Mar 26, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Ronna McDaniel outrage renews scrutiny of politics-to-pundit pipeline

Data: Axios research; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios
Data: Axios research; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

The furious response to NBC's hiring of former RNC chair Ronna McDaniel has triggered broader criticism of cable news' lucrative — and often controversial — alliance with former government and party flacks.

Why it matters: The politics-to-pundit pipeline is deeply ingrained in both conservative and liberal media.

  • Multiple networks scrambled to sign McDaniel when she left the RNC last month, despite her role in former President Trump's efforts to block certification of the 2020 election in Michigan.
  • NBC ultimately won and landed McDaniel on a $300,000 paid contributor deal. But it now faces an internal mutiny, with several of the network's top stars publicly condemning the signing.

What they're saying: Following similar criticisms from colleagues Chuck Todd, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and others, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow used her opening monologue Monday night to blast the McDaniel hiring as "inexplicable."

Zoom in: Dating back to 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, according to an Axios analysis.

  • 10 of the last 14 press secretaries, whose role tends to be more public-facing, have joined TV networks after leaving government.
  • That includes former White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who ruffled feathers when Axios reported she would be moving to MSNBC in April 2022.
  • Psaki defended her transition as ethical. But critics argued she shouldn't have been negotiating a paid deal while still in government.

The big picture: The White House has long served as a breeding ground for TV news talking heads, but the shift is happening faster and with less regard for formalities.

  • Former Clinton communications director George Stephanopoulos, who hosts ABC's "This Week," joined the network six months after leaving the White House in 1996.
  • Former George W. Bush communications director Nicolle Wallace, who today hosts a popular program on MSNBC, became a host on "The View" eight years after leaving the White House.

The intrigue: The Trump administration blurred lines between the worlds of cable news and politics to an unprecedented degree, with Fox News operating as a hotbed of advisers.

  • An astonishing 21 people have worked for both the Trump administration and Fox, according to Business Insider, including former communications directors Hope Hicks and Bill Shine.
  • Former Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and economics adviser Larry Kudlow earned jobs in the White House after impressing Trump on TV, and joined Fox almost immediately after Trump's term ended.

Between the lines: At the heart of the McDaniels-NBC controversy is the question of credibility, and whether partisans with a record of spinning — or outright lying — should be trusted as commentators.

  • "Is she speaking for herself or is she speaking on behalf of who's paying her?" NBC's Chuck Todd asked Sunday on "Meet the Press," where he accused McDaniel of years of "gaslighting" and "character assassination."
  • Former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart, who went on to become a CNN commentator, acknowledged he had to endure "a slow, painstaking process" of repairing his credibility after defending the president during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
  • Former Trump White House communications director Alyssa Farah Griffin has found success rehabilitating her image among liberals on CNN and "The View" by becoming a strident critic of her ex-boss.

The bottom line: At a time when trust in media has hit historic lows, news networks are making a calculated decision to rely on ex-politicos as part of their fight for relevance and ratings in a hyper-polarized world.

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