporters at the network have even lost their lives in the service of such journalism, including David Bloom, who died of a blood clot while covering the war in Iraq in 2003.

NBC has a long and storied record of journalism that serves democracy, dating from the first regularly scheduled TV news broadcast in 1940 through its Civil Rights coverage, the acclaimed “White Paper documentaries of the 1960s and political coverage of David Brinkley and Chet Huntley whose nightly newscast ran from 1956 to 1970. Storied franchises like “Meet the Press” carry that legacy into today. Hiring McDaniel demeans that history of excellence.

It should be noted that NBC News isn’t the only platform that decided that it was acceptable to bring those who served Trump onto their news teams. CNN hired former Trump campaign chair Corey Lewandowski as a paid analyst in 2016 and CBS hired Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former acting chief of staff, as a paid analyst in 2022. Both were met with pushback from within and without the organizations from opponents who disapproved of the style and policies of the Trump administration.

Mulvaney, who had served as Trump’s chief of staff, was seen as an enabler of some of the most objectionable policies of the administration, from withholding aid to Ukraine to his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic. With Lewandowski, there were questions as to whether a loyal Trump lieutenant could be trusted to be forthright about the inner workings of the campaign.  As an unpaid guest on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” show, I for one denounced that hiring. Neither of the former Trump officials are now on the payrolls of CNN or CBS.

But the outcry over those hirings was nothing compared to the on-air revolt by the anchors at MSNBC this week. And in the end, their outcry led the corporate bosses at NBC to reverse their ill-conceived decision to hire McDaniel. But truth be told, bosses didn’t have much choice in the matter after the on-air protest by some of its biggest stars.

Call it a victory for the journalists at the cable channel, and for the viewers who heard the journalists’ passionate explanations of the danger someone like McDaniel poses to democracy. Call it a victory, too, for the power of righteous indignation and decency and for journalism that strives for truth and integrity.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to note the reversal by NBC of its decision to hire McDaniel.

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