By Gail Picco, May 8, 2020
Rachel Maddow: A Biography, Lisa Rogak, Thomas Dunne Books, January 7, 2020, 288 pp., $37.10
TV ratings are a cruel sport.
The Ad Age Wednesday, May 6 Scoreboard for Cable News Shows detailed that Fox News won total viewers and adults 25-54 every hour, for every show, from 4-11 p.m.
And, like everything these days, it’s all a bit scary.
The ratings in the 8 pm slot show more people watched Fox TV’s Tucker Carlson with 746 rating points than they did CNN’s Anderson Cooper (395 points) and MSNBC’s Chris Hayes (314 points) combined.
In the 9 pm slot, Fox’s Sean Hannity is number one with 694 points, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow sits at number two with 501 points and Chris Cuomo, brother of New York state governor Andrew Cuomo, trails with 457 points.
Fox’s bellicose 10 pm host Laura Ingram reigns over her slot with 641 rating points, besting CNN’s Don Lemon (398 points) and MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell (310 points). TV rating points are calculated by monitoring people’s TV viewing habits.
All three prime time Fox hosts are said to be influencing the Trump administration. “The symbiotic relationship between the Trump administration and Fox News has long been chronicled,” says the Guardian.
As they come out on top of the ratings war, is it any wonder Fox deigns not to change their truth-busting programming paradigm?
But make no mistake, the Joan of Arc of cable news, the one challenger to Fox’s top spot is Rachel Maddow, a lesbian woman whose only nod to being on prime time television is wearing contact lenses, a touch of lip gloss, a swish of mascara, eye make-up, and a “$20 jacket” over her t-shirt and jeans.”
Maddow was raised in California by an American father who served in the Air Force during Vietnam, and a mother from Torbay, Newfoundland and Labrador (not far from where this writer grew up). Her first media job in 1999 was co-hosting a local morning radio show on WRNX in Holyoke, Massachusetts for two years, after which she hosted Big Breakfast on WRSI in Northampton, Massachusetts, leaving in 2004 to join the new Air America, during which time she also began appearing on CNN debating Tucker Carlson and right wing preacher Pat Buchanan “for balance.”
In Rachel Maddow: A Biography, author Lisa Rogak describes a scene after Maddow’s first debate with Buchanan, “the show cut to a commercial break. Buchanan thought Rachel had signed off from the network connection, and he started chatting with the host. But Rachel was still listening, and she overheard him say, “I like that liberal girl.”
Rogak writes that “Rachel, for her part, enjoyed him because he was old-school, not sucking up to network brass to get ahead, but also not putting people down because they had opposite opinions.”
In 2004 during an interview for a job with a team of producers at Air America, Maddow was asked to name her favourite radio personalities. She answered Glenn Beck.
“A couple of the interviewers exchanged looks, and one of them archly asked her if she knew that Air America was aimed at a liberal audience. She told them that, yes, she realized that, before adding that she knew where she stood as an advocate of liberal values despite the fact that he was at the top of her list when it came to a skilled radio broadcaster.”
Ironically, it was Glenn Beck and his fans who stoked threats against Maddow as her profile increased.
“The only noticeable uptick that I got is kooky, I’m-gonna-get-you threats when I do [stories] about conservative media personalities,” she said. “It’s when I’m talking about someone’s favourite talk-show host, and that makes them want to kill me.” Most notably, writes Rogak, “they were fans of Glenn Beck.”
“He’s telling his viewers that I’m a liar and propagandist for pointing out that his cockamamie claim that snowfall disproves global warming,” she said on her February 16, 2010 show.
Maddow’s ability to reach beyond polemic to engage with the world with a framework of expectations around personal behaviour is a through line in her work. And it is where we find her exceptional capacity to articulate understandable narratives on complex subject matter.”
Witness, or better yet read, her books Blowout, about the oil industry, or Drift about how easy it is has become for the U.S. to enter into or ‘drift’ into perpetual war. She engages with her subject matter from the foundation how people behave, and she does so with “bracing wit and intelligence” according to several reviewers.
It’s when she’s reporting about vulnerable people that Maddow’s own vulnerability shows, such as the time she broke down, when breaking the news of the Trump administration separating ‘tender-aged children’ from their parents at the southern border.
Rogak’s biography points to the period of time after Donald Trump became president, Maddow and her 20-person staff, was becoming burned out trying to follow the 15-minute news cycle emanating from the White House. It was when they decided to “not to watch what they say, watch what they do” (how they behave) that they were able to find their equilibrium.
Maddow is a relatively private person. She and her long term spouse artist Susan Mikula have their routine. Maddow leaves their Massachusetts home on Monday morning to go to work at the Rockefeller Centre in New York City, Mikula joins her in New York City on Wednesday and they both drive back to Massachusetts on Friday after work. She sometimes goes out for dinner after her show. And Rachel Maddow works hard, choosing the stories for the show, writing her own monologues for every broadcast, and reading constantly through the weekend.
The book offers about as much insight into her life as Maddow thinks we should have (and probably a bit more than that). It includes interviews with some of her family and friends, and consolidates information published by other sources.
We learn Maddow six feet tall, played basketball in high school, was a bit of a brat at university, and came very close to having a career in aids advocacy, before she became what she calls a storyteller. The title of her PhD thesis is HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons.
But Maddow is not messing around anymore.
In 2008 MSNBC offered her a one-year contract for a show. Her approach, which includes an uninterrupted monologue for 24 minutes off the top of the show, changed the structure of cable news.
After four years and increasingly higher ratings, her format ‘proved to be so successful that it couldn’t help spilling over into the rest of MSNBC’s lineup,” writes Rogak.
“I admire what Rachel has done and I absolutely would not be doing this if it weren’t for her,” said Chris Hayes, whose own show leads in to TRMS at 8 pm. “What she is able to do in prime time is remarkable. She has opened up a door on a whole new realm of possibility of ways you can create an audience.”
Rogak’s book is a timely one. For those of us tied to smart cable news since Trump was elected, looking for the ways in which people are pushing back against the relentless and dangerous excesses of the administration (kind of like Potterwatch in the later Harry Potter books), we value Maddow’s excellence and her determination to work hard for the story.
We also admire her as a person—the way she carries herself, her commitment to the viewer and to the story.
The world is a better place with Rachel Maddow in it and Lisa Rogak’s work helps us understand the values from which she operates. The world is not entirely populated by liars, spinners, egoists, narcissists and the senseless. There’s hope.
(Gail Picco is the editor in chief of The Charity Report.)