TV Talkers From Pat McAfee to Rachel Maddow Gain New License to Blast Bosses On-Air

One of the benefits of hosting any sort of news or discussion program on TV is an authorization to talk. Now some TV journalists and personalities are also being given permission to bite.

NBCUniversal needs to get out the proverbial Bactine after being savaged earlier this week by many of its top news personalities over the hire made by NBC News executives of former Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel. McDaniel was, until Wednesday, to have been a prominent political-news analyst weighing in on topics as the 2024 presidential election drew close. But the prospect of paying someone who had openly tried to help former President Donald Trump discredit the results of the 2020 election raised the internal alarms of many NBC News anchors and many of them — including Joe Scarborough, Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow and Nicolle Wallace — took significant time on Monday to push back against the decision, with Maddow spending half an hour on her Monday-night primetime MSNBC program to liken McDaniel’s entrance at NBCUniversal to the propping up of would-be fascist usurpers of the U.S. government.

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Their outrage was not unwarranted, but the visual image of a parade of top hosts lambasting a corporation via the very TV apparatus it owns was, well, unique.

It may not be so any longer.

ESPN recently grappled with similar issues. Pat McAfee, the outspoken former football player whose show has been licensed for afternoon play by the Disney sports giant, in January expressed his dissatisfaction with Norby Williamson, an influential ESPN executive who manages many studio shows and tries to keep a tight rein on them, accusing him of working to sabotage his show in talks to media outlets. ESPN, which in the past has suspended anchors and personalities for everything from talking politics to criticizing its coronavirus vaccination policy on an outside podcast, has so far left McAfee alone, vowing to fix any strained relationships behind the scenes. And Maddow walked similar terrain not too long ago, pushing back on NBC News in 2019 for its handling of Ronan Farrow’s reporting on disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Now that such stuff is surfacing on screen, keeping it off entirely may become difficult. “There’s almost an incentive to keep doing it, because it worked,” says Ben Bogardus, interim associate dean of the School of Communications and associate professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University. “The anchors are deciding to stand up for themselves” on air rather than having an internal debate with executives, he adds — which carries a lot of weight with their audience. “Ultimately, viewers see them as the face of the news, and not their anonymous bosses.”

The new anchor autonomy is on display as younger journalism aficionados sample a growing array of less-formal information sources. Chatty newsletters, lengthy Substacks and clever Tik Tok videos and Instagram stories rely more heavily on personality and emotion than do their TV and old-school print counterparts. And TV is trying to catch up. Jackets, ties and makeup are no longer de rigueur on mainstream screens after the coronavirus pandemic pushed news outlets to rely more heavily on guests beamed into the studio via Skype or similar video services.

More adults are getting news from less varnished sources. Eighty-six percent of U.S. adults often or sometimes get news from a smartphone, computer or tablet, according to Pew Research Center, including 56% who say they do so often. In 2022, 49% said they often got news from digital devices. Pew says the portion of respondents who receive news from digital devices “continues to outpace those who get news from television.”

Journalists at NBC News and MSNBC had reason to protest McDaniel’s hire. She remains a figure of journalistic interest, given her comments about the integrity of the 2020 election, and having her on as a paid employee during campaign coverage without questioning her on her past would be difficult for NBC News luminaries such as Lester Holt or Savannah Guthrie. Now that MSNBC personalities were given some leeway to inveigh against the decision in such overt fashion, will others crave similar opportunities?

Imagine if CNN environment correspondent Bill Weir took to “CNN Newsroom” to vent about how much time the Warner Bros. Discovery outlet devotes to covering the effects of climate change. Might Norah O’Donnell decide to complain to viewers of “CBS Evening News” about the amount of promo time the network accords her program each week? What if one news personality wants to take issue with the actions or work of a network colleague?

Such stuff can be off putting. In 2020, CNBC die-hards could sometimes count on seeing familiar faces such as Joe Kernen, Rick Santelli or Andrew Ross Sorkin bickering over the red-versus-blue divide. In 2019, Fox News Channel mainstay Shepard Smith decided to leave the network he had called home for more than two decades after opinion hosts including Tucker Carlson began to poke at him on air.

In the past, acts perceived as being tantamount to even mild rebellion were punished — and quickly. Josh Elliott, the former “Good Morning America” team member who arrived at CBS News after a stint at NBC Sports, gained traction as an anchor of the Paramount Global division’s new streaming effort, then called CBSN. But he let slip one day in 2017 that he was being promoted to work from some of CBS News linear properties, without getting go-ahead to do so from executives. Instead of being shown a new desk, the anchor was shown the door. Brooke Baldwin’s decision in 2020 to post on Instagram that her afternoon CNN program had been trimmed in favor of campaign coverage and that the decision was “not my choice” was said to have enraged top executives at the outlet. She left CNN in 2021 despite gaining popularity with audiences.

Most conversation about corporate matters by newscasters is tightly vetted and scripted. MSNBC President Rashida Jones was well aware of what the network’s various anchors planned to do on Monday, according to people familiar with the matter. Other awkward news moments over the years have also been monitored, including Chris Matthews’ awkward on-screen farewell in 2020 after he became embroiled in claims about behind-the-scenes behavior and pushback about the language he used on air. The anchor, an MSNBC mainstay, was given just two minutes to say goodbye to viewers before Steve Kornacki took the reins for the remainder of the hour.

It’s when things veer off plan that trouble starts to happen. Ann Curry’s emotional departure from NBC’s “Today” in 2012 upset viewers so much that the show began to lose in its never-ending ratings battle with ABC rival “Good Morning America.”

Indeed, an unscripted moment sparked this week’s bout of on-air hand-wringing. Chuck Todd on Sunday first raised alarms about NBC News’ hire of McDaniel when he appeared on “Meet The Press.” “There’s a reason why there’s a lot of journalists at NBC News uncomfortable with this, because many of our professional dealings over the past six years have been met with gaslighting, have been met with character assassination,” he told host Kristen Welker, also adding: “Our bosses owe you an apology for putting you in this situation.”

Todd’s comments were not expected by producers or executives, according to five people familiar with the matter, with one characterizing his remarks as “off the cuff.” But they sparked a real-time video insurrection, with prominent anchors impugning McDaniel as an analyst, which only made the prospect of booking her on various NBC News and MSNBC programs increasingly problematic.

Such antics will not help news organizations in the long run, says Bogardus. “Your big anchors, your big names delivering the news and commentary, they are the stars, not the story they are covering,” he says. A better journalism endeavor would have “personalities taking a back seat to the news they are delivering,” he adds. In the end, “I don’t think that comes across well on television.”

News personalities and commentators have won new levels of autonomy in recent months, when “creators” are starting to dominate the economics of content, particularly in the digital realm. When it comes to dirty laundry, however, it may best be left in wardrobe.

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