March 25, 2024

Late last week, NBC News made a shocking announcement. It will hire former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel as a contributor.

There was immediate criticism from outside of NBC News, and a downright mutiny from inside it. And on Sunday, it boiled over to a shocking on-air commentary from one of NBC News’ most prominent voices.

More on that in a second, but first the McDaniel hiring.

McDaniel is the same person who repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The same person who attempted to help former President Donald Trump subvert that election. The same person who constantly criticized the news media, most notably the very company that now has hired her.

And now that company — a respected news organization — is giving her journalistic credibility by putting her on the payroll and its airwaves as a so-called expert. NBC is telling its audience: “Here’s Ronna McDaniel. She now works for us. You should listen to what she has to say. She knows what she’s talking about.”

Let’s take a quick moment to be clear about something. There’s nothing wrong with hiring a partisan voice with extensive experience inside the political machine. ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos worked in the Clinton administration. MSNBC’s Jen Psaki was the White House press secretary for Joe Biden. CNN’s roster of contributors is full of former politicians and those who worked for politicians — most of whom have strong political leanings. Reince Priebus, Trump’s first chief of staff, is an ABC News contributor.

There’s no issue with NBC News hiring McDaniel as a contributor based on her politics alone. NBC, like any network, should want voices that express the political stances of a good chunk of the country. There’s also no question that, as the recent RNC chair, she has great insight into how the party thinks and what’s important to its members.

However, the problem isn’t McDaniel’s views on, say, the economy or immigration or crime or abortion. The problem is McDaniel has a serious credibility problem. And her actions, most notably around the 2020 election, put the country and our very democracy at risk.

Writing for Politico back in November 2020, right after the election, Tim Alberta wrote, “There was some relief, then, when in recent weeks McDaniel told multiple confidants that she doubted there was any scalable voter fraud in Michigan. Nevertheless, McDaniel told friends and fellow Republicans that she needed to stay the course with Trump and his legal team. This wasn’t about indulging him, she said, but rather about demonstrating a willingness to fight — even when the fight couldn’t be won. If this sounds illogical, McDaniel’s thinking is actually quite linear. The RNC will vote in January on the position of chair. She is anxious to keep her job. It’s bad enough that despite an enormous investment of time and resources in Michigan, McDaniel was unable to deliver her home state for the president. If that might prove survivable, what would end McDaniel’s bid instantaneously is abandoning the flailing president in the final, desperate moments of his reelection campaign. No matter how obvious the outcome — to McDaniel, to the 168 members of the RNC, maybe even to Trump himself — any indication of surrender would be unforgivable.”

In other words, she put her job as RNC ahead of the democracy of the country. That’s not someone who should be handed a microphone and paycheck by an established news outlet.

And it’s that credibility problem that led to an extraordinary “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Chuck Todd speaks out …

McDaniel was a guest on Sunday’s “Meet the Press.” Moderator Kristen Welker made it clear that the interview was set up before NBC News announced McDaniel had been hired.

Welker said, “This will be a news interview, and I was not involved in her hiring.”

It was definitely a news interview, and it turned out to be Welker’s finest hour as “MTP” moderator. In an interview that was, at times, contentious, Welker pushed to get McDaniel’s views on Jan. 6 and the 2020 election, and challenged her credibility to speak on current issues.

McDaniel condemned the violence of Jan. 6 and, unlike Trump, thinks those convicted of crimes that day should continue serving their punishments. However, when it came to the legitimacy of the 2020 election, there were still some inconsistencies in McDaniel’s answers when pushed by Welker. McDaniel did say that Biden won the election “fair and square,” but she still seemed to raise skepticism, saying, “The reality is Joe Biden won. He’s the president. He’s the legitimate president. I have always said, and I continue to say, there were issues in 2020. I believe that both can be true.”

It sounded like someone trying to straddle the fence between being loyal to her party and needing to sound trustworthy to her new employer, which has ethical standards.

What followed was one of the more memorable moments in recent “Meet the Press” history as Chuck Todd, the former moderator of the show, blasted NBC News for hiring McDaniel during a panel discussion.

He started by telling Welker, “I think our bosses owe you an apology for putting you in this situation because I don’t know what to believe. (McDaniel) is now a paid contributor by NBC News. I have no idea whether any answer she gave to you was because she didn’t want to mess up her contract.”

Then Todd got into the hiring of McDaniel, saying he understood that she once had a job speaking on behalf of the RNC, but then telling Welker, “I think your interview did a good job of exposing I think many of the contradictions. And, look, there’s a reason why there’s a lot of journalists at NBC News uncomfortable with this because many of our professional dealings with the RNC over the last six years have been met with gaslighting, have been met with character assassination. … So when NBC made the decision to give her NBC News’ credibility you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What does she bring NBC News?’”

Then Todd talked about how the sausage gets made at many news outlets, saying, “When we make deals like this, and I’ve been at this company a long time, you’re doing it for access. Access to audience. Sometimes it’s access to an individual. … And if you told me we were hiring her as a technical advisor to the Republican Convention, I think that would be certainly defensible. If you told me, ‘We’re talking to her, but let’s see how she does in some interviews and maybe vet her with actual journalists inside the network.’”

Todd came back to questioning if McDaniel’s comments always come back to who is signing her paycheck.

He then addressed Welker again, saying, “I think you did everything you could do. You got put into an impossible situation, booking this interview, and then all of a sudden the rug is pulled out from under you. You find out she’s being paid to show up. That’s unfortunate for this program, but I am glad you did the best that you could, and that’s why the three of us are on here to try to bolster that editorial independence.”

Kimberly Atkins-Stohr, senior opinion writer at The Boston Globe, then said on air, “She is only here after she got ousted from Trump’s RNC. … So her credibility is completely shot. I have to do what Maya Angelou said, I believe what they do and not anything that she said today. And in that I know that she habitually lied, she habitually joined Trump in attacking the press — members of the press, including this network — in a way that put journalists at risk, in danger. And we do know that she carried water for Donald Trump, and we knew that she did participate in efforts to keep votes in Detroit, from my hometown, so I take this both journalistically serious and personal, to keep the votes from mostly Black voters in Detroit from being counted that night.”

What next?

So what happens now with NBC News and McDaniel? Will she continue being a contributor to the network or did Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” plus all the negative reaction from inside and outside NBC in the past few days, blow up the deal?

New York Times media correspondent Michael M. Grynbaum called Todd’s comments an “extraordinary escalation of behind-the-scenes tensions simmering within NBC News and its cable cousin, MSNBC, since the announcement on Friday that Ms. McDaniel had been brought onboard as a political analyst.”

Reportedly, MSNBC president Rashida Jones has already reached out to prominent hosts on her network to say they would not be forced to book McDaniel on their shows.

In an internal memo announcing McDaniel’s hiring, NBC News senior vice president of politics Carrie Budoff Brown said, “It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team.”

But Mother Jones’ Tim Murphy makes a fair point, writing, “NBC News is filled with professional journalists doing good work. Many of them have documented in exhausting (or actually quite lively and entertaining) detail the ways in which Trump and his helpers have corroded American democracy. McDaniel, on the other hand, was a major player in a political project that’s antithetical to that mission. Trump’s GOP was and is built on delegitimizing the people and institutions that might otherwise check it — Congress; the judiciary; the electorates of Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. Foremost among the institutions Trump wants to blow up is legacy political media, and its critical, fact-checked information stream. The goal is to erode trust in the press. I’m not sure why the suits at NBC News think it’s in anyone’s best interest to hire someone to do that work for Trump.”

To hear McDaniel tell it on “Meet the Press,” her work as RNC meant that she occasionally had to go along with what Trump was saying. For example, even though Trump has been saying for months that if he becomes president again, those in jail for crimes committed in the attack on the Capitol will be freed, McDaniel had remained silent until asked by Welker on Sunday. McDaniel said, “When you’re the RNC chair, you kind of take one for the whole team, right? Now I get to be a little bit more myself, right?”

But in a scathing post on X, former Wyoming Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, vice chair of the House Jan. 6 committee, tweeted, “Ronna facilitated Trump’s corrupt fake elector plot & his effort to pressure MI officials not to certify the legitimate election outcome. She spread his lies & called 1/6 ‘legitimate political discourse.’ That’s not ‘taking one for the team.’ It’s enabling criminality & depravity.”

This feels like it’s not going to end well. The decision to hire McDaniel surely came from the highest levels of NBC News, and the past few days have resulted in a firestorm of criticism about credibility. For a news organization, is there anything more damaging than a credibility issue?

NBC News might try to ride this out and hope the negative feedback calms down so it can put McDaniel back on over the summer during the conventions and potential debates. But, for many, no amount of time will erase McDaniel’s credibility issues.

