NBC News Keeps Chasing Conservatives With Controversial Talent Moves

Ronna McDaniel is no doubt going to create a lot of sound and fury over at NBC News. Shakespeare could tell you what it’s all going to signify.

NBC News surprised the nation’s legions of news critics (in these days of social media, it seems, anyone can be one) Friday when it unveiled a new pact with McDaniel, most recently the chair of the Republican National Committee, and, during that time, a denier of the validity of the 2020 presidential election and a frequent fault-finder when it comes to U.S. media. One of the outlets McDaniel has frequently held up for opprobrium is left-leaning MSNBC, part of NBCUniversal’s news operations.

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“It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team,” said Carrie Budoff Brown, the NBC News executive with direct oversight of political coverage and “Meet The Press,” said in a memo Friday, noting that McDaniel would offer “an insider’s perspective on national politics and the future of the Republican Party.” McDaniel’s arrival sparked so much chatter that MSNBC President Rashida Jones felt compelled to soothe ruffled anchors and producers, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal, noting that former RNC chief would not be appearing on the left-leaning cable outlet.

On Sunday, McDaniel acknowledged during an interview with “Meet The Press” moderator Kristen Welker that the 2020 election was, in fact, legitimate, though she nodded to “issues” that went largely unexplored. But Chuck Todd, the show’s former moderator, told Welker on air that “I think our bosses owe you an apology for putting you in this situation.” He added: “There’s a reason why there’s a lot of journalists at NBC News uncomfortable with this, because many of our professional dealings over the past six years have been met with gaslighting, have been met with character assassination.” He suggested McDaniel’s contributor deal was made in exchange “for access.”

McDaniel’s hire would raise even more eyebrows if NBC News hadn’t become so practiced in recent years at luring talent in bids aimed at winning over conservatives.

Megyn Kelly joined NBC News from Fox News Channel in 2017 in what at the time was largely seen as a gambit to attract voters — suburban women among them — who had recently put Donald Trump in the Oval Office. In May of that same year, Nicolle Wallace, once known as a strong Republican political operative in the George W. Bush White House, took the reins of a new afternoon program on MSNBC called “Deadline: White House.” CNBC took a gamble in 2020 by turning over its 7 p.m. slot to Shepard Smith, the former lead news anchor at Fox News, for an hour-long general newscast.

Only one of the three maneuvers has resulted in long-term success. Wallace is almost as popular among MSNBC die-hards as Rachel Maddow.

There have been other maneuvers, too, like running a town hall with President Trump opposite one broadcast by ABC News featuring then-candidate Joe Biden. Trump had balked at the idea of doing one more joint debate during the 2020 presidential election. NBC News recently raised eyebrows when it elected to have Welker, early in her “Meet The Press” tenure, interview Trump. Critics have long maintained that the networks are relatively powerless to push back against a dissembling, rambling Trump as the cameras roll — even if an interview is taped.

Other TV-news outlets have tried to make similar inroads with conservative viewers. Such contributor pacts are typically characterized as a way for the news organization to get an insight and voice into the mix to which it often lacks access. In the cases of the recent hire of Republican advisor Marc Short as a contributor to both NBC News and CNBC, or the naming of former national security advisor H.R. McMaster as a contributor at CBS News, the news divisions did in fact get people with hard-won knowledge of how government works; how Trump’s campaign makes decisions; and what Republicans crave. The ones who generate controversy have typically been caught backing falsehoods or slamming the media to an unwarranted degree.

Make no mistake, though: Some of these hires are spurred in part by economic pressures. In the streaming era, venerable TV-news outlets face as much new-tech competition as their primetime counterparts. Getting the right and far-right to tune in might boost audience and advertising during coverage leading up to the next election, a cycle that typically brings broader crowds to NBC News, CNN, Fox News and their rivals.

The aforementioned reasons no doubt played some part in CBS News’ 2022 decision to hire Mick Mulvaney, a former Trump White House chief of staff, and 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.

Those two moves never really worked out. Within a year’s time, Mulvaney was no longer working as a CBS News contributor, and recently took a similar role at Nexstar’s NewsNation. Flores never really got the full-time job CNN executives had originally envisioned. She instead worked as a political analyst, and subsequently secured roles at both The Dispatch and ABC News.

Cautionary tales aside, the news outlets like to consider these candidates and others like them because they add drama. As CNN proved in the run-up to the 2016 election, stacking the screen with bickering red-and-blue talking heads can lure eyeballs. The viewing public rarely thinks about the idea of “casting” in a news broadcast, but there is more of it going on these days, particularly as Fox News Channel finds success in “roundtable” programs such as “The Five,” “Outnumbered” and “Gutfeld!”

So a day could come in the not-too-distant future when MSNBC anchor Jen Psaki, the former White House Press Secretary, and McDaniel find themselves sitting on the same dais during a major party convention or Election Night. Both are supposed to take part in NBC News political coverage.

It’s not clear that including hard-core partisans makes for great journalism, but it probably makes for good TV.

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