The Well Actually

Hiring Ronna McDaniel Is a Symptom of Our Media Literacy Crisis

Journalism is a vital part of a healthy society, and we not only need to fund and sustain it—we need to defend it. But we also need to listen to news consumers, because the media industry is terribly broken.

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I decided I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I didn’t speak to somebody at MSNBC about NBC’s decision to hire Ronna McDaniel, the former RNC chair who helped Donald Trump try to overturn the 2020 Presidential Election. I’m just a freelance columnist at the network, but her hire felt like an insult to my—to our—work. I considered holding my tongue, fearing that saying something would tank my precarious position. I thought about letting a dashed-off “fuck this” post on Bluesky about the news of McDaniel’s hire stand on its own. But I’m a writer. I had more to say. So I sent an email saying that “to reward [McDaniel’s] efforts with a position at NBC demeans the journalism we all do to protect democracy.”

It turns out I was in good company with NBC and MSNBC’s staff and on-air personalities and the NBC union: McDaniel was swiftly canned following the outcry. Time will tell whether she goes the way of Megyn Kelly and gets to enjoy the paycheck without the responsibilities of actually doing the job.

The whole ordeal was an embarrassment. And it came at a particularly bad time for the media industry, amid what some doomsayers have reckoned could be an “extinction-level event,” what with widespread layoffs and site-shutters and the integration of so-called “AI” (actually large language models) into newsrooms once staffed by real live humans.

It’s no wonder Americans take a negative view of the news industry—it is failing the public in myriad ways. But journalists are prickly about being criticized, especially because our jobs are tougher and more tenuous than ever. In a recent Slate article, legal columnist Dahlia Lithwick bemoaned what she described as the growing entitlement of lazy, enbubbled (yes, I have coined a new word) news consumers who refuse to seek out coverage on issues they care about, instead demanding to be directly fed content “in the manner of the mother bird with the worm in Are You My Mother?” 

It’s a cathartic read, especially if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of the complaint of a reader, viewer, or listener, that you’re not covering the right things in the right way—which, I’m here to tell you, most journalists have. At my first staff job years ago, I had an entire office wall dedicated to print-outs of the most bad-faith reader criticisms, which ranged from speculation about my “cat lady” status to allegations that I was in the pocket of Big Whatever Industry. (I’d definitely have been renting a nicer apartment if that had been the case.)

There are a lot of legitimate complaints, and journalists write them off at our own peril. There will always be people who rant for ranting’s sake, or direct their anger at the wrong targets. But news consumers might be having trouble finding quality coverage of issues they care most about because it’s legitimately hard to find! That’s neither the fault of consumers nor individual journalists. It’s bigger than that. It’s the way newsrooms are staffed—or more often, how they aren’t. There is a depressing lack of diversity in the media industry overall, and that absolutely influences which stories get told, and how. And so many of our best journalists and critical media thinkers have moved to Substack, Medium, and other newsletter platforms, forcing a lot of readers to get our news à la carte. . 

It’s not fair to blame news readers for creating “bubbles” and echo chambers when they’re at the mercy of algorithms that deliberately suppress and censor content. Meta, for example, limits “political content” on Instagram and Threads by default, and forces users to opt in—that is, if they even realize they need to do so in the first place. Journalists and content creators are creating new forms of “algospeak” every day in order to, as Taylor Lorenz put it in the Washington Post, “avoid getting their posts removed or down-ranked by content moderation systems.”

Under these circumstances, I can hardly blame readers for complaining that the media “missed” important stories, even when we didn’t. Neither can I fault them for noting that coverage of consequential issues is lacking. Newspapers in particular have shrunk and consolidated beat reporting to the extent that newsrooms that once upon a time had entire specialized teams covering health care, politics, or the environment separately are now staffed by a handful of reporters doing everything at once (and who are also being asked to create social media content, too).

But it’s also true that there’s a lot of bad journalism out there, often focused on the wrong things. Broadcast news, especially the local stuff, is rife with fear-mongering and cop stenography. Prestigious legacy outfits like the New York Times (which eliminated its public editor position in 2017) and The Atlantic have dedicated themselves to a creepy crusade against transgender people when they’re not fixating on “cancel culture” at Ivy League campuses or taking seriously the prodigious word vomit of Donald Trump.

Even so, for journalists, it stings to be criticized for something it feels like we have no control over, either—especially when we’re doing the best we can. It’s awful to take the hits for bad actors, inept or bigoted colleagues, and money-grubbing management squeezing budgets to the bone while demanding more work for less. It sucks in the extreme to be lumped into a catch-all category with people whose work you also find lacking (at best) and offensive (at worst).

Journalism as an institution and as a practice is a vital part of a healthy society, eminently and intrinsically worth defending, funding, and sustaining. But the mainstream American media industry is terribly broken, not least of all because it increasingly devalues the kinds of expensive, essential work that mainstream and legacy publications are best positioned to do, and which readers need most. Alternative, non-profit, and progressive publications can fill in some of the gaps, but most simply don’t have the resources to make up for mainstream and legacy media’s many—and growing—shortcomings.

Instead of writing off criticism as not our fault or our problem, we should take it seriously and make it our problem. Because it is. The best journalism is, at heart, all about accountability. And we must be as willing to have that lens focused on us and our work as we are to point it elsewhere.

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