The Media Today

Ronna McDaniel crosses the line

March 25, 2024
Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel speaks before a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by NBC News, Nov. 8, 2023, at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County in Miami. Facing a cash crunch and harsh criticism from a faction of far-right conservatives, McDaniel, on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, called for the party to unite behind the goal of defeating President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

In the summer of 2017, Chuck Todd, then the host of Meet the Press on NBC, convened a discussion between Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, and Ronna McDaniel, his Republican counterpart, in the name of “open dialogue between members of our two political parties”—a rarity, Todd suggested, in an era of growing polarization. McDaniel, in particular, seemed to embrace the format. After saying that she had gifted Perez a Detroit Tigers cap (she previously chaired the Michigan Republican Party), she agreed that “we do have to have more of a dialogue” and “talk about our differences in a respectful way.” Part of a leader’s job, she added, is “to tone down rhetoric and have a discussion about ideas.”

As far as I can tell, McDaniel has appeared on Meet the Press three times since then: in September 2020, when she defended President Trump’s response to COVID-19 and suggested that his opponents were  “disgusting” for attempting to politicize it; in November of last year, when she decried a supposed “two-tier system of justice” targeting Republicans and alleged corruption on the part of President Biden’s son Hunter; and yesterday. Rather than inviting McDaniel to spar with a Democrat, Kristen Welker, who succeeded Todd as host last year, grilled her one-on-one, asking, among other things, whether it’s inappropriate for Trump to ask donors to pay his legal bills (no, McDaniel said), whether Trump was responsible for the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 (no again), and whether she disagrees with Trump’s repeated recent promises to free those jailed for crimes related to the attack should he win reelection in November. When McDaniel indicated that she does in fact disagree with Trump on that point, Welker asked her why she hadn’t said so sooner. “When you’re the RNC chair, you kind of take one for the whole team,” McDaniel replied. “Now I get to be a little bit more myself.”

McDaniel was speaking in such terms because, in between her last appearance on Meet the Press and this one, she had been ousted as head of the RNC, effectively at Trump’s hand. Perhaps more surprisingly (or not, depending on your view of corporate TV networks), she had also picked up a new job in the interim—on Friday, she was unveiled as a paid contributor to NBC News. Announcing the hire, Carrie Budoff Brown, who oversees political coverage at NBC, said that “it couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team,” adding that she would “support our leading coverage by providing an insider’s perspective on national politics and on the future of the Republican Party—which she led through some of the most turbulent and challenging moments in political history.” (Full disclosure: Rebecca Blumenstein, the president of editorial at NBC News, chairs CJR’s Board of Overseers.)  According to Puck, NBC agreed to pay McDaniel three hundred thousand dollars a year. Per the same source, CNN tried to poach McDaniel at the last minute, only to balk at the price.

The backlash to the hire was as swift as it was predictable. Numerous outside observers took NBC to task, pointing to McDaniel’s history of Trump sycophancy and 2020 election denialism. (Among other things, she repeatedly echoed and facilitated Trump’s lie that the election was stolen, including by telling two canvassers in Michigan, on a call that also involved Trump, not to certify results in a key county; on her watch, the RNC censured two congressional Republicans for serving on the committee that investigated January 6, which the censure characterized as “a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.”) The hire reportedly caused friction inside NBC, too. As the weekend progressed, reports surfaced suggesting that MSNBC, the liberal cable network that is part of NBC News, has no plans to host McDaniel on its shows, or at least won’t foist her presence on unwilling hosts.  

Then, yesterday, Meet the Press aired, and the internal friction became external. Introducing McDaniel, Welker stressed that she was booked for a “news interview” before NBC hired her, a decision, Welker added, that was made without her input. Then—after Welker grilled McDaniel not only on Trump’s election denialism but on her own, as well as asking why anyone should believe anything she says and whether she owes the country an apology—Todd, who is still chief political analyst at NBC, came on air and slammed the network for putting McDaniel on its payroll. “I think our bosses owe you an apology for putting you in this situation,” he told Welker, adding that, listening to McDaniel speak, he had no idea whether she was saying what she believed or what she felt the NBC brass would want to hear. “There’s a reason why there’s a lot of journalists at NBC News uncomfortable with this,” he said, noting that many of the network’s dealings with McDaniel’s RNC were met with “gaslighting” and “character assassination.” McDaniel, Todd concluded, has “credibility issues that she still has to deal with.”

