Rachel Maddow: Progressive Media's Next Mainstream Star
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As the seemingly endless Democratic presidential primary slog enters its second spring, one amazing woman has managed -- by relentless dint of hard work, long experience, sharp intelligence, quick wit, quicker quips and a winning smile -- to shatter the glass ceiling and take her rightful place in the traditional boys' club of big-time politics.
No, not her -- Rachel Maddow!
That's right -- a woman who calls herself "a supplicant who worships in the Temple of Journalism" -- but who others have described as "Amy Goodman with animal noises" -- is now firmly ensconced in the upper echelon of the political punditocracy. With her own rising radio show on Air America, coupled with regular appearances on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann program, where she is often, oddly and excellently paired with Patrick Buchanan, this self-described "35-year-old, liberal, lesbian girl-who-looks-like-a-man" is on the brink of becoming progressive media's next mainstream breakout star. One significant measure of Maddow's new-found favor: the decision by MSNBC, effective next week, to hire her as a regular panelist on its newest nightly campaign program Race for the White House -- and to allow Air America to simulcast the 6 p.m. nightly program as the first hour of its own nightly Rachel Maddow show.
The cable executives are betting a lot on their new program, which also features NBC News' chief White House correspondent David Gregory (who replaces the execrable Tucker Carlson.) Passionate viewer interest in the ongoing presidential race -- as evidenced by increased ratings for programs focused on campaign news -- has led all three 24/7 cable operations to create new shows to cater to the marketplace demand. Race for the White House will be up against stiff competition from CNN's Election Center and Fox News Channel's America's Election HQ , but installing Maddow as a regular gives MSNBC an edge its competitors can't match -- a telegenic and true progressive voice for an election cycle dominated by progressive politics and politicians. The MSNBC simulcast on Air America -- in addition to making an impressive statement about the progressive radio network's growing stature -- also promises to pull in a new progressive audience to MSNBC, which is successfully positioning itself as the hot new alternative to Fox News in the cable firmament.
I sat down early one recent morning to share breakfast with Maddow, who keeps a punishing schedule that begins at 9 a.m., encompasses hours of preparation for her three-hour live Air America program, and often extends far into the endless cable night. A California native dedicated to promoting AIDS prevention and gay rights -- she claims to have been the first openly gay American to receive a Rhodes scholarship -- Maddow is also articulate, winsome, and often self-deprecating, someone who says in the same sentence that she tries "to be authoritative, transparently sourced, and pretty comprehensive" in her work, while remaining "a total dork."
Like most radio talk show hosts, Maddow is forthright about the fact that she is NOT a journalist. "I think of myself as a commentator and a pundit, an analyst but not a reporter and not a journalist," she told me. "You know, I think doing research isn't enough ... (she laughs) to be considered a journalist."
Maddow started in radio less than a decade ago as a sidekick on a commercial show in western New England, when she went to an open on-air audition and was hired on the spot. "As soon as I started talking on the microphone, I was like, 'Oh, right! This is what I'm supposed to be doing,'" she recalled. "I wish I figured this out before I was 26. I realized that I had a knack for it, and that it was really fun." Still, she wasn't convinced that radio was right for her in the long run, so after a year, she took time off, finished a dissertation "and actually did get my doctoral." Four years later, she had a national radio show. What happened?
"Air America's first day on the air was the day before my 31st birthday -- March 31st, 2004 -- and I forced them to hire me," she says with another laugh. "I just pulled every trick I could out of the hat. I've never been, like, a well-connected person -- my dad worked for the water company, my mom was a Canadian and worked for my middle school. So it wasn't at all clear that this national media company was going to hire me. They really just seemed to hire celebrities, really. They had Chuck D and Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo and ... celebrities, celebrities. And all I had was, well, an ex-girlfriend who pretended she was in Al Franken's class at Harvard and brought him tapes of my hosted music show as the DJ in the morning from western Massachusetts. So Air America had no business hiring me."
Nonetheless, Maddow got hired as part of the team. Within a year she had a solo spot: a one-hour program at 5 a.m. Monday to Friday. Although she credits "tenacity more than talent" for her success, it's actually the combination of the two that makes her so compelling -- along with enough self-confidence not to take "no" for an answer. "I took every opportunity given me and then some," she said. "You know, I just forced myself on them. I knew I was right for the network."
She's also right for MSNBC - -and perhaps beyond. Certainly her mix of news, opinion and entertainment -- the mother's milk of talk radio -- is also right for the hypercaffeinated world of cable television news.
"Cable news and talk radio are now in the same boat," Maddow observed. "I noticed when I first started doing cable that there'd be this real exuberance among the news producers, particularly younger cable news producers, about talk radio hosts. I could see the transition actually happening. I think in cable news -- whether they intended this or not -- they really think that what talk radio has is what they ought to be. Which is, you know, entertaining hosts to whom viewers and listeners have loyalty, in whom they trust to provide information, who supplant other sources of news.
"But they are more full service than that. They are also providing analysis and setting up conflicts, either between themselves and other people or among their guests -- and being at the same time, funny and entertaining," she continued. "I just believe that there is a way to do all that with integrity. I don't think that mixture of information, analysis and entertainment is itself corrupt or dishonest. The way to do it is by being very clear about what it is that you are doing. The commentary can include parody songs and making fun of people, or, you know, ranting in my dungeon. It can involve a very wide range of stylistic and communicative techniques. You just have to be clear about the distinctions."
Rachel Maddow is nothing if not clear -- about the distinctions between news, opinion and entertainment, but also about her own distinct beliefs, politics, and persona, and about where progressive media may be heading. "I think the more power the Democrats gain, the better off progressive radio and progressive media is," she concluded. "I felt like I was outside banging on a locked door when Republicans were in power seemingly everywhere. But the closer we get to retaking the country, the closer we get to overtaking the traditional media in terms of content and influence."
Maddow's newest bosses at NBC News obviously share her assessment -- if not her sentiments -- as witnessed by the new gig with David Gregory and the groundbreaking Air America simulcast. If they really have the courage of their convictions, however, they'll soon stop making her just a panelist -- and go ahead and create her own cable television show!
Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor is now completing AlterNetâ€™s first-ever book, which is on the subject of right-wing radio talkers like Oâ€™Reilly, and will be available early in 2008. O'Connor also writes the Media Is A Plural blog.