In Hiring Ronna McDaniel, NBC Forgot What Journalism Is For

Meet the Press - Season 77

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Ronna McDaniel is about to make bank. The former chair of the Republican National Committee plans to sue NBC News for terminating her $300,000-a-year contract to be an on-air contributor, the Washington Post reported. NBC had come under severe pressure both internally and externally over her hiring, which made it untenable to keep her on payroll. The network fired her after less than a week in the role. The NBC executives who hired her should have anticipated that outcome: McDaniel is no mere Republican. In her role at the RNC, she promoted the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.

In fact, she did more than promote it. As the Post put it, McDaniel “raised questions about the validity of the results of the 2020 election, suggested there was ‘stealing,’ helped orchestrate a scheme of alternate electors for Trump and offered the lobby of the RNC for two of Trump’s lawyers to use, where they espoused false conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.” McDaniel provided material support to a fundamentally anti-democratic scheme. That should disqualify her from any on-air role at a serious news network. To suggest otherwise is to imply that journalists, and their bosses, should abandon the mission at the heart of their endeavors.

Nevertheless, executives at the highest levels once sought to reassure her that they valued ideological diversity at the network. McDaniel’s contract included appearances on NBC and the more liberal MSNBC, and according to the Post, MSNBC president Rashida Jones had helped recruit her. “In a friendly call between Jones and McDaniel, the two spoke about American politics, their young children and the need to have differing views on the airwaves, the people familiar with the matter said,” the Post reported, adding that McDaniel was “heartened” by the call. NBC cited diversity again in a statement announcing her hiring. “It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team,” Carrie Budoff Brown, who manages the network’s political coverage, wrote in a memo reported by the New York Times. McDaniel could offer viewers “an insider’s perspective on national politics and the future of the Republican Party,” she added.

It’s true enough that McDaniel could provide “an insider’s perspective” on the Republican Party. But what does that mean? In McDaniel’s case, election denial. That distinguishes her from other partisan voices on the network. Jen Psaki, the former Biden White House press secretary, did not try to overthrow democracy in the United States. McDaniel did. That NBC did not recognize or value the distinction before it hired her is a major failure of news judgment. Network executives set a trap for themselves. By valuing a specious definition of ideological diversity over democracy, they damaged themselves and their network, too.

There is only one way for the network to extricate itself from the trap it is in, and that’s by embracing journalistic integrity. It can be necessary for a reporter to interview subjects who hold conspiratorial or anti-democratic views. But reporters can push back and provide context that makes it clear these views are inaccurate — and perhaps even dangerous. (Perhaps it’s unfashionable to call any point of view dangerous, but the attack on the Capitol should put to rest the argument that ideas exist in some sort of vacuum.) NBC, meanwhile, had hired McDaniel as an on-air contributor, which allowed her a substantial platform to spread her views to the public. That was the entire point of her hire. She was there to provide her perspective. In that capacity, McDaniel would certainly express views that many Americans hold; they’re just wrong and carry the potential to weaken our democratic structures.

Journalists — and news outlets by extension — have a responsibility to serve the public interest. We should ask ourselves what that looks like, especially now, in the early stages of a major election year. Reporting will often make consumers uncomfortable, whether they’re liberal or conservative. While there is a news interest in telling consumers what Trump supporters believe, it isn’t our job to make the former president’s base feel seen when it turns on the news. And if certain views present a genuine risk to democracy, we must be careful in how we present them to the public. McDaniel was an employee who would have enjoyed significant on-air leeway to express herself and spread her anti-democratic views. Her two-year contract with NBC also would have netted her $600,000 total, which is quite a reward for helping Trump’s attempt to overturn an election.

Democracy isn’t a partisan concern. If it seems otherwise, perhaps we’re too consumed by the horse race to remember what presidential elections are actually about. They can’t be flung aside, as McDaniel wished; the stakes are real, and they are high. For that reason, news outlets may not be able to hire Trump mouthpieces for lucrative on-air roles. To say so is to betray ideological diversity. But ideological diversity isn’t the real goal of journalism. We can’t serve the public by paying people to lie. We serve our readers and viewers with the truth, which is this: Democracy is on the line this year, and figures like Ronna McDaniel are a threat to it. McDaniel may be off the air for now, but the lesson lingers.

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