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Ronnaghazi & The Hunger Screams of Late-Stage Linear

ronna mcdaniel
The day-long McDaniel pile-on evidenced a larger truth about the NBC News Group operation, and especially MSNBC, in the Maddow-Scarborough era: the talent runs the place. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
March 27, 2024

Last Thursday, Cesar Conde, the thoughtful and manicured chairman of the NBC News Group, reached out to former Republican National Committee chair Ronna Romney McDaniel to welcome her to the NBC News family and congratulate her on her new role as a contributor—a role that, as I’ve reported, would not merely furnish her with a $300,000-a-year perch but, perhaps more importantly, also help facilitate her return to the D.C. establishment. McDaniel, of course, had imbibed the MAGA brain poison more than even some of Trump’s most loyal supplicants, and her fastidious election denialism and establishment eye-poking were always going to require complex re-entry choreography. 

Anyway, Conde told McDaniel that her voice and conservative bonafides would be pivotal to NBC’s coverage of this historic moment in American politics, a sentiment that network senior vice president Carrie Budoff Brown echoed in the formal announcement of her hire the next day. “It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team,” Budoff Brown wrote.

In the subsequent days, however, it became clear that many of Conde’s most visible employees had a different interpretation. On Sunday, following McDaniel’s inaugural appearance on Meet the Press, during which she inelegantly swore off her previous election-denialism as merely part of her job responsibility, host emeritus Chuck Todd opened fire on his bosses on air—a landmark TV moment that essentially prompted a Dead Poets Society-style desk-jumping cascade. Over the next day, his MSNBC colleagues followed suit, each in their own unique and theatrical fashion, in shit-posting their bosses and denigrating McDaniel, an unprecedented all-hands-on-deck mutiny that laid bare both their pride and their prejudice. By Monday night, when Rachel Maddow began contextualizing McDaniel’s hire in a lengthy history of American fascism, it was evident that the former R.N.C. chief would be forced to take her talents, such as they are, elsewhere. 

Indeed, the day-long pile-on evidenced a larger truth about the NBC News Group operation, and especially MSNBC, in the Maddow-Scarborough era: the talent runs the place. Their power is a testament to their own political influence and value to the brand, sure, but also to a convoluted organizational structure that Conde put in place over a year ago. A Wharton M.B.A. who once told top talent, “I don’t get into editorial,” Conde had never wanted to make tough programming calls. Instead, he tasked an ensemble of direct reports to lead siloed and misaligned fiefdoms, with no sole decisive leader to call the shots. (Such a figure, it goes without saying, would have inevitably threatened his own authority atop the network, too.) It worked well enough so long as nobody fucked up. But, of course, people fuck up. 

Still, no one on the NBC News leadership team anticipated the open rebellion that took place this week. In fact, bringing McDaniel to 30 Rock had been part of a nearly two-month-long effort that was spearheaded by Budoff Brown and her boss, NBC News President Rebecca Blumenstein, with buy-in from Conde and his deputies at both NBC News and MSNBC. Like many news executives navigating this hyperpartisan political era, Budoff Brown and Blumenstein had been eager to find semi-palatable conservative voices who could offer insight into the Trump campaign and widen the aperture of perspectives on election night panels and Sunday morning roundtables. They saw McDaniel as that voice and, over the course of the recruiting process, Conde and several of his deputies embraced that idea as well.

The Overture

In early February, days after McDaniel acceded to Trump’s desire that she step down as party chair, Budoff Brown reached out to McDaniel to gauge her interest in a contributor contract. Historically, outgoing national party committee chairs, like White House press secretaries and communications directors, have been obvious acquisition targets for news networks. McDaniel’s predecessors Reince Priebus and Michael Steele were already on the payroll at ABC and NBC, respectively, and Biden administration alumni Jen Psaki and Symone Sanders had found permanent homes at 30 Rock. 

Of course, none of the aforementioned pundits had baselessly sown doubt about the integrity of a U.S. presidential election. And yet, despite advancing Trump’s election denialism—while also attacking the news media on his behalf—McDaniel nevertheless was coveted by several news networks. Indeed, by the time Budoff Brown reached out, McDaniel had received interest from executives at ABC News and NewsNation; weeks later, she would also meet with CNN.

Meanwhile, Budoff Brown made clear in those early February overtures that there was strong interest in bringing McDaniel to NBC. And, as chance would have it, McDaniel was already scheduled to visit the NBC News bureau in Washington a few days later for an off-the-record meeting with Meet the Press moderator Kristen Welker. In light of the network’s new interest, Budoff Brown joined that meeting and, with Welker present, continued to pitch McDaniel on coming to NBC News as a contributor. (In a statement, an NBC News spokesperson said: “As Kristen disclosed to viewers on Sunday, she was in no way involved in [McDaniel’s] hiring, nor was involved in the decision-making process, and did not participate in conversations surrounding a contributor contract.”)

McDaniel didn’t take much convincing: She had established a bond with both Budoff Brown and Blumenstein while working on the network’s Republican primary debate in November, and McDaniel had been especially impressed with the network’s professionalism and debate production, as well as the overall power of the brand. McDaniel and Blumenstein also bonded over their shared love of Michigan, where McDaniel had once served as state party chair. (Blumenstein talks about Michigan a lot, it turns out.) As I reported last week, McDaniel saw a job with NBC News as the ideal post-R.N.C. perch, and an opportunity to work her way back into the political-media establishment’s good graces while also netting an income.

A few weeks later, in late February, Budoff Brown and Blumenstein invited McDaniel to dinner in New York to continue the talks. McDaniel still didn’t have an agent to discuss the finer points of a contract—salary, expenses, guarantees, etcetera—but the two executives pitched her on the broader advantages of a role at the network. At that point, the role they’d envisioned would be as a contributor specific to NBC News, where she would appear on election night panels, Meet the Press, and perhaps the NBC News digital properties. There was no discussion of putting McDaniel on the avowedly anti-Trump MSNBC, where she’d be unlikely to find quarter anyway. By this point, of course, even the insidery, establishment-friendly Scarborough crowd had embraced an avowedly anti-Trump posture—much to the delight of President Biden, an avid viewer. 

The next day, however, Budoff Brown reached out to McDaniel with a new development. Rashida Jones, the president of MSNBC, was very interested in having McDaniel appear as a contributor on her network, as well. Was that something that McDaniel would consider? McDaniel said she would. In the next few days, McDaniel hired Mark McGrath, an agent at CAA, who led the negotiations with NBC talent chief Jessica Kurdali. Because McDaniel’s contributions were now poised to extend to MSNBC, her offer increased from the original offer to more than $300,000 a year for two years. In mid-March, McDaniel formally accepted NBC’s offer, and informed ABC News, CNN, et al., that she was no longer a free agent. She then began preparing for her March 24 debut on Meet the Press, an interview that had been scheduled before McDaniel even joined the network.

The Maddow Rebellion

On Thursday, the same day that Conde reached out to congratulate McDaniel, Welker was informed that her upcoming interview with the former R.N.C. chair, three days hence, would now be an interview with her network’s newest contributor. A loyal company woman, Welker accepted the news even as she privately chafed at yet another management decision that left her vulnerable—not unlike an earlier decision, pushed by Conde, to book Trump for her inaugural episode of Meet the Press. (Welker’s original plan for that first outing was a dual booking with then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, which would have played more to the core audience.) In a disclaimer before the McDaniel interview, Welker stressed that she “was not involved in her hiring,” a true-enough claim that nevertheless belied her awareness of the network’s interest in McDaniel dating back to February.

