Friday, August 22, 2008

Rachel Maddow Now

They fired a shot from the roof of Rockefeller Center on Wednesday, one heard 'round American media. Dropping a shoe we’ve expected was coming down for awhile, MSNBC announced the ascension of Rachel Maddow, one of the network’s better political analysts and an emerging voice in leftist talk radio.

NEW YORK – Aug. 20, 2008 – "The Rachel Maddow Show," a smart look at politics, pop culture and all the day's top stories, will premiere Monday, Sept. 8, on MSNBC, it was announced today by Phil Griffin, President, MSNBC. "The Rachel Maddow Show" will telecast weekdays, 9-10 p.m. ET.

Rachel is unbelievably talented and brilliant; her breadth and depth of knowledge of politics and news is astonishing and I'm so excited to give her a place to really showcase what she can do," said Griffin. "We've established MSNBC as the place for politics and the destination for viewers who want the smartest take on the day's developments. Adding Rachel into our primetime lineup makes perfect sense.

"The Rachel Maddow Show" is expected to present her acerbic, literate view of major news stories, and will no doubt feature another iteration of the point-counterpoint punchups that are a staple of cable television.

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You’re tempted to call Maddow’s rise in the mediasphere “meteoric,” but meteors don’t move this fast. Maddow has been with Air America Radio since it launched in early 2004. Before joining Air America she worked for WRNX and WRSI, both in Massachusetts.

Maddow made appearances opposite tireless conservative Tucker Carlson in 2006, and later made appearances on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now.” In January 2008, she was named a MSNBC political analyst, after frequent appearances on other MSNBC political programs such as “Race for the White House,” a stint as a regular panelist on MSNBC's 2008 election coverage, and as a guest on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.”

She subbed for Olbermann as guest host in April, and she was brought back to host “Countdown” again on May 16. That was the day when “Countdown” was (if just briefly) the highest-rated news program in the highly valued 25–54 age demographic, handily besting Fox News for the same eyeballs coveted by advertisers. She filled in again for eight broadcasts while Olbermann vacationed in July. Then, on August 19 she was confirmed for “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

Oh yeah — in her bid to be the hardest-working woman in show business, Maddow will also keep her hosting gig for "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Air America at 6 p.m. ET. She's also writing a book.

The MSNBC statement said that Abrams, MSNBC general manager, “will remain Chief Legal Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC; he will be expanding his role contributing to "Dateline" and "Today" and will also serve as an anchor on MSNBC during the day.”

In the statement, Abrams necessarily took the high road. "Putting my G.M. hat back on, I think this is absolutely the right call. I look forward to my future success at NBC News," he said.

But St. Petersburg Times media and TV critic Eric Deggans, blogging on Aug. 20, wondered aloud “how a guy who once ran the channel wound up hosting a legal program on cable at a time when even Court TV doesn't want to be associated with legal stuff anymore. The only question left now is how long before Abrams leaves the building entirely.”

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As we might have expected, conservatives let fly almost immediately. Right-wing mouthpiece shrieked: Maddow “has become the fresh young voice of a senile leftist ideology whose other spokespeople are graying hippies or wrinkled power-craving vampires. She is what the godless Left used to pray for: socialism with a human face.”

But Maddow’s no neophyte to politics or public issues. She got her bachelor's degree in public policy from Stanford University, and earned her doctorate in political science at Oxford University, which she attended on a Rhodes Scholarship.

More of a problem for conservatives in the media has been her sexual orientation; Maddow, long a champion of gay and lesbian causes, is an out lesbian in a committed relationship. MSNBC gets credit for making a move that, frankly, has been overdue from mainstream media.

But not too much credit. MSNBC has long tried to make its news and commentary programming reflective of a perceived national mood, shifting or cashiering on-air talent to suit the network’s feel for the direction of the country.

In the past six years MSNBC has been through several existential permutations. Between 2002 and 2005, MSNBC brought on (and eventually moved out) Phil Donahue, talk-show veteran and political moderate; Alan Keyes, erstwhile GOP presidential contender; Michael Savage, rabidly homophobic conservative author and radio rottweiler; Pat Buchanan and Bill Press; in a point-counterpoint squareoff; and others, in a slightly frantic search to find the right media mix for a nation that was, to judge from the Republican victories of 2000 and 2004, increasingly conservative.

The Vox’ noted in June 2005:

For some the proof of pandering to an audience perceived to be growing in its conservatism was there in a Washington Times article published in early 2003. The article claimed to quote an internal MSNBC memo noting that Donahue was considered "a tired, left-wing liberal" whose antiwar, anti-Bush sentiments represented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." MSNBC brass denied the memo even existed.

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But that network history doesn’t undercut the obvious gifts as a communicator that Maddow brings to the party. Her ability to distill the sometimes impenetrable machinations of American politics into something accessible to a mass audience gives her a value beyond the math of ratings and viewers.

We like her for a variety of reasons: Over the years she’s proven to be smart, funny, blazingly articulate, principled and fearless. Watch her in action in July; this was when she took on Joe Scarborough, the oleaginous blowhard former Florida Republican congressman and host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” in an on-air exchange that proved she wouldn’t back down from anyone.

For however long her fifteen minutes last, Rachel Maddow is a sharp, smart departure from television's past: someone who’s not so much reframing the public debate as breaking down an old barrier of who gets to participate in it. That’s important and valuable and necessary in this transformative year.
Image credits: Maddow (top): Associated Press. Maddow (flag): via

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