First, a note in defense of iconic MSNBC host Rachel Maddow:
On the evening of Friday, March 22, 2019, when word leaked out Special Counsel Robert Mueller had wrapped up his investigation and was heading home without recommending new charges, the eyes of the collective journalism world darted in Maddow’s direction.
A massive machinery of ass-covering began whirring. Maddow was the industry name most intimately connected with collusion. She was practically the Madame DeFarge of Russiagate. In 2017 and 2018 The Rachel Maddow Show transformed into the Trump is a Russian Agent show, in which each night a new piece of the conspiracy would be stitched into view for audiences. This put her in some career jeopardy if Trump turned out not to be quite so guilty.
It had been a wire-to-wire routine. When Trump was inaugurated, she quipped, “We’re about to find out if the new President of our country is going to do what Russia wants.” She and fellow MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell wondered aloud if Trump attacked Syria in early 2017 as part of a Putin-orchestrated plan to make him look less Putin-dependent.
She described the Trump presidency as a “continuing operation” of Russian influence. She suggested Trump appointments were done at Russian behest, and dished innuendo freely, saying for instance that Trump was “curiously well-versed” in Russian talking points. Most infamously, during a national cold front in early 2019, she asked her audience, if a “Russia killed the power in Fargo today,” then “What would you and your family do?”
It worked, financially most of all. The Russia story helped make Rachel Maddow the #1 cable news host in the country in 2017, smashing her Obama-era ratings. Her ascent continued through early 2019, when she eclipsed 3 million viewers for the first time, an astonishing number for a former little-known host of Air America radio.
Those ratings turned into record profits for MSNBC, making her an iconic rarity within a news business that traditionally struggles on the cash front: a bankable star.
When the Mueller finding of no conspiracy or coordination came back, the leading hotshots in the industry made an instant calculation: Maddow’s two years of conspiratorial rants probably could not be defended. Almost immediately, in the peculiar way my colleagues in the press have when it comes to facing adversity with a sense of bravery and togetherness, they decided to toss her overboard.
The letter by Attorney General William Barr quoting the Mueller report on collusion came out on a Sunday, March 24th. By the next morning of Monday, March 25th the new conventional wisdom was that if mistakes were made, it was the fault of cable news, a small inconsequential island of suckage in a vast sea of responsible journalism. The turnover was so fast, editorials against her must have begun being written more or less at the moment the Barr letter landed.
Some pundits didn’t name Rachel by name. But everyone knew who media writer Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post was talking about when she said the Mueller decision wasn’t a reflection on “serious” journalists.
If anyone had to wear the black eye, Sullivan wrote, it would be “cable pundits” who “make a living off speculation” and those “ridiculous” explosions made by “tiny cannons on Twitter.” Those people, Sullivan sneered, “aren’t really journalists anyway.”
From there, the floodgates opened. “Commentary television is not news,” snapped David Cay Johnston of the New York Times, himself just days removed from saying on Democracy Now! that “I think [Trump] is a Russian agent.”
He added: “Rachel Maddow in particular has certainly pushed the Mueller matter,” doing so in conjunction with “the facts at the time.” However, he said, her work was “driven by the commercial values of television.”
“Cable television,” wrote Columbia Journalism Dean Steve Coll in the New Yorker, “mixes field reporting and news-making interviews with personal asides from prime-time personalities and roundtables of bombast-mongers.”
After Mueller’s “March surprise” (which wasn’t a surprise to me and a lot of other reporters), Coll added it would be “unrealistic” to expect audiences could make the distinction between “editorializing and reporting.”
“Yes, the mainstream press gave too much credence to the Steele dossier and rushed to publish too quickly on seemingly incriminating stories,” piled on Ross Douthat at the New York Times. “But as long as you got news from somewhere other than Rachel Maddow the case for skepticism was amply available as well.”
These people all worked in organizations that either bungled Russia stories as MSNBC did, or shamelessly hyped fears to boost ad sales as MSNBC did, or both.
Douthat’s New York Times outstripped Rachel’s act with its insane infographic series, Operation Infektion: Russian Disinformation from the Cold War to Kanye. (Kanye!) Maddow never described Russia, as this Times animation piece did, as a virus literally eating us alive at the cellular level. She was never so shameless as to blame Russia for your creeping sensation that the American media is not awesome at its job. From Infektion:
“If you don’t know who to trust anymore, this might be the thing that’s making you feel that way,” the Times suggested, over graphics of red disease eating your cells. “If you feel exhausted by the news, this could be why.”
Absent a crazy new development, Rachel will almost certainly be turned into the Judith Miller of Russiagate, the human symbol of What Went Wrong. Just like Judith Miller, she won’t deserve to wander the desert alone.
Future commentators will probably make note of the obvious fact that in both cases outspoken women ended up being the ones herded out of the village by colleagues, forced to wear the yoke of journalistic blame. Make what you will of that, but it’s not all on her.
Rachel Maddow is not on the cover of this book because of anything she did by mistake, because Russiagate turned out to be a bad guess.
She’s on the cover because of what she did on purpose, with the core concept of both her program and her public image, before the Russia story. She transformed from a sharp-minded, gregarious, small-time radio host to a towering patriotic media cudgel, a depressingly exact mirror of Hannity.
This is an excerpt from the newest chapter of Hate Inc. Subscribe to get every chapter, as well as the serial book The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing.