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NBC News Has a Bigger Problem Than Ronna McDaniel

The network is reportedly cutting ties with the former RNC chair after hiring her last week. But that doesn’t answer the bigger question her hire raised.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

NBC News should have seen this coming. Since the network announced last week that it had hired Ronna Romney McDaniel, the recently ousted chair of the Republican National Committee, for a $300,000-a-year political analyst role, its stars have been in open revolt. After Meet the Press on Sunday aired a disastrous interview with her in an attempt to save face, Chuck Todd said that he had no idea if he could trust anything she says, given her prior “gaslighting” and “character assassination” of journalists. Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski said that they hoped the network “will reconsider its decision” to hire McDaniel and noted that they would not have her on their popular program. Rachel Maddow, meanwhile, compared the move to the TSA hiring a “pickpocket” or a district attorney’s office hiring a “mobster.”

NBC is now attempting to undo the damage: Puck’s Dylan Byers reported Tuesday that the network is planning to cut McDaniel loose already. But doing so would only address a short-term controversy—not the deeper problem at the root of her hiring.

NBC’s journalists were right to be angry: Not only is McDaniel an unrepentant liar who spent her seven years as RNC chair demonizing the press, but she also has long defended Trump’s growing authoritarianism and even aided his legal team’s “fake elector scheme” to overturn the 2020 election. What was NBC’s leadership thinking? Its politics chief, Carrie Budoff Brown, said in a memo announcing the hire that McDaniel would provide “an insider’s perspective on national politics and the future of the Republican Party.”

It’s not clear how someone who was effectively purged from party leadership by Trump can provide an “insider’s perspective” on the party’s future, but it’s obvious that NBC News, not unlike its competitors, is still grappling with a familiar, yearslong dilemma: How do you cover a political party that openly embraces authoritarianism and whose leadership lies at every opportunity? McDaniel’s hiring suggests that, more than eight years into Trump’s political career, these news organizations still don’t have an answer—and cutting the former RNC chair loose, as NBC is poised to do, solves none of its larger problems.

The basic structure of political news programs on network TV—particularly Sunday shows like Meet the Press—goes something like this: Politicians from both parties are interviewed about recent events and relevant policy positions. The host will push back and follow up, usually gently. The answers from the guests—and the subjects on discussion—are then taken to a roundtable, where others who broadly represent those parties (former politicians, columnists, etc.) “debate” the issues. There is a practiced form of neutrality on display throughout. (More overtly partisan networks, like MSNBC and, to a much greater extent, Fox News, have a slightly different model, though their coverage of major news events and elections typically includes voices from the opposing party.)

There are a lot of flaws in this approach—namely the deference it inherently shows to politicians, its general conception of journalism as a conduit for political parties, and its reliance on party apparatchiks for spin and drama—but it has been remarkably resilient even as American politics has grown more partisan and divided. Yet one flaw has become more and more apparent over the last decade: its reliance on both parties to supply vessels who can be counted on to provide at least a semblance of good faith. Ever since Trump came to power, it has been basically impossible to find anyone with any integrity who can defend him or act as a mouthpiece for the Republican Party that he is the de facto head of.

There was, for a short while, an attempt to find pundits and panelists who could act as his spin doctors after debates, elections, and other news events. CNN, in particular, filled its roundtables with loyalists like Kayleigh McEnany (who would go on to serve as Trump’s press secretary) and Jeffrey Lord (who was fired in 2017 after tweeting “Sieg Heil!”). Their efforts to spin Trump’s erratic behavior, xenophobic remarks and policies, and outright contempt for democracy were laughable—often literally so. Network and cable news spin rooms have never been places for nuanced debate or policy analysis, but they do require a shared sense of reality (even if that reality is one that only really exists inside the Beltway). Trump’s rise broke all of that. For most of the last five years, networks have adjusted their model somewhat, still balancing “liberal” and “conservative” voices but with the latter much more likely to be “Never Trump” figures (or at least Trump skeptics).

The major flaw with this approach is that it undermines the entire model, which is premised on featuring people who can speak, with credibility, on behalf of the leaders of the two parties. That has become impossible in the wake of Trump’s emergence as the country’s single most powerful political force, thanks to the Republican Party’s growing contempt for journalists and Trumpism’s reliance on lies and bigotry. After January 6, 2021, there was clearly a hope that this would all just wash away, that Trump would recede from view and the GOP would return to being a normal(ish) political party. Not only has that not happened, but Trump is now leading in the 2024 presidential polls, creating a huge problem for mainstream news organizations: How do you cover a political party that has lost its mind?

With McDaniel’s aborted hire, if you squint, you can see the logic. She spent seven years at the RNC as a Trump loyalist. Though there have been doubts—largely thanks to her connection to her uncle, steadfast anti-Trump conservative Mitt Romney—about her overall loyalty to MAGA, and she was ousted in a Trumpist coup, she has a more intimate understanding of the GOP apparatus under Trump than most conservative voices on mainstream news do. If you were in the market for a pro-Trump voice, she was, for better and mostly for worst, the best you were going to do. This is the “insider’s perspective” that Brown alluded to—and which Todd bemoaned in his evisceration of Brown’s decision-making, saying, “When we make deals like this … you’re doing it for access.”

But there are two related problems with this apparent logic. One is that McDaniel has lost much of that access. She is no longer the chair of the RNC, and is seemingly persona non grata with Trump. She has, in fact, lost most of her credibility with Republicans of all stripes—too pro-Trump for Never Trumpers, not enough of a loyalist for the former president’s minions. Her tenure as RNC chair, moreover, was a political, legal, and moral disaster. The party’s finances are in a dismal state, and it has underperformed in a series of elections.

The second problem is that McDaniel’s “insider’s perspective” is built on her recent access to a political party and a candidate who are increasingly contemptuous of both democracy and the rule of law. Her job for NBC would have been, quite literally, to defend the indefensible, whether it be Trump’s rhetoric on migrants or his increasingly open fascism.

Shows like Meet the Press made more sense when the Republican Party was led by McDaniel’s uncle, as they rely on the presumption that the parties can both supply (relatively) good-faith operatives who can explain (or, more likely, spin) their positions on any given issue. With the GOP’s descent into madness under Trump, though, it’s no longer possible to find such people—the fact that NBC turned to someone who worked to overturn the 2020 election for the Trumpist perspective is proof of that.

But it’s also further proof that any journalistic model that relies on juxtaposing talking heads from Team Blue with talking heads from Team Red is fundamentally broken. There’s no debate to be had over Trump’s fascist goals if he returns to the White House; no way that anyone could “spin” them to seem remotely reasonable. And even if there were a way, lord knows Ronna McDaniel doesn’t have the talent for it.