Seeking Balance, Tripping Up

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The news that NBC had hired and then abruptly cut ties with the former Republican Party chair Ronna McDaniel this week may feel like a flashback for TV insiders and viewers.

Once again, a major news network is on the defensive over an attempt to balance out its ranks of talking heads — a mainstay of the genre — with a pro-Trump surrogate whose qualifications for the role appeared to run counter to the basic tenets of journalism.

McDaniel, after all, had been a prominent exponent of the false notion that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. As my colleague Alexandra Berzon and I reported yesterday, McDaniel was also at times involved in Trump’s attempts to stave off the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.

While the crackup may seem as if it was inevitable in retrospect, it was also reflective of a hallmark of the Trump era: After two impeachments, a Capitol riot and numerous criminal indictments, the question of how to cover Trump is no closer to being solved.

In case you are also afflicted with the collective amnesia afflicting so many Americans, let’s rewind to 2016, not too many months after Trump descended his shiny escalator to announce his presidential run. CNN took similar heat when it hired pro-Trump figures like his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and the say-anything Trump defender Jeffrey Lord.

“I think it’s really important to have voices on CNN who are supportive of the Republican nominee,” Jeff Zucker, then the CNN president, said at the time in the face of an open staff revolt.

NBC executives made nearly the same case this time around.

One senior executive at the network, who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity, said the network was seeking voices who could reflect the views of the 2024 Trump movement.

The NBC executive argued that the network had a joint business and journalistic imperative to have contributions from people like McDaniel, who are more aligned with the tens of millions of current-day Trump voters. (It’s also worth noting that Trump effectively fired McDaniel as head of the Republican National Committee, and mocked her when the position was terminated.)

NBC already has a complement of conservative contributors like Stephen Hayes of The Dispatch and Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark, but they are both of the “Never Trump” camp.

“It’s not good enough to just have anti-Trump conservatives — it doesn’t capture the robust debate on the right,” Hayes told me.

Yet finding the right pro-Trump surrogate, he acknowledged, is a challenge — especially when exit polls have shown large percentages of Trump’s voters believe his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.

That view has emerged as a litmus test for the Republican Party. It’s even on the Republican National Committee’s list of questions for job applicants. But the supposed election fraud is so abjectly counterfactual that journalistic outlets like NBC cannot accommodate anyone who treats it seriously.

Though McDaniel deplored the violence on Jan. 6, she had previously argued that Democrats had engaged in “stealing” and, though Trump wanted her to do more, she played a part in some efforts seeking to stall certification of Biden’s victory.

That was one of the prime arguments made by her detractors within MSNBC and NBC News, who insisted that they were not opposed to hiring pro-Trump voices.

“We all recognize a variety of views is vitally important in understanding our country, in doing good programming,” the MSNBC host Chris Hayes said on his show after NBC broke with McDaniel. “There’s just a pretty bright red line in American life after Jan. 6 — on one side of that line are people who aided and abetted in this attempt to end the democratic system as we know it.”

NBC isn’t the first network to crash on treacherous ideological shoals while seeking balance.

Doing so helped lead to the abrupt end of Chris Licht’s tenure as the CNN president last year, after he held an unruly town-hall-style event in which Trump produced a geyser of falsehoods to the great applause of an audience packed with his fans.

Licht may have pleased the Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive David Zaslav, who said, “We need to show both sides of every issue.” But he rapidly lost his newsroom, and soon, his job.

Licht’s successor, Mark Thompson, a former New York Times chief executive, soon found himself in a similar conflict with staff, over when to take Trump’s speeches live — and for how long — as my colleague Michael Grynbaum reported.

For what it’s worth, McDaniel did speak with a CNN executive as she made rounds of potential network homes, according to a person at the network briefed on the discussion. But Thompson told the CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy that he would not have put her on the payroll. (She is now contemplating legal action against NBC, Politico reported.)

NBC executives indicated that they simply couldn’t stand by her given the passionate reaction her hiring produced internally, but defended their intentions while saying they would try to find a new Trump surrogate. “We will redouble our efforts to seek voices that represent different parts of the political spectrum,” the NBCUniversal News Group chair, Cesar Conde, wrote to his staff.

The shoals won’t be getting any less rocky anytime soon.

Many Gen Z voters and younger millennials have never known politics without former President Donald Trump looming large in the national landscape. And more than four million 18-year-olds are newly eligible to vote this year.

Those voters will play a critical role in this year’s presidential election. If that’s you, The New York Times wants to talk.

I’ve been covering national politics for The Times for the last five years, often focusing on political debates from the voters’ point of view.

I am frequently struck that many voters — of any age — can hardly remember politics before Trump. I am especially interested in understanding how the youngest voters perceive the importance (or irrelevance) of politics in their lives.

If you’re a young voter, we want to understand what is shaping your views. Are you excited about this election? Can you relate to the candidates? Are you frustrated? What is keeping you optimistic? Will you vote?

We will read every submission and reach out to some respondents to learn more. We will not share your contact information outside the Times newsroom, and will not publish any part of your submission without following up with and hearing back from you first.

Take the survey here.

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