The Rachel Maddow Show
As programs such as Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Daily Show trump traditional nightly news, it is apparent that commentary shows are becoming a primary news source. The political analyst Rachel Maddow has become an icon of this variety of meta-journalism: ‘news about the news’. After completing a doctorate at Oxford University in political science, she worked for many years in progressive media and now hosts her own program on Air America Radio. Recently, The Rachel Maddow Show expanded to television, broadcast nightly on MSNBC. Volume spoke with her about commenting on political events and media coverage.
JI: With the availability of online information, one argument is that the role of curating information is of central importance. It’s said that readers or viewers don’t want to follow a gazillion news aggregation sources, they want to go to a few who they feel parse the information well. We want to speak with you because you comment on the curating of news information. Your job is to
comment on the management of media information: what news stories are told, and how. Can you talk about what you do?
RM: The thing about which I feel most insecure is the fact that I am not a reporter, and in the business that I’m in, both in talk radio and in television media, the ratio of commentary to reported fact is getting higher and higher, and we’re ultimately staking
our entire day’s work, everyday, on a single piece of information, and increasingly I’m being asked to comment on how we in the news comment on that. We create this big pageant of commentary with this tiny little nugget of reporting at the center.
BC: Is the increasing value of commentary simply feeding a desire for predigested opinions, for someone else to do the hard work,
RM: Sure, and you can actually change the politics. Especially when we’re talking about electoral politics. The way we talk about them can change what happens in the political world, in a big way. But I feel the most important thing about the world of American politics is how little of it surfaces. To be a guest on somebody else’s show you don’t get to decide what you are asked to talk about. When I am among the people on a panel who is being tossed a topic, it’s an opportunity to nudge it in a way that is either closer to the truth or favorable towards my partisan intentions. Hosting my own show affords a totally different relationship. To decide what’s worthy of discussion and how it gets presented is a much more serious job. In radio, I’m the producer of my show. It’s a much less bureaucratic medium than TV and there’s a lot less money riding on it. I get to pick whatever it is that I want to talk about from the universe of news: whether I’m taking it on, taking apart some critical aspect, relaying the information, telling jokes about it, or just reading somebody else’s commentary and saying ‘Hey, listen to this neat thing that I found’. I have 99% control over what it is that I talk about, within reason.
JI: Can you discuss formats of broadcasting and their effects on the news being told? For example, there is the point-counterpoint format, which assumes that the story can be illuminated through two predictably polarized opinions. How do you think that shapes the information that’s presented?
RM: There was this great moment of reckoning when Jon Stewart told off the hosts of Crossfire, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. As far as I understand it, in an interview Stewart told them that they needed to ‘stop hurting America’. Jon Klein, the president of CNN, was like, ‘actually, I agree with the commentator’, and canceled Crossfire. But its format has never really gone away, and is now resurgent. I participate in this show called ‘Race for the White House’ on MSNBC every day which never has news-maker guests, just a host with four pundits. On it they started something called ‘The Face Off!’ They put two people on the panel whom they think are ideological opposites, and pick something on which we disagree and have us fight, just like the old Crossfire format. It does two things: one is that it defines you as somebody who can’t be trusted because you’re coming from a perspective that is equal and opposite to another perspective, and so, it says that therefore there is no truth. The very format sets you up to not believe anything that I say. But two, it gives you a chance to talk longer! [laughs] I get the opportunity to speak in paragraph form rather than sentence form where it’s possible to literally slay a debate point.
BC: On the other hand, do you think it is useful for viewers to be able to understand the political coordinates in relation to the day’s events? Are there reasons why, as a viewer, one would benefit from being able to recognize the left perspective and the right perspective?
RM: There is still a myth of balance in television news. Whenever there is an issue with any force behind it, there’s this impulse to say, ‘What are the two sides to this? We must portray these two sides!’ But more frequently than not, one of the sides is correct and one of them is not, or one of the sides makes sense and one of them does not, one is based in fact and one of them is based in probable prediction. The debate format allows me to kill one of the sides, the side that deserves to die and not come back. That’s useful and it gets rid of the myth that there are always two reasonable positions. I’m not sure that’s the way the producers of those segments think about it, but that’s how I see it as a participant.
