The MSNBC host left her mark as one of the most entertaining Trump critics
MSNBC recently announced that Alex Wagner would be taking over the timeslot of Rachel Maddow, the network’s highest-rated primetime anchor, four days a week. Maddow took a hiatus earlier this year to work on the film adaptation of her book on Spiro Agnew, and has appeared on the network only sporadically since. With Maddow gone, ratings in her time slot are down 40% in ‘the demo,’ as they say in the biz. And though her contract keeps Maddow affiliated with MSNBC in some capacity through 2024, it looks as though the end of the Maddow era is upon us.
The MSNBC host became a dominant figure in cable news because she was supposed to be different from her peers in the industry. She was a Stanford and Oxford-educated intellectual. A sarcastic uptalking lesbian trailblazer in hipster glasses whose image and sensibilities would skewer the GOP and give the proudly liberal consumers of more august news outlets such as NPR and The Atlantic an excuse to go slumming in primetime cable news. It was Maddow, they believed, who alone could transcend the icky tabloid sensibilities of the medium.
Instead, she gave them all that and more. During the Trump presidency, she floated increasingly deranged Russiagate conspiracies to her credulous audience, making absurdly overconfident pronouncements such as: “Above all else, we know this about the now-famous dossier: Christopher Steele had this story before the rest of America did. And he got it from Russian sources.” (We now know it’s more accurate to say that Steele’s “primary sub-source” was Igor Danchenko, a Russian who worked at The Brookings Institution who in turn was getting his information from a Clinton campaign lawyer who was just making stuff up).
But the most devastating critique of Maddow’s journalism eventually came from the heterodox journalist, Matt Taibbi, who pointed out her nightly nonsense on Russiagate was uncomfortably close to the WMD boosterism of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that helped push America into the Iraq War.
While it is true that nearly the entire American media establishment fell for the Russia-Collusion story, Maddow was a particularly vocal cheerleader. In doing so, she turned herself into the figurehead of the Trump resistance, playing the game better than anyone else did. Essentially, this is what her audience was clamouring for — and she duly provided. As one legendary figure in the cable news told me: “The thing you have to understand is that it’s an entertainment medium first, and a news medium second.”
Unlike MSNBC, Fox News makes no bones about this, even if the network does get carried away some times. But the other thing going on here is that Fox caters to an audience that college-educated liberals profess to care about and have largely abandoned. As Batya Ungar-Sargon writes in her recent and incisive book Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy: “Conservative media is conservative because it caters to the working class, and not the other way around”. Besides, whenever MSNBC does pay attention to the working class, it’s to hector them about being duped by Fox News and Trump with no attempt to win them over.
Perhaps the air of superiority would be warranted if hosts like Maddow had really made a stab at elevating cable news — and there were sporadic highlights in this regard — but overall she never lost sight of the fact she was working first and foremost to entertain her audience. As such, she transformed her show into the kind of buzzy Prestige TV Drama that flattered the sensibilities of its viewers without actually challenging them intellectually.
Did Maddow deserve better? On a recent podcast, even her cable news rival Tucker Carlson said she was a very nice person. True or not, I look forward to her second act as someone who lives in the Berkshires and writes middlebrow books about Spiro Agnew. It suits her talents, and unlike being a cable news host, it’s a career I’m genuinely envious of.