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When an Operative Becomes a Journalist — and Why Ronna McDaniel Flopped

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I made the move from political operative to media analyst. Here’s how it can actually work.

But with the rise of cable news, and the recognition that putting people behind a table in a studio is a lot cheaper than sending a reporter, producer and camera crew out to cover a story, “talking heads” now dominate the air. And they appear on these networks to offer more or less the same opinions they were offering as political players. It’s not that such hiring necessarily raises ethical questions; it’s that it doesn’t move the discourse very much at all. More than once, I’ve thought the networks could save a lot of money by dispensing with the talking heads and deploying sock puppets, whose offerings would be no less predictable than their human counterparts.

In announcing the decision to cut ties with McDaniel, NBCUniversal News Group Chair Cesar Conde told employees she was first hired out of a desire to present audiences with “a widely diverse set of viewpoints” and that the company now intended to “redouble our efforts to seek voices that represent different parts of the political spectrum.”

But will the anchors on MSNBC welcome a different pro-Trump arrival? Joy Reid has said she would happily host Republicans and specifically cites former GOP Reps. Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, two of Trump’s harshest critics. With respect, I think Reid is missing the point: “never Trump” Republicans do not expand political diversity at the network.

And would MSNBC’s audience accept a pro-Trump addition to the network’s lineup? Like much of the Fox News audience, MSNBC’s followers hear every night an affirmation of their views. Years ago, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer told me she went home each night and watched MSNBC. Why, I asked, after endless hours in the Senate, do you do that? “Because,” she said, “it’s like sinking into a nice warm bath.” It’s not clear she or her fellow viewers would welcome an ice-cold splash of pro-Trump perspectives.

The bottom line though is transparency. If a paid talking head is on the air to speak for a particular point of view, then there should be no pretense that the audience is getting anything else. And if a political operative-turned-journalist is offering an analysis ostensibly unrelated to their past political ties, then that journalist needs to be damn sure that is what’s happening. The easiest way to trap yourself into misleading the audience is to mislead yourself.