Telegenic legal and political analyst Maya Wiley, former in-house counsel to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, quit her paid MSNBC contributor’s deal weeks before early October, when she announced her candidacy to succeed her erstwhile boss at City Hall.
But rival mayoral campaigns—competing for votes in the June 22, 2021 Democratic primary election—are expressing outrage that the liberal-leaning cable outlet continues to feature Wiley and tout her candidacy in frequent on-air appearances, including a nearly seven-minute-long Morning Joe segment that amounted to a Wiley for Mayor campaign commercial.
Several political operatives for rival candidates told The Daily Beast on Friday that MSNBC’s Wiley bookings—at least eight since she announced, including two this past Wednesday on Ari Melber’s and Brian Williams’ programs—smack of unfairness, especially because many New York City primary voters are likely also to be MSNBC viewers.
“You’d think MSNBC would be required to have all of us on,” said a rival candidate who spoke on condition of not being named. “I thought there was some rule about fairness, or am I wrong?”
The Reagan administration’s Federal Communication Commission eliminated the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, and broadcast outlets have not been required to offer equivalent airtime to competing candidates in news interviews—while the FCC, in any case, has no jurisdiction over cable television channels
“We’ve reached out to multiple [MSNBC] producers [to complain] and haven’t heard back, which is unusual since these are people who are otherwise responsive,” said a political operative for a leading rival campaign who asked not to be further identified. “[Wiley] ceremoniously quit in the summer when she was preparing to run, and it’s just strange, so obvious to see how she’s on now and talking about her campaign, not just legal analysis.”
An operative for a third Wiley rival told The Daily Beast, “The funny thing is, I was talking about this today with someone on our campaign—can we check the financial rules because every time she goes on, Ari says she’s a candidate for mayor. That, I feel like, is a breach and somebody should go check that out. It just seems like that has to be some kind of no-no, right? She’s going on MSNBC and even if this isn’t illegal it’s certainly not kosher to be going to MSNBC and them saying you’re a candidate for mayor. It doesn’t pass the smell test.”
This operative added, “It just seems to me that she’s campaigning on MSNBC and MSNBC is allowing her to do it. This to me is Fox and Trump all over. She’s just campaigning on MSNBC.”
Mayoral candidate Loree Sutton, for her part, told The Daily Beast, “Why is it that celebrities and politicians fall into the trap of believing that the usual professional norms, rules of conduct, and even legal statutes just don’t apply to them? I would like to hear how MSNBC justifies its decision to continue featuring former network contributor and current declared NYC mayoral candidate Maya Wiley in their broadcasts.”
Sutton, a former city commissioner of veterans’ services, added, “Are they going to extend invitations to all mayoral candidates or just to the one they know and like best?”
A spokesperson for MSNBC—which has yet to book any of Wiley’s so-far nine rivals for on-air appearances—declined to comment on the various campaigns’ complaints.
“It is definitely an advantage,” said longtime political commentator Errol Louis, anchor of Spectrum News’ iconic NY1 cable show, Inside City Hall. Beyond providing a free platform to reach potential voters, Wiley’s MSNBC appearances could expand her fundraising base, Louis told The Daily Beast.
“You can target Facebook ads to everybody who watches MSNBC,” Louis said. “At very little cost, you can send out video clips, you can send out fundraising solicitations, and I imagine Maya Wiley’s team is doing exactly that, to anybody who likes Rachel Maddow or Morning Joe or MSNBC.”
The fact that Wiley is no longer paid for her MSNBC appearances, but they remain fairly frequent, “is a distinction without a difference,” Louis said.
Louis added, “It’s probably not the advantage that Loree Sutton is describing, but it probably drives everybody crazy to see her on screen, and one way to think of it is that it automatically translates into visibility and votes. I don’t know about that, but it can definitely translate into credibility and fundraising reach.”
On the other hand, “You certainly can’t expect her, having already surrendered a paycheck, to willingly walk away now that she’s a candidate,” Louis said. Indeed, Wiley’s campaign manager, Maya Rupert, said in a statement, “Maya Wiley is [a] well known, nationally recognized civil rights expert, and is happy to share her insights with audiences when she’s asked.”
Louis added that if other candidates are genuinely aggrieved by MSNBC’s Wiley bookings, they should have the courage to say so on the record, as Loree Sutton has done.
Yet another wrinkle for MSNBC is weekend Politics Nation anchor Rev. Al Sharpton’s potential role in the mayoral campaign. As a prominent civil-rights activist and political player, Sharpton could wield not only an influential endorsement but also behind-the-scenes support for his preferred candidate.
“And 100 percent he’s taking meetings about this mayor’s race,” said a mayoral campaign operative. “It’s just another example of how MSNBC is not being totally fair here.”
In a text message to The Daily Beast, Sharpton said MSNBC’s upper management had no objection to him endorsing a candidate. “No limits on my support if I’m transparent,” he said.
In the Oct. 13 Morning Joe segment featuring Wiley’s mayoral candidacy, both host Mika Brzezinski and co-host Willie Geist pitched her softball questions in a friendly interview and sounded enthusiastic about Wiley’s political ambitions.
“Congratulations on this big decision. It’s exciting,” Brzezinski told the candidate as Wiley grinned and nodded. “It’s also a very daunting time to be considering a run to be mayor of New York City… Why are you embarking on this journey?”
“Well, first of all, Mika, I couldn’t imagine a better person to be discussing this with, since you’ve been telling us all to know our value,” Wiley said, reciprocating the chumminess, citing Brzezinski’s ongoing speaking and conference tour aimed at women in the workplace.
Geist, meanwhile, told the candidate, “Congratulations on jumping in the race… There’s a lot on your plate as you look at this job”—an invitation for Wiley to recite her campaign talking points.
“Thank you very much for being on this morning. Good luck,” Brzezinski said as the segment ended. “And we’ll see you soon.”
—With additional reporting by Justin Baragona.