Todd, a Russert-acolyte and ranking member of the D.C. media establishment, had fewer fucks to give. He was already disenchanted with the existing leadership regime that had unseated him from the Meet the Press chair he spent a lifetime coveting, and he also chafed at certain programming decisions—the Trump interview, etcetera—that he felt undermined both Welker and the integrity of the MTP brand. In retrospect, anyone who knew Todd probably should have anticipated this on-air cri de coeur. In any event, Todd was speaking for the vast majority of the entire NBC News Group enterprise, down to the assistants and the makeup artists. (Truly, not since the termination of Chris Licht at CNN has there been such overwhelming unanimity amongst the disparate faces of a news organization…) 

In any event, Todd’s kamikaze mission opened the floodgates, unnerving Conde and the NBC News leadership, who seemed to anticipate the impending insurgency and frantically tried to pre-empt it. On Sunday, Budoff Brown reached out to McDaniel’s aide and former chief of staff at the R.N.C., Richard Walters, to see if there were any friends or colleagues who could speak up on her behalf. The two sides also discussed having these folks call attention to what they saw as a double standard—after all, this was the same network that was turning Psaki, a former Biden White House Press Secretary, into a Maddow-adjacent prime time star. Walters later assured Budoff Brown that they’d been able to advance conservative pushback on social media against Todd, specifically, and that this might give NBC News some cover, for which Budoff Brown thanked him. 

“After the show, I had a conversation with Richard Walters and asked if [McDaniel] had supporters who could speak on behalf of her being an NBC News contributor,” Budoff Brown said in a statement. “I never discussed what to say, how to say it, or who to focus on.”

Meanwhile, Rashida Jones had also been hearing internal protest from MSNBC staff that seemed to presage Monday’s marathon mutiny. Over the weekend, Jones sought to change the narrative about her own role in McDaniel’s recruitment, telling anchors and executive producers that they retained full control of their shows and were under no obligation to put McDaniel on the air—a directive that conveniently leaked to the Wall Street Journal, and that seemed to negate the terms of the company’s employment offer. In her monologue on Monday, Maddow put Jones on blast for not initially objecting to McDaniel’s hire, even as she commended her for acquiescing to the protests of her staff. She didn’t mention that Jones had done more than simply tolerate McDaniel’s hire; she’d actively lobbied to ensure a place for McDaniel on MSNBC. 

Civil War

On Monday, after the Scarborough crowd opened the 6 a.m. hour with their own admonishment of the McDaniel hire, it became clear that the next 18 hours were going to be devastating for NBC. Early in the afternoon, I was notified that Nicolle Wallace and others intended to speak out that night, and that it was going to be an onslaught. (Wallace, a former Bush II aide, also used MSNBC to outrun some political baggage…) Around that time, Stephen Labaton, the executive vice president of communications for NBC News, and the top P.R. aide to Conde, reached out to McDaniel directly to try to reassure her that Psaki and other former political officials had faced scrutiny when they’d joined NBC, and that it might blow over. According to a source familiar with the discussion, he also told McDaniel that the MSNBC hosts were being “fucking insane.” 

In a statement, Labaton told me: “Ronna and I spoke for six minutes on Monday after she indicated she was drafting some kind of statement. I never criticized anyone at MSNBC during that brief conversation. Your account of the conversation is coming from someone who was dropped by the network yesterday.”

Both Labaton and Budoff Brown’s efforts to quell the uprising seemed to emphasize a blind spot. Yes, the green rooms of television news are stuffed with former party chairs, press secretaries, and spokespeople. Indeed, an Axios analysis this week noted that, since 2000, “more than half (16 of 31) of White House press secretaries and communications directors have gone on to become paid contributors, commentators or hosts on news programs.” But as American politics has grown more fractured, these hires have become more problematic. In the Trump era, the most controversial hire was CNN’s appointment of Trump 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a paid contributor. Of course, for all his myriad sins, Lewandowski had never participated in an effort to undermine or overthrow an election and then lied about it. The NBC News leadership seemed to overlook that distinction, and how much it would offend the anchors and correspondents who had bought into the “Lean Forward” and “This is Who We Are” mantras.

Politics aside, Conde, Budoff Brown & Company may have also overestimated McDaniel’s ability to deliver added value for the political roundtable. Historically, news networks have hired former political officials as analysts because they bring unique insight and expertise—or, at the very least, they’re good on television. A sycophantic former R.N.C. chair who nevertheless failed Trump’s loyalty test and was thus ostracized, McDaniel’s insight into his campaign or the machinations of the R.N.C. was perhaps more limited than NBC thought. Moreover, as the Meet the Press interview showed, she wasn’t particularly great on TV. As one former Republican official who achieved great success in the television business said of McDaniel, “she’s not entertaining and she’s not an expert, so what’s the point?”

