NBC News Faces Growing Pressure as Its Journalists Rebel Against Ronna McDaniel

Ronna McDaniel was supposed to be the new star contributor at NBC News. Now her position there is looking increasingly untenable.

NBC News hired the former Republican National Committee chief last week, betting that her recent access to the Trump campaign and Republican politicians would make her a valuable analyst as the 2024 election cycle intensified. But in recent days, her ability to do just that seems unclear. On Monday, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski suggested on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that NBC News reconsider its hire. A day earlier, Chuck Todd took to “Meet The Press” to chastise NBC News bosses for making moderator Kristen Welker conduct a news interview she had previously booked with McDaniel now that she was a paid operative of NBC and potentially less able to respond truthfully to hard questions.

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It seems very likely that her position at NBC will remain in the news for the immediate future. Could the story become one of the topics discussed by MSNBC’s Monday opinion lineup of Joy Reid, Jen Psaki, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell?

“I feel an ‘oops’ coming on,” says one person familiar with the workings of NBC News and NBCUniversal.

After such rare on-air protest, there is new pressure on producers and anchors across the NBC News portfolio. NBC News executives have two choices. They can acknowledge that McDaniel’s ability to fulfill her new contract has likely been compromised, or they can make a public display of corporate force and insist that she appear on programs despite any ambivalence about having her on. Of course, doing so would have effects on morale among producers, anchors and correspondents at a time when NBCUniversal has been trimming its employee base.

TV journalists protesting a decision by their news bosses in public is, well, unique. But McDaniel’s background is equally so. She has for months called into question the results of the 2020 presidential election, only relenting in full after Welker questioned her on Sunday’s “Meet The Press.” She has also lambasted MSNBC in the past. Such antics mean many NBC News anchors may feel compelled to ask about her credibility before they try to get her analysis of a breaking situation — a condition that will eat up time during what are already compressed segments on NBC News shows.

Talent Twists

Already, McDaniel’s ability to appear with great frequency seems to be in question.

Scarborough and Brzezinski on Monday told viewers they would not put McDaniel on their program, a Beltway ‘salon” of sorts that represents four hours of programming each weekday. Barring an edict from MSNBC President Rashida Jones or NBC News Group or NBCUniversal News Group chairman Cesar Conde, McDaniel is presumably blocked from appearing on the company’s main political-analysis program.

People familiar with the network wonder why NBC News executives appear not to have secured buy-in from top anchors. Had they done so, these people argued, there would not have been a rebuke from Todd on Sunday or from Scarborough and Brzezinski on Monday. Among the anchors who should have been given a heads-up, these people suggested, are “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt; “Today” co-anchor Savannah Guthrie; Welker and Todd; Scarborough and Brzezinski; NBC News Washington Bureau Chief Ken Strickland; and, possibly the MSNBC primetime lineup.

NBC News declined to make executives available for comment. But top executives from across the organization did sign off on the McDaniel hire, according to a person familiar with the matter, including MSNBC’s Jones; “Today” chief Libby Leist; NBC News and NBC News Now leader Janelle Rodriguez; and Rebecca Blumenstein, who oversees newsgathering, “Meet The Press” and “Dateline.”

Among those executives, this person says, the rationale for McDaniel’s hire was clear. She would represent a voice that many news organizations have struggled to curate, someone familiar with the inner workings of the Republican party after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Other news outlets have made similar moves, with CBS News trying to tap former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and ABC News linking up with former Trump chief of staff Reince Preibus.

Nor is it exactly anathema in the world of TV news to hire political partisans. Two of the biggest success stories at NBC News these days are Jen Psaki, the former Biden White House Press Secretary who is quietly seeing her hours on MSNBC expand, and Nicolle Wallace, the former George W. Bush communications director who has ingratiated herself with the MSNBC audience. George Stephanopoulos and Larry Kudlow are among the list of former White House officials who have gone on to prominent careers on various TV news outlets.

But some hires in that vein have generated backlash in the past.  CBS News’ 2022 decision to hire Mulvaney, rankled both staff and media critics. So did CNN’s 2019 effort to bring aboard political operative Sarah Isgur, a former spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice under Jeff Sessions, in a managing editorial role.

Todd’s Turnaround

Chuck Todd has over the course of a long career covering politics, positioned himself as such a moderate that he routinely was slagged by both Republicans and Democrats during his nearly ten years moderating “Meet The Press.” His remarks on Sunday were not those of a milquetoast.

People familiar with the anchor say that even after leaving “Meet The Press” duties last year, Todd remains very protective of the program, which has been on the air since 1947 — one of the longest-running shows on TV. He is also very close with Welker, these people say, and the two are known to have a running conversation and consultation about the biggest issues in the political-news cycle.

But some of these people also point out that Todd may feel more unfiltered since ceding his “MTP” role to Welker. And they point out that though he has continued with NBC News as its chief political analyst, he may be looking to get on another news organization’s radar screen following the 2024 election.

It’s entirely possible that the nation may have bigger and better things to focus on than Ronna McDaniel’s contributor gig at NBC News. Should a bigger story or controversy start to capture attention, NBC News may no longer have to worry about its newest hire. But until something does, it’s all many people in the news business seem eager to discuss.

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