In Defense of Rachel Maddow

After Jon Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, D.C., last year, Rachel Maddow convinced Stewart to sit down with her for over an hour to discuss politics and the media. She dedicated her entire show that night to the interview. I don't see how anyone could have come away from that interview thinking Maddow had not given serious thought to the state of the media today and her own role in it.

So you can imagine my astonishment when The New Republic listed Maddow on their list of Washington's 10 "over-rated thinkers." But sure enough, alongside Newt Gingrich and Ayn Rand, there she was:

Maddow is a textbook example of the intellectual limitations of a perfectly settled perspective. She knows the answers even before she has the questions. The truth about everything is completely obvious to her. She seems utterly incapable of doubt or complication. Her show is a great tribute to Fox, because it copies the Fox style exactly.

TNR seems to have missed the Stewart interview, as well as the important work that Maddow does. As Jonathan Cohn pointed out in his own defense of Maddow, she doggedly goes after important stories such as the proposed law in Uganda that sanctioned killing gays and lesbians. Maddow brought the issue to the fore when no one outside the LGBT community was paying attention.

My own favorite example of this is from this past spring. Maddow traveled to Lawrence, Kansas, where she broadcast several shows on the anti-abortion movement. She arrived for the ethics hearings of former Kansas attorney general Phill Kline, who abused the powers of his office to go after Planned Parenthood and the late Dr. George Tiller. While in Kansas, Maddow interviewed Tiller's lawyer, who talked about the state's relentless attempts to shut him down. She also spoke with a former abortion-clinic staffer about what it was like to live in fear of being murdered. As someone who covers reproductive rights, I had never seen anyone in the mainstream media cover the issue with such dedication.

Is Maddow polemical? Often. Does she have opinions? Obviously. Is she anything like Fox News, where making up facts and promoting a partisan agenda is all in a day's work? Anything but. She carefully uses her pulpit to push important issues that the rest of us often leave behind.


If anything, I'm surprised TNR (TNR! calling others "over-rated"? Seriously?) is even onto Maddow at all - it would seem to me that she'd be absolutely they're cup of tea... which is probably as good a description of how the left divides in weird places (it's because Maddow uses The Nation for her think tankers, isn't it? C'mon, it's okay... you're hurt, I get it). Still, I think TNR gets something I thought few people saw - especially lefties. I suspect most lefties share your view and would be astonished that other lefties find Maddow immensely frustrating, and yes, overrated.

Like TNR, I wish Maddow were better, less simplistic, less easy to figure. Her general approach is a segment summing up a story of the day - and here, she really does differ from Fox, because her sum-ups are usually very solid - then she finishes with usually some all-too-usual liberal bopiler plate, followed by an "interview" with a small circle of favored like minds, who proceed to validate her assumptions.

You've cited what are probably the two most notable exceptions to that expectation - on abortion rights, Maddow is far more forceful, and on LGBT issues, she is clearly driven by the sense that it's personal - as a gay man, even when I disagree with her LGBT segments, I can see her passion for the topic, which I share. But Maddow's discussions of DC politics are simplistic and her take on issues - like taxes or budgeting - is thin. She's done little to dive into complex topics in any meaningful way, and rarely provides more than skimming perspective of the issue at hand. It's why, I think, she's been surprisingly muddled on covering Occupy Wall Street: to really assess what's useful and what's frustrating about OWS, you kind of have to be far more invested in the details of banking, the financial crisis, foreclosures and such. Maddow's rarely interested in getting into the hard details. And why bother, when you can share a laugh with Gail Collins?

And this, really, is why I think so many people find the "either/or" of politics just now so useless: just because I can't stand watching Sean Hannity, doesn't mean I want Rachel Maddow telling me I have no reason to consider a fresh idea, or realize that a particular issue doesn't easily fit the left-right dynamic. I'm a liberal because I think we can do better than that.

PS, I wouldn't overstate the value of Maddow's interview with Stewart; I don't think he particularly broke a sweat answering her questions.

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