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NBC’s Ronna McDaniel Hire wasn’t about politics or TV, as usual

Over the past week, NBC’s best drama — my apologies to Dick Wolf — was 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. On Sunday morning, Kristen Welker interviewed Ms. McDaniel on “Meet the Press,” after which former host Chuck Todd told his successor on-air that their bosses “owe you an apology.” On Monday morning, the hosts of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” condemned the hire. On Monday night, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow likened it to hiring “a gangster to work in a prosecutor’s office.”

And on Tuesday, Ms. McDaniel was officially out as an NBC News contributor, not even lasting half a Scaramucci.

Not long ago, a TV news outlet hiring a former political figure might have sparked grumbling from members of the other party, criticism from journalism watchdogs, or anonymous recriminations among the staff. But it happened and life went on. This kind of total on-air revolt was something else – because the hiring of Ms. McDaniel was something else.

The NBC fiasco is in part a sign of how difficult it is for the media to cover politics in unusual times. But it was also a battle over the extent to which they should be willing to normalize ideas and actions in the post-January period. 6, go way beyond politics as usual.

After all, the staff rebellion against Ms McDaniel was not about her views on welfare reform or health care policy. These were her statements and actions regarding attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Throughout November and December 2020, she supported former President Trump’s efforts to overturn the results of the elections to stay in office, and at one point she called Michigan election officials to ask them to delay certification of the state’s results.

And while she didn’t support Mr. Trump’s more outlandish election theft scenarios, she continued to say, as in a 2023 interview with Chris Wallace, that she didn’t think President Biden “had won fairly.” (In damage control, in her interview with Ms. Welker, she called Mr. Biden a “legitimate president.”)

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

Networks sometimes hire former political insiders for access reasons; a CBS executive cited this as the reason for the network’s controversial 2022 hiring of 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 also watch “NCIS” and “Law & Order.”

For its part, NBC News said it hired Ms. McDaniel for journalistic reasons; a network executive said when announcing her hiring that she would offer “an insider 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 that means hearing from people they don’t like. This even applies to outlets like MSNBC that have a particular political bent – ​​knowing your enemy sometimes means listening to them.

That’s what interviews are for! But TV news has long been a revolving door for former politicians — Michael Steele, Donna Brazile, Sarah Palin, Jen Psaki, etc. – a practice that merits skepticism in itself. Can you really count on well-connected supporters to give you unvarnished analysis of their former and perhaps future colleagues? Would viewers be better served by news networks seeking a broad range of voices rather than the predictable speaking engagements of regular panelists? Isn’t reputation laundering better left to “Dancing with the Stars”?

But more importantly is the question of whether McDaniel is in the same category as these latest signings. In other words: Is election denialism – and not just denialism but overt measures to overturn a legitimate election – now just another hot-button political issue that reasonable people can disagree about, like voting rates? taxation or energy policy?

It would make life easier if that were the case, not only for NBC, but for all media outlets trying to keep the facts straight while trying to cover a political movement whose leader has placed the election lie at the center of his belief system. Actions such as the hiring of Ms. McDaniel can be interpreted as a kind of deliberate denial, an attempt to wish for a return to a political normalcy that no longer exists.

Yet the basic job of television news remains to prioritize true things over false ones. Another solution is to put people on the air that viewers can trust. Political contributors may have opinions and preferences, but they should at least shoot straight.

But Ms. McDaniel, interviewed on “Meet the Press,” offered a new explanation for Mr. Trump’s election theft fantasies: She never believed in them in the first place. “When you’re chairman of the RNC, you kind of take one for the whole team, right? she says. “Now I can be a little more myself.”

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

Perhaps saying what you don’t believe in to get ahead is an excusable quality in a party bureaucracy. In a good news organization, that’s a sign you should look for another job.

Audio produced by Jack D’Isidoro.

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