Todd’s on-air broadside against his own bosses was surprising. It was also, as I see it, spot on (even if saying that McDaniel has “credibility issues” might be the understatement of the year). The appropriateness of the revolving door between politics and paid punditry—and who gets to pass through it—is a legitimately thorny question that I won’t get into here. (If you’re interested, I wrote about this and related questions here, here, here, and here.) McDaniel’s specific case, though, is an easy one: the glaring problem with her hiring is not that she was (or is) a partisan hack or anything to do with her policy positions, but her deep complicity in Trump’s election denialism. As I’ve written before, the only appropriate media standard for this, given its corrosive effect on the democracy journalists rely on to do their jobs, is zero tolerance. It certainly shouldn’t be rewarded with a gilded contributor contract. I’m sure there are people even less deserving of one of those than McDaniel, but I’m struggling to name one right now.

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Perhaps ironically, this desperate episode has given rise to what I see as a very hopeful one: the performances on air yesterday of Todd and, especially, Welker. In the past, I’ve criticized Meet the Press (and the Sunday show format as a whole) for letting lying politicians off the hook, but Welker’s interview with McDaniel yesterday was one of the best I’ve seen on any such show in years: it was tenacious, devastatingly so, without being performatively confrontational or rude. It’s hard to know to what extent this was a consequence of the awkward situation Welker was put in, but the interview was more pointed than her November sit-down with McDaniel. Either way, the awkward situation resulted in exactly the type of rigorous interview that I and other media critics have wanted to see more of for years—on the grounds that they serve viewers better than debate segments that seek civility and compromise for those things’ own sake, or insidery roundtables that serve, however superficially, as a shop window for competing views. 

Since NBC announced McDaniel’s hire, media reporters have raised various theories as to the rationale behind it, from media companies’ growing realization that they may soon have to deal with a President Trump again to a longer-term hunt for conservative viewers. Speaking on air yesterday, Todd said that “when we make deals like this, and I’ve been at this company a long time, you’re doing it for access,” be that to a given individual or a particular audience. In her statement about McDaniel’s hire, NBC’s Brown stressed her “insider’s perspective.”

Even on these terms, it’s not clear to me that the hire makes much sense. Yesterday, McDaniel distanced herself somewhat from her insider’s perspective as RNC chair—and, as Todd argued, it’s hard to know what her true perspective actually is. Todd also argued that it’s important for NBC to have a “wide aperture” and to highlight the diversity of the country—but pointed out that it’s far from clear that McDaniel, a “Washington operative,” will add much insight on that score. “I’ve literally never heard anyone, even on the right, praise Ronna McDaniel for being charismatic or compelling or great at articulating a message,” the journalist James Surowiecki added on X. “She’s a quintessential apparatchik. So why hire her, of all the right-wingers out there?” McDaniel isn’t even that popular with Trump or his voters right now

Good-faith observers can disagree as to what format works best for informing viewers and exposing them to different views: the hard-hitting interview, the debate, the pundit roundtable, some combination, or something else. This question, too, is thorny. But the debate and roundtable formats, at least, require a basic credibility that McDaniel clearly does not have. It is, at least, hard to see how, having been eviscerated by Welker in a hard-hitting interview, she can credibly now shuffle from the hot seat to the chairs reserved for Welker’s paid colleagues.

If Todd’s on-air broadside against his bosses yesterday was surprising, its substance, perhaps, was not—as was already evident in his segment with Perez and McDaniel back in 2017, he is clearly preoccupied by polarization and the divisive, cynical type of politics he sees as stoking it, a politics that McDaniel’s Republican Party perfected. Either way, the McDaniel of that 2017 segment—a conciliator who sparred with Perez on questions of policy while stressing the need for mutual respect and responsible rhetoric—is gone, marooned on the other side of a line she crossed with her behavior following the 2020 election, if not before. Yesterday, we saw senior NBC journalists draw that line very clearly in the sand. That, at least, was refreshing.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.