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NBC fired Ronna McDaniel. But TV news has a bigger pundit problem

Former RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, shown at last November's Republican presidential primary debate on NBC. The network hired her and then fired her in the course of a week after a newsroom revolt.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
Former RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, shown at last November's Republican presidential primary debate on NBC. The network hired her and then fired her in the course of a week after a newsroom revolt.

Thanks to a newsroom revolt, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel's tenure at NBC News didn't even last a full Scaramucci.

Critics have seized on the debacle to argue that the network doesn't know how to handle conservatives in the age of Donald Trump.

Open the aperture a bit more, and another question comes into focus: Why should American TV news networks pay leading politicians at all?

NBC's journalists and anchors objected not because she was a conservative, or even a Trump ally, but because she had played an active role in trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential race and had repeatedly and publicly trashed the press.

Still, McDaniel was - at least for a hot minute - just the latest among a string of political figures from both major political parties hired by television networks to join their news shows as commentators offering expertise.

As NBCUniversal News chief Cesar Conde put it in a memo Wednesday evening, the network is seeking "a widely diverse set of viewpoints and experience, particularly during these consequential times."

ABC, CBS, CNN...they all have paid pundits on air

In hiring McDaniel, NBC's Conde and his leadership team figured they were traveling a well-worn path with the reported $300,000 contract for McDaniel.

After all, ABC recently hired former RNC chair and Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. CBS had hired former Trump White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. He is now on board at the fledgling network NewsNation.

And for years, CNN kept Donna Brazile on the payroll - even though she wasthe deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee at the time.

Her case throws the tensions into stark relief. Brazile resigned from CNN in fall 2016 after it was revealed she had fed planned questions from a CNN town hall during that year's primaries to Hillary Clinton's top campaign aides. That was an obvious line crossed.

She was later hired by Fox and now is a paid pundit for ABC News.

Networks seek to lock in voices from both parties who are exclusive to their shows

The reasons propelling such hires are self-evident.

The networks - not just NBC - want to be able to rely on a stable of people to show up and be lively and informed on the air, often with little notice. They want to make sure they have voices reflecting an array of views from both parties. And they want exclusivity, which means they want to prevent the same high-profile figures from appearing on their competitors' shows.

The hiring of McDaniel made conventional sense under this rubric.

We do not live in conventional times.

McDaniel had attacked crucial journalism norms - crossing bright lines in the eyes of many working journalism without finding her way back.

She frequently attacked the legitimacy of the press - and NBC, for that matter - in her rhetorical mimicry of then President Trump. In 2019, for example,she urged the dismissal of NBC's Richard Engel. Last spring,she called MSNBC's primetime hosts "propagandists."

Even more notably, McDaniel had participated with Trump, in her home state of Michigan, in pressuring local election officials not to certify Joe Biden's win in the absence of any evidence of meaningful irregularities in the vote. It took until this past Sunday's Meet the Press appearance for her to offer a grudging acknowledgment that Biden won.

And only at the same interivew did McDaniel reject the violence of the January 6 2021 siege of the U.S. Capitol.

Where do the loyalties of pundits lie?

That sequence set off NBC's chief political analyst, Chuck Todd, opening the door to a day of lambasting from the stars at its sister channel MSNBC –morning (Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski), afternoon (Nicolle Wallace) and night (Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell).

The channel of course is still stocked with many paid partisan commentators, both with Democrat and Republican ties, all rigorously anti-Trump.

The fundamental question about the entire practice remains.

McDaniel said she felt she had to "kind of take one for the team" in failing to disagree publicly with Trump's promise to free people who were convicted of crimes related to January 6th. Which team does she represent now?

More broadly, to whom do the loyalties of these partisan figures lie? They should rest with the newsrooms that employ them and the viewers they serve. And yet the pundits often act as surrogates for the parties that made them. It's not clear they always believe what they're saying. And sometimes, they appear to be auditioning for future jobs.

Her reported $300,000 annual pay – not denied by the network – rankled a lot of the rank-and file-too. "So many talented reporters laid off this year," NBC News senior reporter Brandy Zadrozny tweeted on Sunday. "Workers who provided the content, won the awards, built the credibility of their shops, and worked for a yearly salary at a fraction of what big name contributors get in fancy contracts to fill pundit boxes on TV."

Cheaper to mint talking heads than hire reporting teams

And yet it is fundamentally cheaper to hire pundits than to send reporters, producers and videographers into the field to bring back reported stories.

It is certainly possible for political professionals to shift into a new phase of professional career. George Stephanopoulos left the Clinton White House, became a commentator for ABC News, and ultimately devoted himself to broadcast journalism full-time. So did former Nixon White House aide Diane Sawyer, first at CBS, then at ABC.

MSNBC made stars out of George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace and Jen Psaki, the former press secretary for President Biden. Fox has done the same with Trump spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnaney. Wallace appears to be out of the political game. Are the others?

All this summons to mind what then Crossfire host Paul Begala – a former Bill Clinton aide – told me. He said CNN was paying him to be biased and said he approached it as a drunk person looks at a lamppost: providing more support than illumination.

In his memo to staffers Wednesday evening in which he announced he had reversed his decision to hire McDaniel, Conde said he heard the objections and would continue to seek ways to "redouble our efforts to seek voices that represent different parts of the political spectrum."

Many political figures would wither without public attention on TV. Those out of office feel the need to audition for potential voters, donors, employers, book publishers and the like.

There are more than 330 million Americans and thousands of political professionals. Why pay for the right to interview them? Does anyone think Newt Gingrich will boycott television appearances if he's not paid?

Part of the appeal of bringing McDaniel into the fold was to convey to Republicans, and particularly pro-Trump Republicans, that they are understood and their perspectives reflected on NBC's broadcasts.

McDaniel was a flawed vessel for that ambition, as she was not seen as loyal enough by Trump, who forced her out. By saying she had to "take one for the team," McDaniel also dispensed with her potential appeal to MAGA voters.

This whirlwind maneuver may leave NBC in a worse place than before.

Given the headlines, more Republicans may distrust NBC now than if its executives had not tried to bring McDaniel aboard at all.

Former CNN journalist Michael Socolow, now a media historian at the University of Maine, posted on X (formerly Twitter) last night about the internal debate that roiled CBS News after the election of President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew: What if they were right about the "silent majority" of Americans?

"So [CBS] sent Charles Kuralt 'On the Road' to find it in response," wrote Socolow, the son of Walter Cronkite's former executive producer on the CBS Evening News. "They didn't hire a Republican flack."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.