A grim anniversary

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, shown in a glass cage in a courtroom in Moscow last December. (AP Photo/Dmitry Serebryakov, File)

This week — March 29 — marks the first anniversary of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich being arrested and held in Russia on charges of espionage. Gershkovich and the Journal deny he is a spy and the U.S. government considers Gershkovich to be “wrongfully detained.”

“CBS Sunday Morning” had a story on Sunday from veteran journalist Lesley Stahl: “The long struggle to free Evan Gershkovich from a Moscow prison.”

Evan’s sister Danielle Gershkovich told CBS, “I think he was born to be a journalist. He, I think, had always been seeking a life of adventure. And his travel, his writing. Working at the Wall Street Journal as a Russia correspondent was his absolute dream job.”

While awaiting trial, Gershkovich spends about 23 hours a day in his cell. Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Emma Tucker told CBS, “I think his health is OK; his mom looks very closely whenever there are shots of him (on TV). I think there’s limits to how much exercise he can do. I can only imagine what the food is like. But he’s meditating. He’s practicing and getting ever better at Russian. He’s reading in Russian.”

It’s believed the U.S. continues to negotiate for his release and Gershkovich’s parents tell ABC’s “Good Morning America” (in an interview that will air this morning) that they are “confident” the Biden administration is doing everything it can to get Gershkovich released.

Musk’s intentions

X owner Elon Musk insists he is not donating any money to any political candidate. In his recent tense interview with former CNN host Don Lemon, Musk said he is not endorsing anyone at this time. He said he is moving away from Joe Biden, but has not thrown his support behind Donald Trump.

Veteran tech reporter Kara Swisher, who has covered Musk extensively, isn’t buying it.

Appearing on Jen Psaki’s MSNBC show on Sunday, Swisher said she believes Musk is a Trump supporter, saying, “Yes, 100%. … Because, hello, he lied. I mean, that’s pretty much what he does all the time as he’s doing all kinds of signaling and things like that. And he thinks he’s being subtle. I mean, he calls me Karen, which isn’t the best insult you can come up with. So I don’t think he’s trying very hard and he does it late at night and up to who knows what. That’s the way he is. He’s as subtle as a brick.”

Psaki asked Swisher why Musk doesn’t just say he endorses Trump.

Swisher said, “Because he wants to create drama. Same thing like Trump likes to do. And why were we asking him what his endorsement is? He’s a business person. So he’s made himself into a, you know, a nonsensical figure that a lot of people do care about. And he has a lot of money.”

Mulkey’s malarky

LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey, coaching her team in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The sports world is holding its breath for what appears to be a juicy story coming from The Washington Post about LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey. The story wasn’t even out yet (as of Sunday night) and Mulkey was already criticizing the Post and the author of the story and was threatening to sue the paper.

During a press conference on Saturday, a day before her Tigers played their first game in the NCAA Tournament, Mulkey read a multipage statement about what she says is a “hit piece” that the Post has been working on for two years. The reporter is believed to be Kent Babb, a well-respected sportswriter at the Post.

Mulkey said, “The lengths he has gone to try to put a hit piece together — after two years of trying to get me to sit with him for an interview, he contacts LSU on Tuesday as we were getting ready for the first-round game of this tournament with more than a dozen questions, demanding a response by Thursday, right before we’re scheduled to tip off. Are you kidding me? This was a ridiculous deadline that LSU and I could not possibly meet, and the reporter knew it. It was just an attempt to prevent me from commenting and an attempt to distract us from this tournament. It ain’t going to work, buddy.”

Mulkey also said “I’ve hired the best defamation law firm in the country, and I will sue the Washington Post if they publish a false story about me. Not many people are in a position to hold these kinds of journalists accountable, but I am, and I’ll do it.”

So, wait, Babb has been trying to interview Mulkey for two years? And she was given a dozen questions and two days to answer them?

Seems like instead of writing out a multipage response criticizing Babb and the Post, and going out and hiring a law firm, Mulkey could’ve answered those questions. And as far as the threats to sue, the Post has withstood threats to print stories about the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, so I’m guessing it’s not too concerned about a clownish coach from LSU.

By the way, maybe the Post owes Mulkey a thank you. Her defiant response before the story is even out has drawn massive attention to it.

A few media notes, tidbits and interesting links to start your week …

More resources for journalists

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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