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NBC News and Ronna McDaniel: What’s the Fallout for Cesar Conde? | Analysis

It’s been a tough week for NBCUniversal News Group chairman Cesar Conde, whose meteoric rise to run the legendary news brand after a career at Telemundo and Univision has hit a major speed bump: the revolt of his on-air talent over the hiring of former RNC chair Ronna McDaniel.

The fiasco — involving on-air scoldings from marquee anchor Rachel Maddow and veteran Chuck Todd before a reversal of the decision — marks a major blunder for Conde, who has only been in his current role for four years, and who has been lauded as the first Hispanic to lead a major English-language television news organization.

“Everyone is talking about what this means for Cesar and what will happen to him after this fiasco,” a prominent executive who is close to the network’s news talent told TheWrap.

The lack of support from Conde’s team left him isolated as three days of unprecedented criticism came at the network. In addition to the on-air talent, MSNBC president Rashida Jones, who reports to Conde, was quick to distance herself from the decision to hire McDaniel. The news staff — along with a chorus of media veterans not at the network — said McDaniel was disqualified from serving as a commentator not because she’s a pro-Trump  conservative but because of her well-documented role in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The trust between the news network’s star talent and Conde, who is a relative newcomer to the rough and tumble world of the New York-Washington, D.C. media landscape, also seems to have been damaged by the debacle.

“There is some sense of achievement among the staff that the decision was reversed, but [there are] a lot of questions about how the decision came to be in the first place and who was in on it,” one network insider told TheWrap.

Conde joined NBCUniversal as EVP of NBCU International Group and Telemundo Enterprises in 2013. Prior to NBC, he served as a White House Fellow for Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2003 and would work as the chief strategy officer and president of Univision between 2003 and 2009.

In 2008, Conde donated $5,000 to the Univision Communications PAC, which spent $122,500 on Democrat candidates and $12,000 on Republicans during that election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.

In 2020, Conde was elevated to NBCUniversal News Group chairman — beating out heir apparent Noah Oppeinheim — and proceeded to expand his oversight to include NBCUniversal Local and NBCU Telemundo Enterprises Group following the ouster of former NBCU CEO Jeff Shell and subsequent restructuring under Comcast president Mike Cavanagh.

Unlike Oppenheim, Conde was a newcomer to the clubby world of New York-based media.

Under Conde’s leadership, the network has invested heavily into NBC News’ streaming service, which the network says is the fastest-growing streaming news network in the country.

But one veteran journalist who knows the company well said that “NBC doesn’t have any strong, visionary news people at the helm.” Despite the troika of NBC News President Rebecca Blumenstein, Carrie Budoff Brown who is SVP, Politics and MSNBC chief Jones, “there isn’t a strong person running things.”

NBC News NOW has seen four consecutive years of record growth, with three of its best quarters ever in 2023. Every hour saw year-over-year growth in 2023, making it the strongest year on record for the platform. The 24/7 streaming service currently produces 12+ hours of live content every day. NBCNews.com also had a good year in 2023, ranking ahead of NYTimes.com in the latter half of the year.

While Fox News continues to dominate cable news ratings, MSNBC saw double digital growth in total day and primetime figures for February. In primetime, the network averaged 1.35 million viewers, a 15% increase year-over-year. MSNBC also saw 852,000 total day viewers in February, up 20% from the same period a year prior.

“People don’t know Cesar. He came in during COVID and most staff couldn’t identify him in a photo array,” the network insider noted. “That said, you can’t be too disappointed in something you never thought made sense.”

It was only last Friday that NBC announced McDaniel had joined the network as an on air-contributor to offer an “insider’s perspective on national politics and on the future of the Republican Party.”

The on-air blowback to the initial decision to hire McDaniel was kicked off by NBC News’ Chuck Todd after the RNC chair’s interview on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” though the majority of the live protesting happened on MSNBC’s airwaves. An unprecedented number of journalists dedicated segments to the controversial hiring, including Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, Jen Psaki, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.

Jones reassured her audience that MSNBC would not have McDaniel on the cable network.

By Tuesday, Conde caved to the extraordinary pressure and took responsibility for a decision that his talent said tarnished the network’s credibility.

“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,” Conde wrote in a memo to staff. “I want to personally apologize to our team members who felt we let them down. While this was a collective recommendation by some members of our leadership team, I approved it and take full responsibility for it.”

He emphasized that the initial decision was made due to the network’s “deep commitment to presenting our audiences with a widely diverse set of viewpoints and experiences, particularly during these consequential times.”

“We continue to be committed to the principle that we must have diverse viewpoints on our programs, and to that end, we will redouble our efforts to seek voices that represent different parts of the political spectrum,” he added.

Conde received initial praise from anchors on MSNBC following the reversal.

“I am grateful to Cesar,” Joy Reid during a segment with Rachel Maddow who described the reversal as a “show of strength” from management for their willingness to take their staffers’ objections into account.

But it’s unclear whether there’s any additional fallout to come for Conde or if the situation will ultimately hinder NBC’s efforts to bring conservative viewpoints on the network.

“Cesar Conde probably did what he had to do in quickly firing Ronna McDaniel, given the open revolt of so many of the network’s top personalities,” PR expert Nick Kalm told TheWrap. “But, it’s also clear he should have more carefully considered the implications of hiring her in the first place. At the same time, the network is now going to have a challenge in getting Republicans to appear, participate in debates and more. And that will have the impact of painting the network with an intolerant, left-leaning bias that will be difficult to overcome.”

A representative for Comcast declined to comment for this story, as did NBC News.

Emily Smith contributed to this report

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