Great New York magazine profile of Rachel Maddow, officially out tomorrow, I guess, but so many good lines and pithy observations that I just had to pull out my favorite bits here, so you will be certain not to miss them.
I didn't write any of this, but am excerpting from Jessica Pressler's great story, and maybe adding my own snarky comments.
The Dr. Maddow Show
The secret to the success of a wonky lesbian pundit with no TV experience? A Ph.D. from Oxford, a dry sense of humor, and the ability to be nice to Pat Buchanan.
By Jessica Pressler Published Nov 2, 2008
Ever heard of something called Dada?”
Rachel Maddow is trying to make an analogy. It’s mid-October, two weeks before the election, and the MSNBC host is comparing the McCain campaign’s recent fixation on “Joe the Plumber” to the anti-bourgeois cultural movement of the early-twentieth century. But this is prime time, and Maddow first has to define Dadaism in as colloquial a way as possible. This is something of a challenge considering she only has about twelve seconds.
“Deliberately being irrational, rejecting standard assumptions about beauty or organization or logic,” she begins. “It’s an anti-aesthetic statement about the lameness of the status quo … kind of?” She twists her face into a cartoon grimace that morphs into a wide smile. “Why am I trying to explain Dadaism on a cable news show thirteen days from this big, giant, historic, crazy, important election that we’re about to have?” she asks with a self-deprecating laugh, as she recognizes the Dadaishness of her own quest. “Because that’s what I found myself Googling today, in search of a way to make sense of the latest McCain-Palin campaign ad!”
It’s hard to imagine many other cable news hosts going down that particular rabbit hole. (Can you picture Glenn Beck referring to the existentialists to make a point?)
[Yeah, but Glenn Beck is finally and fully OFF CNN's Headline News, and good riddance! That racist creephead was easily my biggest source of embarrassment while I was working there (although the Natalie Holloway non-story comes in a close second). But meanwhile, Beck goeth happily to Fox News, and gets replaced by... wait for it, wait for it! Another out-lesbian celebrity-crime broadcaster! What programming genius!]
But then again, Rachel Maddow is not like other cable news hosts. A self-described butch lesbian with short hair and black-rimmed glasses, off-camera she resembles a young Ira Glass more than the helmet-headed anchoresses and Fox fembots who populate television news. Doing the press rounds when MSNBC first announced her show in August, she’d show up to interviews looking like, she says, “a 14-year-old boy” in puffy Samantha Ronson sneakers with iPod headphones dangling from her ears—but then she’d easily segue into an informed foreign- policy or economic discussion that ended with a Daily Show–worthy punch line. Her résumé is similarly unexpected: A Rhodes scholar and an Oxford Ph.D., she’s done stints as an AIDS activist, barista, landscaper, Air America host, and mascot in an inflatable calculator suit. She’s a civics geek who reads comic books, goes to monster-truck rallies, likes to fish, calls herself an “amateur mixologist” of classic cocktails, and even Twitters.
[And I am now following those Tweets, most written by her producer Will, I suspect. Doesn't make me a stalker. Doesn't. Everybody on Twitter does it. So there!]
There’s something about the mix of personal details that is—to a young, educated, left-leaning, cosmopolitan audience—instantly recognizable. As one New York acolyte told me, “She is more like one of my friends than anyone else on television.” And her ratings have been astounding, especially in the coveted 25-to-54-year-old demographic. Maddow averaged a higher rating with that group than Larry King Live for thirteen of the first 25 nights she was on the air, enabling the network to out-rate CNN in that time slot for the first time. It’s an impressive feat, even given the fact that the show started two months before the election when political interest was at a fever pitch.
“You come out of the gate as fast as she came out, it gives me incredible excitement,” thunders MSNBC president Phil Griffin. “We are stronger than we’ve been in twelve years. We have more swagger today than we have ever had. It’s because of Rachel. And trust me. The other guys see it. They are watching. And they are scared.”
[Hmm. I don't know how scared they are. More like relieved, cuz this breed of TV exec isn't usually known for his or her programming courage, so when one of them, oddly, sticks a neck out and takes a risk, the others can celebrate, cuz no TV exec ever lost a job for crassly imitating or copying a successful risk taken by someone else.
But the most interesting thing here to me is that Rachel defies imitation, because she is able to communicate actual SMARTS. And TV execs can try to bottle or imitate that until the cows come home, as legions of consultants rush out and prescribe all kinds of new formulas for new "smart" ways to deliver cable current events (can we still call it "news"?) content and water cooler conversation, but the "smart" has been so fully purged from this industry that you can only still find it in beleagered newsroom old timers, stubbornly holding on as young chippies promising 18-35 demo chippi-ness get promoted over them, over and over again.
So hey, Rachel, good on ya for showing that smart can be chic, and can pull ratings. What is bizarre is that you are doing it in a world where that very thought is considered a DEEPLY radical idea.
I mean, only in cable news (and I've personally witnessed this) can a writer be openly dressed down for taking a set of facts and writing a lead for a story, and by pure chance, accidentally use the same details and language in the same order as an NPR All Things Considered lead on the same story-- THE GREATEST SIN! If NPR did it a certain way, it is the sign of the devil, and we must write that same story differently, as a matter of principle, lest ANYONE remotely suspect any NPR-pointy-headed-wannabees were hired by accident.
Cable news likes to cast itself as the anti-NPR, and usually lives up to it, in much the same way teenagers think they are so independent when they rebel against their parents, without realizing that their behavior is still being utterly controlled by what the parents value, in the shallow opposition. It takes a good bit of time for a kid to grow up enough to develop real independence, and even then, some never grow out of holding views that are merely the anti- version of their parents' views.
That that kind of shallow reasoning had infected the management of a cable news channel at the time almost made me snort out loud, but I caught myself just in time, when I realized they were very serious.
That someone with Rachel Maddow's brains was even allowed into that world is remarkable in and of itself.
Yeah, but Maddow is my kind of pointy-head. Meaning the kind that can appreciate a fart joke! See the bold bit below.]
There’s not much of a dividing line between the material that gets slated for the TV show and what winds up on the radio. The second hour of the Air America show now features repackaged material from MSNBC, and even the original content is quite similar, with pet issues like national security and veterans’ rights taking the lead, plumped up with quirkier topics like comic books and News of the World–type oddities. “They’re both built around Rachel,” says Silverton-Peel. “Whatever interests Rachel every day.”
Maddow is reveling in the attention. “The most highly staffed show I worked at in the past had three people,” she says later. “Now there’s like all these people every day who are waiting to hear what I’m interested in, so we can turn that into the show.”
Insofar as there has been a plan. No one in Rachel Maddow’s life thought she would end up hosting a national cable news show. Her longtime friends and family members stress their pride, but they are clearly surprised at the path she’s taken. “Rachel, as I knew her, has always been about making a contribution,” says Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, who was friends with Maddow at Stanford and Oxford. “She wasn’t just about giving commentary; she was an activist. She wanted to change the world.”
Maddow likes to joke that her admission to Stanford was a “mistake,” but her professors remember the Castro Valley, California, native as a serious scholar from the beginning. “She was a brilliant student,” says Roger Noll, former director of the Public Policy Program at Stanford, “one of those that only come around every few years or so.” When she graduated in 1994, her undergraduate thesis—which explored the shift in the perception of AIDS patients from “the other” to “one of us”—won a medal for excellence. “I still send students to that thesis as a model,” says another professor, Debra Satz.
But at Oxford, Maddow felt restless and out of place. A few months into the program, she put her doctorate on hold, traded her Oxford apartment for a London squat, and became the general manager of a fledging organization called the AIDS Treatment Project. “Rachel took me to a public-housing project,” says Booker. “That was where she was hanging out, in this London version of a tough neighborhood. It wasn’t like it was a sociology project. Most Oxford kids wouldn’t have even known that neighborhood existed.”
Eventually she ran out of money and moved back to the United States to finish her dissertation, settling in Massachusetts, since it was far away from home and relatively free of distractions. “I wanted to live somewhere where I would be forced to do what I had to do,” she says. She crashed with friends and took up a number of odd jobs to support herself.
She was scrubbing out coffee barrels at a friend’s coffee shop in Northampton one morning when the local rock station announced it was holding an open audition for a “sidekick” for “Dave in the Morning,” known for its wacky parodies of popular songs. Maddow liked the idea of “a new, odder job,” she says. “And anyway I had to support myself. I wasn’t like a trust-fund kid.”
The job mostly consisted of reading the headlines of the day and setting up punch lines for Morning Dave. “She was one of the wittiest, smartest people I’ve ever met,” says Brinnel, but not too smart for morning-show humor. “One day, we got into a discussion about farts,” he says. “And I just remember her stopping and going, ‘Wait a minute: There is nothing funnier than a fart.’ ”
But it soon became clear to her co-workers that “Dave in the Morning” was not going to be her last job in broadcast. “Not in an obnoxious way,” says Bruce Stebbins, a former co-owner of the station. He remembers trying to engage Maddow in a political conversation back in the late nineties. “I realized immediately that I was just like way out of my league,” he says. “She just had such a powerful intellect. I remember thinking, ‘What is she doing here?’ ”
“I do worry if being a pundit is a worthwhile thing to be,” she says. “Yeah, I’m the unlikely cable news host. But before that I was the unlikely Rhodes scholar. And before that I was the unlikely kid who got into Stanford. And then I was the unlikely lifeguard. You can always cast yourself as unlikely when you’re fundamentally alienated in your worldview. It’s a healthy approach for a commentator.”
Maddow first came on MSNBC’s radar in 2005, when she auditioned as a foil for the conservative Tucker Carlson’s show. Bill Wolff, Carlson’s producer at the time, was immediately smitten. “She was unbelievably prepared,” he said. “And she just killed him.”
[I will happily give Tucker Carlson the most credit for getting Rachel Maddow on the teevee, but despite his good judgment in that area, I have to say, it wouldn't take much logic to shred his political positions, as he usually only has two: repeating GOP talking points, or feigning outrage that someone taking a political position with more logical force and support than his would "stoop to that level" he deems as conveniently beyond the pale.
Now, shredding Tucker Carlson with charisma and grace when the cameras are rolling, that is a true skill to be admired. But most of my past freshman comp students could out-argue Carlson on a bad day, and about any grad student who has ever defended a thesis could run circles around his absurd non-logic. I'm not just slamming Tucker. I was forced to watch CNN's Crossfire daily for at least 2 years as part of my job. I can go into imitations of him on cue.]
She bobbed around as a guest commentator for three years, appearing as a regular guest on Carlson’s show, but also on Paula Zahn’s and Larry King’s. At one point, she filmed a pilot for a weekend political show with CNN. “She seemed really constrained there,” says a person involved in the program. “It was like they didn’t know what to do with her.” The pilot never went anywhere. CNN president Jon Klein says it was because having an “obviously liberal” host didn’t fit with the mission of the network: “It’s like, you wouldn’t put The Sopranos on Comedy Central.”
[OK, the irony here is killing me. I'm vaguely aware of the time frame when this decision was made, and what we got instead from those rounds of "screen tests" at Headline News (the unspeakably awful Glenn Beck). Just think, back at that time, in an alternative universe, I could have found myself proudly working for the network that launched Rachel Maddow. I could have applied for staff jobs on her show. I'd probably be still working there to this day, if that had been the case. Life could have been completely and inalterably different. Don't pinch me. I might wake up!]
Still, she kept at it. “I think deep down, Rachel knows that this is something she has to do,” says her former radio co-host Chuck D. “She kind of looks at the television and thinks, I know that’s something I have to do well. Sometimes it’s not up to you.”
Her break came when Carlson’s show was canceled last year and Olbermann asked her to appear more frequently on Countdown. He admired the way Maddow had excoriated Carlson on his own turf, punctuating her arguments with a friendly laugh, like an athlete offering her hand to the loser after a winning game. “We were friends from the start,” says Olbermann. “Our worldviews overlap.”
Most people would obsess over the competition—Olbermann’s fixation with Bill O’Reilly ignited his career. But Maddow says she doesn’t want to absorb any “homogenizing influences.” She recognizes that part of her on-air charm comes from being unschooled enough to take risks: to explain Dada, or spend 22 seconds reading from John Hodgman’s book, or lavish airtime on Zimbabwe’s new $10 trillion bill. She gets her information mostly from the Internet, then picks what she thinks is interesting.
[I'm really being silly here, but I can't help noticing similarities. Besides my own love of fart jokes (and of putting fart jokes in inappropriate places), this is also what I loved doing when I was at CNN, working on the headline ticker at Headline News. While the salary there cost me thousands of dollars in student loan deferment interest, I loved having a job that allowed me to do precisely what Rachel has leveraged above: to cast an idiosyncratic eye across the landscape of the planet, and pull out those nuggets that grab your sensibility with a sense of "what the... ?" My job on the ticker could be described thusly: read everything in the world, and pull headlines out of it. Unlike the CNN "crawl," they even let me put jokes in there. Even, when nobody was looking, fart jokes.]
This is not to say that Maddow doesn’t have opinions about cable news. For starters, she loathes the format that casts the host as a referee between squabbling guests and has vowed to have only one speaking guest at a time, because, she’s says, it’s more respectful. “You’re essentially watching for the kinetic activity of the fight rather than listening to what anybody says about the issue,” she says. “And I think what people end up cheering for is winning, you know, rather than getting something out of it. I think there’s more intelligent ways to entertain people.”
She also does not abide impoliteness: In March, when Pat Buchanan told Democratic strategist Kelli Goff to “shut up” on Dan Abrams’s show, on which Maddow was also a guest, she leaped in to administer such a deft, polite scolding—“Pat! I have never heard you tell anyone to shut up like that before!”—that the former Nixon speechwriter looked genuinely chastened. Buchanan, whose 1992 culture-war speech was a pivotal moment for 19-year-old lesbian Maddow, now frequently appears on The Rachel Maddow Show to provide conservative counterpoint under the rubric “It’s Pat,” which he most likely doesn’t know is a reference to the old Saturday Night Live skit about a gender-neutral character. “Thank you so much for coming on, Pat. Always a pleasure,” she says warmly when he totters off after their sparring matches.
“Even though I can be harsh in my criticism and I can be strong in my beliefs, I try not to be mean,” she says. “And I don’t have a very high tolerance for other people who are cruel or personally insulting in a way that I think is meant to humiliate people.”
Maddow counts Countdown, the only cable news she really watches, as an influence. “The thing that I think he doesn’t get enough credit for is how much information is in it,” she says. “That show is produced to within a half-second of its life.” As she talks about it, she becomes more animated. “Put a lot of information out there. People can handle it. It’s okay to use big words. You don’t need to dumb stuff down! You don’t need to make stuff simple and repetitive for people. If you assume that your audience is as interested in what you are talking about as you are, you’re going to connect with your audience in a much better way.” She might not be saving the world, but she is intent on making it a little smarter.
You know, Rachel, I think that last quotation is destined to go into my random quotation hall of fame, up in the banner of this blog.
But what I like best about it, besides that it says such an important thing, is that the statement is being made from inside the cable news channel hothouse where the very idea of NOT dumbing everything down is not just massively radical, it also challenges the basic article of faith in that media genre.
Can I just give that a big ol' WHOOO HOOOO!!!!!!!!!??