JI: Do you see potential advantages to introducing uncertainty? I think most Americans still want resolution to their news story, especially the generation weened on the 6 o’clock evening news in which the story was and is still to a degree presented as objective and resolved–supported by facts that tell a consistent and relatively unconflictual picture of the situation. Apart from the debate format, in the context of broadcast media, are there ways to cast uncertainty about the general way a story is being told, and in particular, to describe its manifold complexities which often times do not unfold into a resolved picture of the events?
RM: I start each hour of my show with what I call ‘News from Iraq and Life During Wartime’. Yesterday, my final ‘News from Iraq’ story was about the 18-year-old-son of an editor of a paper in Kirkuk, who was shot dead while passing an American patrol. There were conflicting reports as to whether or not it was an American member of that patrol, or whether it was a sniper shooting at
the patrol, who shot the kid. Big difference in terms of the impact of the story for listeners. But I’m reading conflicting reports, and that’s all I can tell you. So I report that there are conflicting reports and these are the two ways to see it. Then I report the fact that the father–the editor of this very popular newspaper in Kirkuk – made a public statement where he said explicitly, ‘I blame the Americans for having killed my son’, which is just a fact, though it doesn’t mean that he’s right. Then
there’s the additional detail that the paper of which the father is the editor is funded by the American military. There are these complicating details that don’t actually speak to the veracity of any of the explanations, they just tell you how complicated it is. And, by the way, maybe the scandal here is that the American military funds newspapers in Kirkuk? I’m comfortable giving
you all those facts and then moving on. I’m willing to leave it to be unresolved.
JI: Not being a journalist, you rely on other sources for the information that you present. How do you process the news each day? How do you take it in? What are the sources and how does that inform your process?
RM: I read for six hours a day. I only read, often from online wire services and online editions of major papers. I print out what I use for my show, and mark up everything and physically move things around. I call it ‘building the temple of paper’. I get down on the floor, and I make lots of piles, and I shift them around. This is the way my mind works.
I don’t read any magical sources – I read all the wire services and the major papers, and then there are some issues that I feel are drastically under-reported or reported with a really soft edge in the American press because the American public-at-large doesn’t have much of an appetite for those stories, particularly ones related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So for those stories, I’ll go to specialist sources, and read them everyday in addition to mainstream sources.
JI: There are very few liberal commentators in the US, and even fewer that are knowledgeable of military issues, and who discuss how these issues are being managed in the media.
RM: I believe we are becoming a militarist country. Liberals like to talk about healthcare…and stuff, which is very important. But they’ve ceded territory in talking about national security and military affairs to people that aren’t critical about the fact that we’re becoming militarist. There needs to be some political opposition to that fact. I think the American experiment is valuable, and I want this country to be a successful experiment in democracy and rights. If we continue to see ourselves as managing constant wars and in managing the earth through our military, this national experiment is not long for the world. I’m writing a book about this. The basic idea is that we are drifting into militarism. The military has changed, our government has changed, and our politics have changed. We use our military frequently, and we use it for purposes that aren’t even military within the traditional understanding of the military. In post-Katrina New Orleans, ultimately we sent the Army 82nd Airborne Division. And they’ve just extended the National Guard further in New Orleans. That was in 2005, we’re now in 2008. We’ve still got the military there.
I think there is a pacifist bias in the US Constitution. The separation of powers among the three branches of government was established to prevent the Executive from going to war all the time for the reason that it is so politically and personally rewarding for an executive to do so. The recent increase in Executive power has made our government such that we are willing to use
military force. That’s not controversial, and the lack of controversy is as big of a political story to report as military spending.
