The new MSNBC host Rachel Maddow helps the network escape early puberty.
Perhaps, dear reader, you are just an innocent consumer of cable news, and it's your fortune to enjoy a mind uncluttered by the chatter of Romenesko, the whammo yammer of Variety, and the sweet smell of Page Six dung-slinging. In which case, God bless you and skip to the fourth paragraph.
Others, having stared more intently into the spectacle MSNBC has made of itself this election season, might be wondering when the on-and-off-screen drama will reach its inevitable peak. But Hardball host Chris Matthews, his self-regard untouched by self-consciousness, has been blustering forward at an even higher rate of wind speed since April, when Mark Leibovich in the New York Times Magazine convincingly pegged him as a total hustler. And Countdown host Keith Olbermann—a superstar now for reading the left's outrage at the Bush White House right back to the left in radio-days cadences—spent his summer escalating a feud with Fox News that seems best settled in a sandbox. And the past fortnight of convention coverage saw the egos of these personalities and others playing bumper cars live on air, sniping and sideswiping. This week, Matthews and Olbermann were separated from their shared duty of anchoring upcoming debate and election nights; they were de-elevated to analysts after leaving the pretense of objective journalism to die peacefully in its sleep.
Trade papers and media blogs seemed to consider these events to be a meltdown indicative of inner turmoil and bad management. Maybe so, but it only looks like riveting television to me. The channel is 12 years old now, and—restless and growing-pained and insatiably attention-hungry, trying on new identities every hour of the day—it behaves as if in early puberty.
The Rachel Maddow Show (weeknights at 9 p.m. ET) gives some indication of what MSNBC might want to be when it grows up. Its Monday debut was altogether sane—the first and toughest hurdle for a cable-news show to meet—and its atmosphere no more than 50 percent hot air. Further, it had moments of sass, flow, spirit, and a modicum (pardon my jargon) of gravitas. And the host is not afraid to punctuate her clear paragraphs of liberal-to-progressive thought with a well-timed bat of her eyelashes.
Maddow first gained prominence as a host on Air America Radio—in my experience, a channel that encourages knee-jerk liberals to sound at least mildly coherent when talking too loud in coffee shops. She has been a fixture on MSNBC since playing an arch-liberal panelist on The Situation with Tucker Carlson, earning much adoration as a leftie pundit more committed to policy than politics. Lately, sounding smooth as butter, she has been as hot as sliced bread. She's confident enough in the intelligence of her arguments not to attempt bludgeoning anyone with them.
The new show seems built on her promise to come on not like a media hack such as Matthews—and not at all a Howard Beale-style mad prophet like Olbermann—but, rather, like a concerned citizen, a Democrat unconnected to the System. Her job is prying insights out of the hack and the madman and their ilk, and her aim is to offer her audience reassurance. Olbermann aided her in this quest last night. As her first guest, he hashed over an interview with Obama that he had aired in the previous hour; reasoned that the candidate's confidence in the face of the day's poll figures was not undue; and, just for kicks, likened Sarah Palin, in her ingenue quality, to the Lana Turner of legend.
By the time Olbermann left, Maddow was reassured enough about the Democrats' "capacity for attack" that she could wag her head and move on to other matters. These include the achievements of Sarah Palin (in a recap of lukewarm Palin-supporting sound bites from Bush officials), the religious views of Sarah Palin (during a chat with a clergyman about church and state—Maddow's introductory "Talk Me Down" segment"), and the media's treatment of Sarah Palin (opposite Pat Buchanan, "my fake uncle," as she twice called the conservative). She left her constituents with some relatively subtle arguments to recycle at their next Chardonnay-soaked orgy.
I do hope that the McCain campaign sees fit to book its spokesbots and surrogates onto the show. There would be sizzle in seeing this woman joust with genuine opposition—to watch her play get-the-guests with those who aren't just spinning for sport—and there can be no doubt that this year's bewildering gender politics will give The Rachel Maddow Show a further charge. Cf. Campbell Brown—host of CNN's Election Center—who last week instigated a bunch of moaning when dogging a McCain representative to give her a straight answer to a simple question. Even if you agree that Brown's queries were fair, you must have seen that her face was a farce. While spokesman Tucker Bounds dodged and BS'd, she winced theatrically, arched her excellent eyebrows, and pulled a frowny face at his hopeless thrashing. A man could not have gotten away with that mugging or, especially, with Brown's parting line: "Tucker, I'm going to give it to you, baby. We'll end it there." Baby? Wow. We've come a long way.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still of Rachel Maddow from the Democratic National Convention © 2008 NBC Universal Inc. All rights reserved.