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In Saga of NBC and Ronna McDaniel, Perks and Perils of Partisan Talk on TV

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, speaks during the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, on Nov. 8, 2023. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)
Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, speaks during the third Republican presidential primary debate in Miami, on Nov. 8, 2023. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

Trying to juice ratings in an election year, a major TV network hired a pair of provocative commentators from the political establishment to inject some spiky opinion into its otherwise-staid campaign coverage.

The result — the Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. debates of 1968 — was a hit with viewers and an unexpected success for ABC News. It also inspired television news divisions to bring more partisan voices into their coverage, a trend that intensified at the dawn of the 24-hour cable news era in the early 1980s.

These days, the role of the “paid contributor” — a commentator on contract, to bloviate on demand — is fully baked into the TV news ecosystem. Typically, the role is occupied by a political veteran who can offer an insider perspective on the news of the day, drawing on experience as, say, an elected official, Beltway strategist or West Wing aide.

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Or, in the case of Ronna McDaniel, as the former chair of the Republican Party.

McDaniel’s tenure as a paid contributor at NBC News was less successful than those of many of her peers. (Her two immediate predecessors as Republican leader, Michael Steele and Reince Priebus, work for MSNBC and ABC News.) Her hiring led to an open revolt by NBC and MSNBC stars, who said it was disqualifying that McDaniel had been involved in former President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the 2020 election results.

She was ousted by NBC on Tuesday, four days after she started. McDaniel, whose deal was worth $300,000 annually, is now seeking to be paid at least $600,000 for the two years she signed up for, according to a person familiar with her plans.

The episode prompted angst inside NBC News, where journalists and producers on Wednesday were still puzzling over their bosses’ handling of the situation, according to several people who requested anonymity to discuss private discussions.

By Wednesday, critics on the left were mollified by the network’s decision to cut ties with McDaniel. But some NBC political reporters remained concerned that Republican officials, who have mocked the network’s leadership for refusing to keep McDaniel, may now be reluctant to engage on stories.

Others at NBC have questioned the Byzantine leadership structure developed by Cesar Conde, the chair of the NBCUniversal News Group, who on Tuesday said he accepted “full responsibility” for hiring McDaniel while noting it was “a collective recommendation” by his team. Under Conde, franchises such as the “Today” show, “NBC Nightly News” and MSNBC report to different executives, while being arms of the same company.

Despite the collapse of McDaniel’s deal, it is unlikely that NBC and its peer networks will back away from relying on Washington veterans to offer commentary alongside traditional journalists.

Ideally, these contributors enhance a network’s ability to explain political events to its audience when the newsmakers themselves are not available. Networks seek a wide ideological variety of contributors so that various perspectives can be reflected on-air.

“Who can better inform you about life inside the White House, a political party, or on a presidential campaign than someone who actually worked for one?” said Michael LaRosa, a former MSNBC producer who served as a spokesperson for Jill Biden, the first lady. “They have a unique experience that presumably a journalist at a network, or the audience, does not have, which allows for greater awareness and information to provide the viewer.”

Finding paid contributors to reflect the viewpoint of Trump and his supporters, however, has proved challenging.

In 2017, CNN fired Jeffrey Lord, a Reagan White House veteran and indefatigable Trump defender, after he evoked a Nazi salute in a Twitter exchange. More recently, the Republican Party’s full-throated embrace of Trump’s baseless conspiracies about election fraud has raised questions about how to responsibly include those views — held by a large constituency of the voting public — while staying in the bounds of responsible, factual journalism.

Several NBC News executives believed McDaniel presented the right balance. Although she had advanced some false claims about the 2020 election, she also earned Trump’s ire by not backing his conspiracies as fiercely as he had hoped. That distinction failed to register with stars such as Rachel Maddow, who called McDaniel “someone who is part of an ongoing project to get rid of our system of government.”

Paid partisan commentary in TV news took off in the early days of 24-hour cable, when executives were scrambling to fill airtime. Experts who could chat during an hourlong program were a helpful investment, sometimes more so than traditional journalists, whose reporting duties were onerous and expensive.

It also made sense for cable networks to put name-brand political figures on retainer. That way, when a major story broke, producers did not have to waste precious minutes trying to book guests. Experts were already on the payroll and contractually obligated to travel to the studio.

Sometimes, these opinion-givers become television stars themselves. Joe Scarborough is a former Republican member of Congress; James Carville was a top aide to Bill Clinton; Donna Brazile is a former Democratic Party chair; Nicolle Wallace worked in the George W. Bush administration; Alyssa Farah Griffin served under Trump. The list goes on and on.

Beltway insiders offered their own kind of allure. “As cable news develops, there’s a desire to elevate the stature and the prestige of these networks,” said Kathryn Cramer Brownell, a historian at Purdue University and author of “24/7 Politics: Cable Television and the Fragmenting of America from Watergate to Fox News.”

“The incentive is claiming this insider knowledge that they can sell to their viewers — that these political insiders can tell them how it really operates,” Brownell said in an interview. “We know that’s not necessarily true. They have a particular view, or potentially a particular partisan outlook and an ideological agenda. But bringing these insiders on helps the network compete for viewers, to say they have something unique they can offer.”

Contributors brought another asset to the networks: their Rolodexes. Glossy magazines had long doled out “contributing editor” contracts to socialites in exchange for access to their rarefied worlds; if Vogue wanted to photograph the private gardens of, say, a minor Spanish royal, it helped to have their backgammon partners on speed dial. Television news divisions operate on a similar philosophy, with former party leaders like McDaniel helping book their erstwhile colleagues as guests.

Jeff Greenfield, the longtime television political analyst, who began his career working in politics, wrote in Politico on Wednesday that despite the backlash over McDaniel, it “doesn’t mean operatives should be off limits as analysts.”

There are just certain conditions they must meet, he wrote: “Are they upfront about their prejudices and identified as partisans, or are they able to put aside their recent political work and speak the honest truth?”

In the end, Greenfield added, “I have a clear, firm view on whether such a move is defensible: It depends.”

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