JI: The president of MSNBC has said that you’re top on the list to receive your own television show. If you were to have your own MSNBC show, how would you frame foreign affairs issues? What are stories that you would bring to the table? It’s clearly something you are interested in, but foreign affairs typically is not a subject that draws a large audience. [Editor’s note: Since the interview, MSNBC has hired Maddow to host her own show.]
RM: I think you have to meet people where they are, and you have to recognize that if you’re saying something that people aren’t generally hearing in other quarters, if it’s something that sounds out of the mainstream or sounds obscure, you have to do extra work to make people not only care about it, but understand it, and remember it, and pass it on to make it part of the discussion. I’ve always felt like the more obscure the subject is, the funnier you have to be in telling it. One of the ways that I cover far-flung, off-the-beaten-path inter national news stories on my radio show is that I call them ‘Weird news from far-away’. Such as, ‘There’s not a monarchy anymore in Bhutan, and now that there’s going to be a constitution in this country that you’ve never heard of before, I’ve gotta tell you, the guy who’s running the new government there: (A) he’s 27, (B) he’s really cute, and (C) he’s signed the new constitution with golden ink! It’s so cool!’
You can even tap into America-centered, patriotic, bombastic, national security reporting in talking about the world. There’s a story this week about the Pentagon’s plan to give two thirds of our massive post-September 11th military aid to Pakistan, which is ostensibly helping fight terrorists in the frontier regions, and divert it to fixing Pakistan’s F-16s. Of course, Pakistan doesn’t want to use its F-16s against terrorists. It wants to use them in its intimidation of India, and that’s our big counterterrorist money, hundreds of millions of dollars, being used for their arms race. That’s a story that you don’t have to be a liberal, pacifist, or an internationalist to get roused about. But I think it means you have to be very creative about how you tell those stories and how you convince people to keep listening.
JI: We frequently hear that the newspaper industry is suffering, and what is at risk is the demise of substantive investigative reporting. As the online world becomes better funded, there is more reporting, and not just commentary, moving it closer to the traditional role of the print-based news industry.
RM: Obviously, reporters need both editors and a publishing mechanism. But when I read the news, going from source to source, the thing I consider–assuming I trust the reporters–is not the masthead it’s under, but whether their online version has a good print-friendly feature. [laughter] I think somebody needs to figure out the easiest, most streamlined path from reporter to editor to publisher to readers. That’s the ultimate continuum that needs to be maintained in order for us to have a free press and to serve our national, democratic needs.
BC: What do you think is the relationship between internet media and the direction that television and radio are taking? There’s a lot of talk about how blogs and other online media may be stealing market share from newspapers. Is the competition with broadcast media less direct? Or do they share in common an increase in the allotment of time and space for commentary in proportion to reporting?
RM: I think there’s now this incredible premium on well-crafted arguments. If you’re good at crafting powerful, memorable arguments that are timely, well-researched, and often brutal, you can go places. Keith Olbermann’s show Countdown is by far the most popular program on MSNBC. What’s different about his show is his ‘Special Comments’, which are these editorials on things that he’s mad about. They are absolutely vituperative, but also incredibly well argued, and it doesn’t sound like television at all. The channel has received a lot of attention, and MSNBC has given him the room to make his whole newscast based on arguments: ‘This is going on and this is wrong. This is going on and this is fucked up. This is going on and this is hilarious. This is going on and this person is a joke’. It’s a very opinionated take on the world, but it’s also the most informative newscast I’ve seen. He covers issues that I’ve not seen covered elsewhere, and the stories may get branded as opinion, but they’re also information intensive. It’s a different way of understanding the news, but one that is cogent and fact-checkable.
JI: Do you think the premium on argumentation is related to how readily available undigested information is today, that in an information-rich environment, the value of the argument that is made about that information becomes more crucial?
RM: Yes, because that’s the way we have made sense of everything that is out there. That’s how we curate it. And I don’t think that outcome was predictable. If you could travel back in time to 1994 and say, ‘all right, this machine that we’re all starting to use is going to make all of this information available’, I don’t think we could have foreseen at the time that the way people would present that information would be in argument form, but it is.
…Um, I have to go do my show now.