The Leadership Vacuum That Led to the Ronna McDaniel Fail at NBC

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Tuesday was not a good day for Ronna McDaniel — or, is it Ronna Romney McDaniel again, as she now admits the 2020 election was not stolen? She went from a high-profile gig on NBC to no gig and no agent, as CAA also dropped her.

It was also a bad day for NBC News Group chairman Cesar Conde, who found it necessary to “personally apologize to our team members who felt we let them down.” Conde didn’t exactly fall on his sword by himself; he mentioned in his letter to staff that this was “a collective recommendation by some members of our leadership team.” But he acknowledged that the buck stopped with him.

More from The Hollywood Reporter

At least McDaniel is getting a payout. So, no harm, no foul, right? Well, not exactly. This was hardly the simple loss of a job, as the fallout at NBC has made it impossible for her to present herself as anything other than the election-denying, coup-promoting Trump toady that she has been. No quick pivot to (the nonexistent) “Team Normal” for her.

While it is unclear whether McDaniel will pursue legal action against NBC, she could seek a full payout of her $300,000 per year, two-year deal. Under the “pay-to-play” contracts of TV news, if she took the cash, she would likely be barred from appearing on another channel. However, she could also try to negotiate an exit that pays her at least some of that money in exchange for a shorter noncompete. Politico reports she’s chatting with entertainment attorney Bryan Freedman, who negotiated the post-firing packages of Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo from CNN, and Tucker Carlson from Fox News.

And for Conde, who is believed to be angling to rise to the CEO job at NBCUniversal in the fullness of time, it’s fair to question whether this deeply embarrassing episode will have major consequences. Looking at the bigger picture, the fiasco raises questions about decision-making, not only in the news division, but at NBCU overall. Since former CEO Jeff Shell exited nearly a year ago, the company has been headed on an interim basis by Comcast president Michael Cavanagh. He is viewed as getting some background in film and TV before he ascends to lead parent company Comcast when Brian Roberts retires as chairman and CEO. (With so much speculation about potential megadeals, it’s hard to predict who will end up where.) Meanwhile, the news division seems to have fallen prey to a confusing leadership structure at a level one rung below Conde, who — as one insider put it — “is not a news guy.”

The result is that both the news division and NBCU itself are overseen by executives who lack deep knowledge of the day-to-day businesses they lead. Cavanagh affably acknowledges that he lacks experience in entertainment and portrays himself as a student of seasoned leaders like Donna Langley, chairman of the NBCUniversal Studio Group and chief content officer. Cavanagh’s stance “is endearing to begin with and the right thing is to defer to the experts who have run the business,” says one longtime NBC executive. “But at a certain point, you are the [interim] CEO.”

Conde’s professional experience has largely been focused on the board room, rather than the newsroom. (He sits on the boards of directors of both Walmart and PepsiCo, as well as on the Council on Foreign Relations.) A veteran of the company since 2013, Conde had overseen NBCUniversal’s international businesses and later its Spanish-language division Telemundo Enterprises before adding oversight of the NBC News Group in 2020. Cavanagh gave him a promotion last year, adding NBC’s local TV stations to his purview.

After Noah Oppenheim departed as president of the news division last year, Conde did not fill that position. Instead he elevated a handful of top executives, none of whom has broad oversight across the division. That organizational structure has been critiqued by some internally as being somewhat byzantine, with the different NBC News shows having their own “fiefdoms.” (Not that everything was smooth sailing in the Oppenheim era. Remember that the news division sat on the infamous Access Hollywood tape, and the allegations that Oppenheim helped kill Ronan Farrow’s Harvey Weinstein exposé.)

The leadership now includes Libby Leist, who oversees Today; Janelle Rodriguez, who oversees NBC Nightly News and the NBC News Now streaming service; and former New York Times editor Rebecca Blumenstein, who in January 2023 was named president of editorial and oversees bookings for Meet the Press and Dateline.

Blumenstein and NBC News senior vp politics Carrie Budoff Brown took the lead in talks with McDaniel. In a memo to staff announcing McDaniel’s hire, Budoff Brown stated that “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.”

To many at NBCU, it seems inexplicable that these executives failed to anticipate the outrage that ensued. But some insiders maintain that no one in the news division raised any objection to the deal before it was announced — not even MSNBC chief Rashida Jones, who subsequently reassured the rebelling hosts that McDaniel would not appear on the network’s air. On her Monday MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow told viewers, “We were told this weekend in clear terms, Ronna McDaniel will not be on our air … there has been an effort since by other parts of the company to muddy that up in the press and make it seem like that’s not what happened at MSNBC. I can assure you that is what happened at MSNBC. Ronna McDaniel will not appear on MSNBC, so says our boss since Saturday, and it has never been anything other than clear.”

Some sources at the network maintain that Conde is the highest-level executive who was looped in on a decision that sparked a remarkable public revolt at NBC News — a rebellion that played out all day and all evening on MSNBC, with one host after another denouncing the hire. (Some executives in the news division are said to be naively blaming Chuck Todd for starting the fire on Meet the Press, as if Maddow needed a prompt to push back. A knowledgeable source says Todd signed a three-year contract when he left Meet the Press, so he’s not going anywhere.)

One NBC veteran questions whether higher ups — even including Roberts — weren’t at least informed of the arrangement before it was announced. At minimum, this person suspects that Cavanagh might have been looped in: “You do not hire an election denier without having it vetted.”

If that wasn’t the case, says another longtime insider, leadership problems are to blame. In terms of NBC News, this person says, “It sort of stinks from the head. Of all the divisions in the company, someone has to be in charge of news.” And in terms of the NBCU overall, this executive continues, “Without [former CEO] Steve Burke or Jeff Shell, who is demanding that this kind of information should flow through them? Not having a CEO of the company is not sustainable.”

Alex Weprin contributed to this report.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter