Rachel Maddow is wrong and right: The problem with trying to be Fox News for the Left

The recent drubbing of Maddow shows both peril and truth in the idea that liberals need to mimic the Fox News model

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 4, 2019 3:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Photo Montage by Salon)
(AP/Photo Montage by Salon)

The mediasphere’s gleeful pummeling of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in the days following #MuellerTime makes me recall two prescient columns written by fellow TV critic Tim Goodman.

The first, published while the hangover from Trump’s election was still fresh in November 2016, wears this headline: “In Order to Survive, Cable News Should Go Full Anti-Trump.”

Goodman explains, “From this point forward, people still watching the ‘news’ will want anger and action, not analysis. They will not want someone from the other side having a say. To the extent they'll want any facts at all, it will be to explain what the hell President Trump mucked up on that given day, and they will want a blowtorch in the teleprompter.”

“Revenge, anger, outrage, hot-blooded hectoring, calls to action and nonstop anti-Trump rhetoric is what people will want — in basically that order,” he adds. “And they might not know they want it — and want it so badly they'll come back night after night — until you give it to them.”

He restates this two years later almost to the day, in November 2018. “The Left Is Long Overdue For Its Own Fox News,” blared that column’s header. Aptly it is illustrated with a photo of Maddow, the poster model for MSNBC’s left-wing partisanship.

I’ve been reading Tim’s work since the earliest days of my career as a pop culture writer and a critic and consider him to be a friend. Like all critics and friends, we agree on some things and disagree on others, and in the end the world keeps spinning.

But these observations are interesting in the context of the current Maddow backlash, because they have the rare distinction of being utterly correct from the 20,000 foot-high view of the news landscape, and utterly wrong for the poor schmoes traversing the same territory on the ground.

The current round of Maddow bashing proves this. From the perspective of the business at large, she was doing everything right — taking on Donald Trump at every turn, mercilessly skewering him, drawing equivalencies between his crooked dealings and those of past figures in politics and business.

Since 2017, Maddow has spent much of her time navigating the odd space between fact and opinion, between rocky land and hot air, speculating about what Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government, and obstructed justice, might uncover.

The host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” went all in on this business, running down a variety of possible outcomes and speculating about the great meaning behind each subpoena and indictment — all of which is legitimate — as well as narrating unsubstantiated “what ifs” that could, at times, sound just shy of an “X-Files” fever dream.

Doing so helped her already popular weeknight program achieve new heights in the ratings, hitting an average of 3.1 million viewers in February 2019 and proving to be a credible threat to Sean Hannity, her long-dominant timeslot competition on Fox News.

As if in response to all the tomato-throwing from last week, MSNBC circulated a press release at the top of this week declaring victory for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” calling it the top-rated news show in the target 25-54 demo for the first quarter of 2019. According to Nielsen data, Maddow’s show drew 549,000 viewers on average in the demo, edging out Hannity's 547,000.

Keep in mind that networks boil down ratings data in ways that depict them in the best light possible, and those results are awfully close. In total viewers, “Hannity” drew an average of 3.12 million viewers during the first quarter to the 3.05 million watching “The Rachel Maddow Show.” MSNBC came in second place to beat CNN, as it has for some time now.

Overall, then, Maddow’s successes prove she was doing everything right, business-wise . . . until the Mueller investigation concluded. In a four-page summary released by Attorney General William Barr, citing that the report found no evidence of collusion but came to no conclusions on obstruction of justice claims, Maddow’s angle suddenly looked foolish. But what can one do when one has pushed one's chips to the center of the table, except insist on seeing the full hand?

On the Monday following the release of Barr’s memo, “The Rachel Maddow Show” opened with a laundry list of unanswered questions. Her monologues throughout that week continued to pound the drum on the fact that we hadn’t seen the entire report, and wonder what it could be hiding.

As someone who only occasionally watches Maddow, a marathon viewing of these episodes back-to-back was a little bit like being trapped in a corner of the party with the smartest and least interesting person in the room and noticing the rest of the people you came with had escaped.

And the drubbing from those who turned to Maddow initially was merciless and thorough. “Turning on her show this week was like discovering a Facebook friend is on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” wrote Slate’s Willa Paskin. National Review’s Rich Lowry was, unsurprisingly, not as kind.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi describes the pivot as a “massive machinery of ass-covering,” and notably, he does so as part of his explanation of why he chose Maddow to share the cover of his upcoming book “Hate Inc.” with Hannity.

“Rachel Maddow is not on the cover of this book because of anything she did by mistake, because Russiagate turned out to be a bad guess. She’s on the cover because of what she did on purpose,” he says, which is to transform into “a towering patriotic media cudgel, a depressingly exact mirror of Hannity.”

To return to those original TV industry advice columns, here’s where that guidance goes awry.

For one thing, the differences between Maddow and Hannity are many. Hannity doesn’t need facts to win his audience. He mines fear, and all he needs to succeed is to uncover a fresh vein of it and start digging. As the lead Trump whisperer at Fox, the president keeps him amply supplied with the stuff — which he’s all too happy to season with liberal-bashing and a wide assortment of nonsensical connivances involving Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton — to serve up buffet-style.

Maddow shows her Rhodes scholar cred by salting her presentation with swagger, wry smiles and jokes at Trump’s expense. After all, he’s a bottomless well of malapropisms, rambling and contradictory statements and naked idiocy; why wouldn’t a smart person swing hard at those soft pitches? But she also indulges in clickbaitish tactics from time to time.

A number of folks will never completely forgive her highly promoted breaking news from March 2017 when Maddow lured in viewers with the promise that she had scored a few pages of Trump’s tax return, conveniently leaving out the part that said return was from 2005.

Blending such tactics in correct proportion with the scholarly references to moments in history that parallel the headlines at the heart of her long monologues, however, creates the kind of partisan flavor many liberals are all too eager to lap up.

If Fox News exists to reassure its audience that their crazy, meanspirited views are right, Maddow and MSNBC exist to reassure their audience that the right is, indeed, meanspirited and crazy. And corrupt. And dumb.

This, I suspect, is the reason so many journalists went for Maddow’s throat last week. She too indulged in wild speculations along the way. At a time when the profession is fending off constant accusations of peddling  "fake news" while Fox's opinion personalities can do so with little consequence, her critics insist that she do better. For example, Maddow's insistence on hanging on to the mystery of the unidentified foreign corporation owned by an unnamed foreign government refusing to comply with grand jury subpoenas from Mueller — augmented by a cutesy xylophone riff — ceased to be entertaining some time ago. And yet it showed up again last week.

Then again, this is a real story, not conjecture. But it's a small piece of a much larger mess of a puzzle that may not matter much when all is revealed, many years from now.

Journalists want Maddow to practice solid journalism. Viewers want her to wrap them in a blanket of comforting truth and historical context. MSNBC wants to be a contender with Fox, and the only way to do that is for Maddow to behave like a pundit. Perhaps you can see why these ideas prove to be at odds with one another. Partisan opinion and actual journalism don’t often make strange bedfellows, or even decent ones. One side gets to bask in the afterglow of a major scandal, the other side tends to be left wanting for more reliable information. (The way Fox does it, the pairing is an abusive marriage.)

In any event, no sane news consumer truly wants that model replicated elsewhere. Then again, no sane news consumer gets their information from cable news, save for in times of breaking disasters — mass shootings, plane crashes, extreme weather or ecological chaos, or the dreaded town hall-style political debates.

And frankly, Barr’s summary report knocked the wind out of anyone who hoped Mueller’s findings would set in motion the beginning of the end to the long nightmare more than half the country is living in. Many journalists covered the circumstances surrounding Russiagate from multiple angles, because it was news. It still is.

As forcefully as many members of the media went after Maddow for insisting on maintaining focus on releasing the full report in the direct wake of Barr’s four-page summary of a 400-page report, with nearly two weeks’ worth of distance from Mueller’s drop, she’s not the only one asking about what we haven’t seen. A new round of headlines involve key Democrats demanding the full report’s release. And respectable news outlets are asking questions similar to those she was ridiculed for posing on that last Monday in March.

Maddow remains the top audience magnet at MSNBC, and though her ratings plummeted in the days directly following the report’s release while Hannity’s spiked, odds are they’ll recover. (While Maddow was pushing away the plates of crow being delivered to her desk, Hannity scored a victory interview with Trump, the latest of many since he took office.)

And it’s not as if the questionable practices of this administration have dried up and Trump’s presidency has suddenly normalized. This week Maddow sank her teeth into the security clearances story, the implications of which are still rolling out. Trump also celebrated his declared end to the “collusion delusion” by threatening to close the border between the United States and Mexico.

In the midst of all this, Maddow also interviewed presidential candidate Julián Castro, the first of the wide field of Democratic presidential candidates to reveal his immigration reform policy. In that same show she also responded to the hand-wringing over the high number of candidates by reminding the audience that at this point in the 2016 campaign, the eventual winner, Trump, wasn’t even in the ranks. Then she looked back to the long list of contenders in 1976, which eventually yielded Jimmy Carter, who would go on to be elected president.

Carter’s presidency in the immediate was not seen as a wild success, given its association with gas shortages and financial woes. But history has been far kinder to him and his legacy than voters were in 1980.

Similarly I suspect Maddow’s audience will return to the fold after their current round of bruises have faded. She’s the only evidence they have that intellect, even the variety that indulges in wild conspiracy theory, can survive this madness. The rest of the media may shake their heads with disapproval at Maddow and pelt her with tomatoes when the ride she’s taking her audience on breaks down. And yes, she sputtered recently.

But we schmoes are following road rules, looking at the curves a few feet in front of us and relying on a faulty GPS. Like my colleague pointed out, the view of the cable news business from high above is a different game, one that caters to what the audience wants as opposed to what it needs. Maybe it's the wrong thing for news value, but up until now, it's proven to be the right strategy for navigating the business. From that perspective we should not be surprised to see Maddow weather this chop and stay the course.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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