Cesar’s Palace

After MSNBC’s day-long flagellation festival, Conde and his direct reports convened at 8 a.m. on Tuesday to discuss next steps. By that point, it was clear to many people in the room that the network would almost certainly need to sever its ties with McDaniel. Nevertheless, leadership took most of the day to deliberate over the issue while telegraphing to McDaniel’s agent at CAA that no decision had been rendered. Around midday, I broke the news that NBC News intended to drop McDaniel as a contributor. Around that time, CAA also dropped McDaniel as a client. (Coincidentally, befitting the conflict-prone nature of this business, CAA also represents Budoff Brown.) 

At this point, McDaniel began to pursue legal representation—both to deal with NBC, and in the event that she wanted to sue the organization for defamation, now that her ostensible colleagues had raked her over the coals. McDaniel intends to seek a full $600,000 payout, and may pursue defamation charges. She has identified Bryan Freedman, the famed litigator to defenestrated television stars, as her preferred lawyer, but can’t hire him until she is formally terminated from the network. NBC News leadership did not communicate directly with McDaniel on Tuesday (and, as of this writing on Wednesday evening, has still not communicated with her).

Finally, at 6 p.m. on Tuesday night, roughly five hours after news of McDaniel’s impending termination broke, Conde sent a memo to staff: “Hey all,” it began. “There is no doubt that the last several days have been difficult for the News Group. After listening to the legitimate concerns of many of you, I have decided that Ronna McDaniel will not be an NBC News contributor. No organization, particularly a newsroom, can succeed unless it is cohesive and aligned. Over the last few days, it has become clear that this appointment undermines that goal.”

For Conde, the entire episode was undoubtedly a nightmare, a rare black mark for an otherwise extraordinarily accomplished and risk-averse corporate climber who, as everyone in New York media and Miami power circles knows, harbors professional and possibly political ambitions well beyond his current corner office. A Bush-era White House Fellow who sits on the boards of Pepsi and Walmart, and is well connected in the Florida political scene, Conde has left no one with any illusions that he sees NBC News as the final station on his long climb up the greasy pole. He still spends much of his time in Miami and on the power-player circuit (most recently in Washington, to watch Jeff Bezos and Lauren Sánchez present their annual Courage and Civility award to Eva Longoria). Indeed, many at NBC News speculate that part of the reason it took his team so long to craft the McDaniel statement was because he wanted to ensure that it telegraphed leadership while simultaneously minimizing his exposure. “No one in news manages their rep as carefully and conservatively,” one veteran media executive said of Conde. “For a human being who never breaks a sweat or has a wrinkle in his starched shirts, this situation is totally, completely and deeply shattering.”

In the end, Conde issued a mea culpa in which he simultaneously accepted responsibility while shifting the blame: “While this was a collective recommendation by some members of our leadership team,” he wrote, “I approved it and take full responsibility for it.” There’s an important distinction in there, the kind one learns after a lifetime of carefully calculated self-preservation. As one media executive noted, “when you’re responsible, you keep your job. When you’re to blame, you lose it.” 

In any case, the whole McDaniel affair has highlighted a deeper anxiety at 30 Rock about Conde’s leadership. It was a reminder that the storied news company, the house of Brinkley and Brokaw and Russert, while still populated with headstrong journalists and partisan warriors who believe in their power to change the world, is still ultimately run by a corporate steward and political operator who prioritizes financial pragmatism over nostalgia and eschews the tough editorial decisions that his predecessors embraced. And sure, the news business is desperately in need of a little pragmatism these days, but it’s also wanting for leadership.

“There are a lot of people who have been keeping their powder dry on Cesar,” one NBC News journalist told me. “We know the business model is broken, we know we need to be more efficient … and I think Cesar is a good corporate steward.” Still, this journalist added, “executives need a moment where they fight for the team. And Cesar never had that moment.”

“He has no relationships with the news division,” the journalist later added. “Never really has tried.”

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