Ronna McDaniel vs. me

On being a freelance columnist (and that viral email)

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Telling someone they’re incorrigible is supposed to be an insult, but I’ve started saying it to myself as a compliment. I went from being a relatively shy kid, to an adult who simply cannot shut up when something’s on my mind—and the last few days have been no exception.

On Friday morning we learned that NBC News had hired Ronna McDaniel, former Chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, for a cool $300,000 per year on-air personality gig. The New York Times reported that in addition, McDaniel was “expected to provide commentary on MSNBC.” As soon as I heard the news, I began processing it on dual tracks: As an Columnist, and as an American really fucking worried about this country. 

A memo sent to staff Friday by NBC News Senior Vice President of Politics Carrie Budoff Brown regarding McDaniel’s hiring said: “It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team…As we gear up for the longest general election season in recent memory, she will support our leading coverage by providing an insider’s perspective on national politics and on the future of the Republican Party — which she led through some of the most turbulent and challenging moments in political history.”

Instead of explaining what was going through my head, I’ll just share the email I sent to Brown and then posted on social media.

Hi Carrie-

I'm an Columnist and have appeared on multiple shows across the network. I'm reaching out regarding the hiring of Ronna McDaniel as an NBC News and MSNBC on-air contributor. 

As RNC Chairwoman, McDaniel was quite literally on a phone call with former President Trump when he pressured two local Michigan officials not to sign the certification of the 2020 presidential election. McDaniel told the officials, "If you can go home tonight and do not sign it… We will get you attorneys.” She also called for an erroneous investigation into another Michigan county's voting procedures which was so riddled with false claims, the Michigan Department of State issued a statement saying her claims had "no merit."

In your memo announcing McDaniel's hiring, you wrote: “It couldn’t be a more important moment to have a voice like Ronna’s on the team." As a fellow voice on the team—albeirt one far less known, far less powerful, and likely far less compensated—I want to understand what kind of message this is supposed to send to us? As columnists we are held to strict standards of factuality and truth, and are expected to have a fundamental understanding of our democracy. McDaniel has proven time and again she adheres to none of those values, and lacks that very basic understanding.

I hope you'll reconsider this move. As we approach the 2024 election, it has never been more important for viewers and readers to have trust in their news outlets. Rehabilitating the reputation of an enabler of a government coup will completely undermine that trust.

The email swiftly gained traction, and before I knew it, I was being quoted in POLITICO and Vanity Fair, and the original Luke Skywalker was thanking me for speaking out.

It’s been interesting watching the responses roll in across social media, with many assuming I’m an MSNBC staffer. If that was the case, the responses have indicated, I exhibited an enormous level of bravery in so publicly calling out my employer. 

But the reality is, I’m just a freelancer. I’ve been contributing to the website as a columnist since 2022, and get paid per story. The bunch of times I’ve appeared on TV were unpaid. Not only did I not get Ronna McDaniel money, I didn’t get any money. I hold absolutely no animosity about that fact, and was thrilled to do it, but figured it was worth sharing in the name of perspective. 

Some have wondered why I was one of the only ones speaking out in the immediate wake of the news, and this is why: there was no W2, or 401k, or performance review holding me back. I had comparatively little to lose by sharing my scathing (but fair, I think) critique of McDaniel’s hiring. The “free” in freelance means freedom from oversight, but it also means freedom from privileges like health insurance and paid time off. You can’t get fired from a job you don’t have. 

This viral moment, if you want to call it that, has earned me a whopping six new paid subscribers to this newsletter. And while I’ve been quoted in popular media outlets, none of them have asked me to write anything about it. For the most part, the attention economy doesn’t pay the bills.

McDaniel, on the other hand, started earning her paycheck straight away with an appearance on Meet the Press Sunday morning. She defended her election interference, refused to say Joe Biden won the election fair and square, and dismissed every opportunity host Kristen Welker gave her to show any sort of contrition or convince anyone to trust her. It was an abysmal failure. 

Then in the following round table segment, Welker’s colleague and former host of MTP Chuck Todd did something uncharacteristically rogue. 

“Let me deal with the elephant in the room. I think our bosses owe you an apology for putting you in this situation,” Todd said to Welker. “Look, there’s a reason why there’s a lot of journalists at NBC News uncomfortable with this because many of our professional dealings with the RNC over the six years have been met with gaslighting, have been met with character assassination.”

While Todd himself has had his fair share of journalistic missteps in the past, this wasn’t one of them. He was absolutely right—and he was right to say it. Despite a Wall Street Journal report Saturday night saying that MSNBC president Rashida Jones (no relation to Anne Perkins) “has no plans to have McDaniel on the channel,” there’s still no confirmation from the network about what she’ll actually be doing. The Times hasn’t updated its original story to reflect this report.

Regardless of whether McDaniel stays or goes, this whole episode is a dark reflection on the state of news. MSNBC hosts and guests spend many minutes—if not hours—each day talking about the innumerable dangers of a potential second Trump presidency. The way to stop a wannabe despot is by neutralizing his levers of power; it is not by promoting one of his henchwomen to a prestigious platform for spouting propaganda.

One thing real quick: My recent piece about Jonathan Glazer got a shout-out in Jamelle Bouie’s New York Times newsletter this weekend and I freaked out just a little bit. Bouie is one of the best opinion writers in the game, and I’ve respected his work for a long time. Definitely a pinch me moment.

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