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At NBC and MSNBC, questions swirl over the Ronna McDaniel hire

MEET THE PRESS -- Pictured: Ronna McDaniel, Former Republican National Committee Chair, appears on "Meet the Press" in Washington D.C., Sunday March 24, 2024. -- (Photo by: William B. Plowman/NBC via Getty Images)

Two days after NBC News’s decision to reverse its hiring of former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, network staffers were coming to terms with the controversy - and placing bets on where the blame may lay.

“There’s no clear internal consensus on who people are more mad at,” one employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, said Thursday.

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The announcement of McDaniel’s hiring as a paid contributor last week drew an immediate backlash from news staffers - most loudly at one of the network’s cable affiliates, MSNBC, whose star hosts took turns publicly blasting the decision on their live shows Monday, objecting to McDaniel’s support of schemes to promote alternate electors to overturn the results of the 2020 election and Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

Even before the staffers’ extraordinary show of dissent, MSNBC President Rashida Jones privately let them know that none would be required to book her.

Yet according to people familiar with the matter, Jones participated in recruiting McDaniel, who was offered a more lucrative contributor contract after she agreed to make appearances on MSNBC and not just NBC News.

As The Washington Post reported Wednesday night, Jones had a one-on-one video call with McDaniel in early March after an executive at NBC News orchestrated the contact, according to the people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal talks.

McDaniel had expressed concern that she would face particularly harsh interviews on MSNBC and that its liberal-leaning viewers would not respond to her positively, according to people with knowledge of her concerns. Her original preference was just to appear on NBC News, they said, and early talks with the network had centered on NBC appearances.

But after the friendly call between Jones and McDaniel - in which they spoke about American politics, their young children and the need to have differing views on the airwaves - McDaniel felt heartened, people close to her said.

She agreed to appear on both networks after a number of informal discussions and the offer of a contract that reflected the time she would spend at MSNBC as well, they said.

A person familiar with the hiring process for television contributors laid out the standard process: “They raise someone and they say, ‘Everyone okay with this? This is what we’re thinking, she has an offer for this amount and they all say, ‘Sure.’”

While employees said Thursday that they were bewildered by the chain of events, some said they still see NBC News executive Carrie Budoff Brown - who announced the McDaniel hiring in a memo on Friday - and Rebecca Blumenstein, the network’s president, as primarily responsible for the decision.

Both are relatively new to the world of television - Blumenstein served in high-level roles at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times before joining NBC in 2023, and Budoff Brown was the editor in chief of Politico before she came to NBC News in 2021.

The incident also casts a shadow on the leadership of Cesar Conde, a veteran media executive who took oversight of NBC News, MSNBC and CNBC in 2020 after running the Spanish-language channel Telemundo.

McDaniel’s relationship with the top executives began in the fall, according to people familiar with what took place, when NBC was determined to secure a GOP primary debate and the RNC was eager to give at least one debate to a nonconservative news outlet in a bid to broaden the Republican Party’s outreach.

After Trump began talking about removing McDaniel as RNC chairwoman earlier this year, she spoke with several networks about a contract but gravitated toward NBC based on her relationships with top NBC executives, these people said. There were multiple conversations and in-person meetings, including a dinner in New York one week before she left the RNC.

The furious backlash made clear the influence of MSNBC’s biggest stars. While it was an NBC executive who announced the hiring, it was liberal-leaning MSNBC’s talent - following the lead of Chuck Todd, who sharply criticized the hiring decision on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday - who made the arrangement untenable, adding a new wrinkle to the complicated but symbiotic relationship between the sibling networks.

In one early salvo on MSNBC on Monday morning, “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski emphasized that she and her colleagues “believe NBC News should seek out conservative Republican voices to provide balance in their election coverage.” But she rejected McDaniel’s suitability for the role, calling her “a person who used her position of power to be an anti-democracy election denier.”

When McDaniel wanted to issue a statement after the “Morning Joe” commentary, NBC dissuaded her from doing so, according to a person familiar with the matter. The statement would have been benign and said she was looking forward to sharing her perspective on air.

As the chorus of voices grew, NBC News reached out to McDaniel and her team to offer apologies, a person familiar with the matter said. Executives signaled to McDaniel that they would stand by her and that the furor would blow over.

Instead, McDaniel learned from her agent on Monday that NBC was likely to cut ties. Conde announced the following evening that he was reversing course on the plans to hire her.

McDaniel is preparing to sue the network and has been in discussions with lawyers. She told others that she expects to be paid for her two-year contract. She has expressed dismay to allies that she was treated shabbily by the network after it heavily recruited her, according to people who have spoken to her, particularly by executives who personally wooed her.

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