The Media Today

The Ronna McDaniel incident reveals a deeper dilemma for journalism

March 29, 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)

There’s a reason things like this keep happening.

NBC’s hiring of former Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel earlier this week, followed by a very public staff revolt led by top on-air talent—and, ultimately, a reversal of the hire—was one of the wildest plot arcs in the media-politics universe in recent years.

But there’s been plenty of digital ink spilled on what happened and who’s to blame. What’s most interesting to me is what it says about a broader struggle within journalism in the Trump era. 

The NBC bosses stumbled into this lose-lose situation partly because of internal tensions that news outlets have long faced. It’s been eight and a half years since Donald Trump descended that golden escalator and lodged himself at the center of US politics—and media organizations are still struggling with how to fairly cover him. How do you accurately report on a politician whose allegiance to democracy is as suspect as his track record with the truth—while treating him, his team, and his supporters fairly? How do reporters call out alarming situations or point out falsehoods for what they are, without burning bridges with the sources who can actually reveal where those ideas are coming from? How do you find people who genuinely have insights into Trump’s thinking and knowledge of his operation’s decision-making, without giving his false claims a bullhorn?

All the TV networks, and plenty of print and online publications, have struggled mightily with this. CNN famously scrambled to find any pro-Trump talking heads for its panels during the 2016 campaign. In 2019, they had to back off plans to bring on former Trump administration official Sarah Isgur, who’d served as Jeff Sessions’s spokeswoman at the Department of Justice, after an uproar both within and outside the company. (They ended up making her a political analyst instead of her original role as politics editor.) The New York Times’ publication of an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) that called for the National Guard to be deployed during the 2020 George Floyd protests led to a staff revolt—and the forced resignation of opinion editor James Bennet.

These dilemmas are, frankly, a bit easier to handle in “print” journalism and straight news reporting. Text-based reporters interview various people from across the political spectrum, evaluate information, vet sources’ claims against one another, and only quote people who deserve to be quoted. Sure, reporters may pull their punches on particular verbiage to project neutrality or coddle sources. But if you’re trying to stick to the facts, and are in sole control of what winds up in the final product, it’s a lot easier to negotiate that balance behind the scenes—and to make sure your stories land in a place that fits with your publication’s mission.

It gets a lot murkier when you get into opinion and analysis—especially when you go live on air.

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On TV, especially on the live talking-heads panels and one-on-one interviews that make up the vast majority of the cable networks’ coverage, the best way to hear someone’s perspective is to let them speak. That hands over a lot of control. This is why people are still arguing over whether the networks should carry Trump’s speeches live, and for how long.

This is always true in journalism—reporters, even if they don’t like to admit it, are constantly facing the challenge of balancing critical coverage with access, and politicians aren’t exactly known for their truthfulness. It’s just become more true in the Trump era. And while McDaniel, who played a role in Trump’s attempts to subvert the 2020 election and has a long history of false statements, is a rather extreme example, the question of who to allow a voice on the airwaves isn’t getting easier.

There are two camps who represent the extremes of this debate. To oversimplify, one side has argued that Trump must be portrayed as a racist authoritarian demagogue in all coverage; the other side see it as their role to simply convey the views of everyone involved. 

Both-sides-ism is a problem because it doesn’t call out bullshit. But if you’re actually trying to find out facts from people, it kind of matters to talk to them. If you’re portraying them in ways they feel are unfair, it tends to make them not so eager to talk to you going forward.

And this isn’t simply about not letting political operatives become media hosts. Plenty of flacks are now hacks—and some are better than others. ABC News has George Stephanopoulos (a former communications director for Bill Clinton). Fox News has Dana Perino (a former press secretary for George W. Bush). MSNBC alone has a half-dozen former professional partisans with their own shows right now: Nicolle Wallace (a former Bush White House press secretary), Lawrence O’Donnell (a former staffer for Democratic senator Daniel Moynihan), Joe Scarborough (a former Republican congressman), Symone Sanders Townsend (a former spokeswoman for President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders), Michael Steele (like McDaniel a former RNC chair), and Jen Psaki (a former Biden White House press secretary), whose 2022 hiring was met with its own discomfort and protest from some NBC reporters.

NBC has had a particularly brutal week. But as the 2024 election nears, it’s likely that the internal conflicts that brought about this chaos will trip up other reporters, publications, and networks. And the struggle to give Republicans a fair shake while not letting them off the hook will continue. 

One solution for the cable networks would be to cut back on opinion- and analysis-driven panels and lean harder into produced, prerecorded pieces with fact-checking and more reporting. Getting the facts correct and taking time to examine exactly what’s being said is important. But that’s incredibly expensive to produce. It’s a lot cheaper, in the short run, to line up a panel to riff on a topic—even if it increases the risk of reputational damage.

Other notable stories:

  • NPR’s David Folkenflik and Floodlight’s Miranda Green report from Richmond, California, where Chevron is a huge story—but also owns the main local news outlet, the Richmond Standard. “Markets where news outlets shut down are often called news deserts,” the pair write. “The Standard has created something of a news mirage: Stories are told—but with an agenda. Facts displeasing to Chevron are omitted; hard truths softened. The company is seeking to get its point of view across and to convey that it can be trusted.”
  • In France, Damien Leloup and Florian Reynaud, of Le Monde, dug into a series of scams that have used fake news articles—published via realistic-looking copies of mainstream sites, including Le Monde and Libération—to ensnare potential victims. The articles consist of fake “interviews” in which celebrities, including at least one well-known journalist, extol a supposed investment tool. You can read more here (in French).
  • And the venture capitalist Josh Kushner and his wife, the entrepreneur and supermodel Karlie Kloss, are planning to resurrect Life, the iconic photography magazine. Kushner and Kloss will take on the publication rights to the title from their owner, Dotdash Meredith, with Kushner set to serve as publisher. Kloss said that she and Kushner “see Life as an uplifting and unifying voice in a chaotic media landscape.”
Cameron Joseph is a freelance political reporter with recent work in The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Politico Magazine. A recipient of the 2023 National Press Foundation Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress and the 2020 National Press Club award for excellence in political journalism, he previously worked for VICE News, Talking Points Memo, the New York Daily News, The Hill and National Journal.