John Rash
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NBC News has become news itself after its quick enlistment and even quicker dismissal of former Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.

Apparently network brass thought adding McDaniel was a hiring coup. But the coup came on-air from Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow, Mika Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough and others who took to the airwaves to air their thoughts. Most said that while they welcomed a conservative voice, they objected to the forked tongue of the former RNC chair who was complicit in former President Donald Trump's "Big Lie" that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election.

That claim is false, of course — as court cases, a congressional investigation and now McDaniel herself have attested. She admitted on NBC that President Joe Biden won "fair and square." When "you're the RNC chair — you kind of take one for the whole team," she said on "Meet the Press."

"Team" was also a term of art for Cesar Conde, chairman of the NBCUniversal News Group, who wrote in a staff email that, "I want to personally apologize to our team members who felt we let them down."

Tellingly, neither McDaniel's nor Conde's condescending statements recognized the American people they purport to serve as the "team." In McDaniel's case the team was a political party — which is increasingly a party of one: Trump. In Conde's case the team was made up broadcast journalists whose mission should be to seek and unflinchingly report the truth. McDaniel's hiring was antithetical to that calling.

The political media industrial complex has long seen operatives opt for TV. Indeed, the dynamic dates back decades and included JFK's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, becoming a foreign correspondent for ABC, former Senate staffer Tim Russert becoming the longtime host of "Meet the Press," with scores more before, between and since. Those hired as pundits were by design partisan, but none had so egregiously and aggressively lied like McDaniel.

What made McDaniel's case more challenging "is the current highly polarized, highly charged political environment, which has made the stakes here feel much more contentious," said Benjamin Toff, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Toff, who's also on the faculty of the U's Center for the Study of Political Psychology, added that there's the "question of whether certain figures in the Republican Party kind of crossed the line in terms of normal politics from what is acceptable democratic disagreement vs. what is support for insurrection or other things that I think many perceive as being beyond the scope of normal political life."

The events leading up to and after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — the citadel and symbol of American democracy — were beyond the scope of normal political life, and McDaniel's involvement in Trump's mendacity made her tenure untenable, a fact that Conde and company completely misread.

That's damaging not only for the network but also for the nation. Especially since it seems set to sharpen the partisan divides defining much of American life, which not only affects those politically engaged but those who aren't.

In fact, the funneling of pundits to broadcast and cable news networks, Toff said, "largely caters to the most partisan audiences and is contributing not only to a kind of hardening of views on the right and the left, but also more and more of the public feeling like throwing up their hands and wanting nothing more to do with it and disengaging from news altogether."

Disengagement's systemic effects can be extensive, Toff said. Individuals "find it harder to engage in political life, and so they're less likely to vote, they're less likely to feel like they know how to connect to things that they care about, to the ongoing political debates in their communities." Conversely, added Toff, disengagement by some "incentivizes both those news organizations, but also our political leaders, to pay more and more of their attention to that highly engaged, highly partisan audience."

This highly engaged, highly partisan audience is due in part to the political media "revolving door," said Prof. Shanto Iyengar, director of Stanford University's Political Communication Laboratory. "The increasing use of political operatives as media personalities has contributed to polarization," Iyengar said. The revolving door really got spinning, he added, with "the emergence of cable news" and "the need for talking heads." This was a newer form of journalism than generations ago, when it was "descriptive, in which candidates got to talk on the campaign trail and the sound bites were like two or three minutes whereas now it's 10 seconds and the pundits' voices have replaced the voices of the candidates. So, all that has deepened cynicism about the news media and news in general."

This cynicism can be amplified by pundits freed from the restraints of their prior roles, said Tim Lindberg, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota Morris. "In this polarized atmosphere, that can lead to not only people saying things or doing things that are outrageous comparatively to past years, but even outrageous compared to the sort of new normal, which is much more extreme than it used to be. So that cycle gets exacerbated because of the revolving door and the incentive to almost become more extreme."

Why, Lindberg rhetorically asked, "are the most extremist talking heads the ones everybody turns to on both sides, instead of sort of a neutral focus on the facts? What is driving that?" Unless or until, he added, "we can figure out a way to pull ourselves back to more of establishing some sort of baseline, that we can all agree this is the reality with what's happening in the world and now we can fight over policy within that reality" there is "really no way for us to limit the extremism. And so I think that part of it is just realizing that maybe news as a form of entertainment media is part of the core problem."

That problem may get more financially and journalistically expensive for NBC, which will need to pay McDaniel for far more than a week's worth of work and may face coverage restrictions from the GOP at this summer's Republican National Convention in Milwaukee — all at a time when news budgets for nearly every entity in every media form are under strain. That would make this the right time for broadcast and cable news networks to pivot away from well-heeled pundits toward shoe-leather reporters, a move that might elevate not only journalism but even democracy itself.