Part 4—Many times, people need help: Over here in our own hapless tribe, what has The Rachel Maddow Cable News Era been like?
To our ear, the first warning sign was delivered in January 2008. That said, there was no Maddow Show at that time. Let's jump ahead to that fall.
The Maddow Show went on the air in September 2008. Candidates Obama and McCain were fighting it out for the White House.
The financial world collapsed that month. Sarah Palin was now campaigning as McCain's vice presidential pick.
Concerns were being expressed about some of the campaign rhetoric. David Frum, the former Bush speech writer, was openly challenging the rhetoric of his own Republican party.
Briefly, this made Frum a hero Over Here on our side. On October 13, 2008, he was invited to appear on the Maddow Show, presumably to repeat his pleasing remarks about the bad behavior of The Other Tribe.
It may not have occurred to Us that Frum could criticize Our conduct too. But uh-oh! That's what happened that night.
Having sat through a snark-ridden program, Frum appeared on the air. The first Q-and-A went something like this. We're working from the Nexis transcript:
MADDOW (10/13/08): You have publicly stated some reservations about John McCain and some criticisms of the way his campaign has run, and even though you've also said you will vote for him.Oof. Essentially, Frum said that Maddow's previous forty minutes had featured the same "ugly tone" and "un-seriousness" which he had been criticizing in his own party.
One quote I wanted to ask about. You said that those who press this Ayers, William Ayers line of attack are ripping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that's going to be very hard to calm after November. What do you mean by that and that word "fury?"
FRUM: Well, I think you were talking, through much of the show, about the matter of tone in our politics. And yet, I think, we are seeing an intensification of some of the ugliness of tone that has been a feature in American politics in the last eight years. And this show, unfortunately, is itself an example of that problem, its heavy sarcasm and smearing and its disregard for a lot of the substantive issues that really are important.
And I would hate to see Republicans go probably into opposition, sustaining this terrible cycle of un-seriousness about politics, turning it into a spectator sport. The party is going to have some important rebuilding to do. It's going to do that in an intelligent way and we're all going to have to do better than we've been doing, including in the past 40 minutes.
If memory serves, we thought Frum had a bit of a point that night. Maddow pushed back against his criticism, skillfully playing our tribe's ever-useful "false equivalence" card.
Eventually, she made a slightly odd statement. It comes near the end of this chunk:
MADDOW: The thoughtfulness issue, though. I wonder if part of the problem, in the way that we haven't moved through these things—That struck us as a slightly peculiar statement. Maddow said she wanted the discourse to be more intelligent. She said that didn't mean that she wanted the discourse to be more "grown-up."
We decry them on all sides, people, left, right and center, complaining about the tone in politics. But I sense also that there's a devotion to coming up with a sort of false equivalence, the idea that bringing up John McCain's experience in the Keating Five, for example, is somehow equivalent to calling Barack Obama somebody who "pals around with terrorists."
You're saying that my tone on the show, sarcasm, being playful, the way that I approach issues, would be somehow equivalent to McCain, I'm guessing, saying that I want to talk about the economy. I don't see those two as equivalent.
FRUM: I'm suggesting—
The line is often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi—I don't know if it's really his—that we should be the change we want to see, or that we say we want to see. And so if we want to have a more intelligent, more grown-up politics, and I think we all say that, then we ought to do it...
I absolutely am concerned and unhappy with the kind of campaign my party has been running. And I'm doing my best to try to raise the tone, my little best, and urge that we do better. We're talking more substantively. I think we should all do that. It would be better for everyone.
MADDOW: I didn't intend for my interview with you to be about this. But because you raised it, I feel like I've got to talk to you about it. And I guess when you say that you want the discourse to be more grown-up and more intelligent, I agree with you on intelligent. I don't necessarily agree with you on grown-up.
I think there's room for all sorts of different kinds of discourse including satire, including teasing, including humor. There's a lot of different ways to talk about stuff and Americans absorb things in a lot of different ways.
(Frum seemed to think we all say that. Maddow said she doesn't!)
We don't want to join The Cult of the Offhand Comment here. It's certainly true, as Maddow said, that "there's room for different kinds of discourse," including satire and humor. It's true that "there's a lot of different ways to talk about stuff."
Having said that, it caught our ear when Maddow rejected the plea for a more grown-up discourse. We've recalled that statement many times in the years which have passed since that night. That's been especially true in the last year, when Maddow's journalism has turned into a clown car.
In 2008, Maddow reserved the right to talk about stuff through satire, teasing and humor. The following April, she produced a grotesque example of where that license can take us.
She did this over the course of two weeks with the help of Ana Marie Cox, who came on the show, night after night, to drop dick jokes on the heads of the teabaggers. This behavior was ugly, disgraceful and stupid. On Maddow's part, the behavior was also less than obsessively honest.
Night after night, Maddow pretended that she was embarrassed— mortified, even—by the embarrassing dick jokes Cox just wouldn't stop dropping. But how odd! Night after night, there was Cox, back on the air, repeating her wonderful dick jokes.
In our view, this was one of the most appalling episodes we've ever seen on cable. Sometimes, the dick jokes were dropped on public officials. But Maddow was willing to let the dick jokes be dropped on the heads of regular people too, including a twenty-something single mother who was scared out of their wits about the broken economy.
She was a teabagger too!
The episode was a disgrace. Our Own Rhodes Scholar from Stanford and Oxford displayed her contempt for the little Joes and Josephinas, the ones who aren't in her tribe. She also displayed an important fact:
She doesn't seem to have super-great judgment. In fairness, maybe nobody does.
A few years later, Jon Stewart directly scolded Maddow for this particular episode. He also told her that she should stop the endless mugging and clowning which had come to characterize her cable performance.
He told her that her job, journalism, is more important than his.
In a manner which was less than obsessively honest, Maddow disputed Stewart's account of all the dick jokes she had dropped on the heads of all those people. She also said that she planned to continue discussing the news through satire, teasing and humor.
Through most of the years which followed, Maddow reported on a range of serious topics. For our money, her playlist was a bit selective, but that problem is hard to avoid for any individual person, even one with a staff.
Among a range of topics, Maddow reported on abortion rights, on same-sex marriage, and on voting rights. A savvy viewer certainly had to fact-check everything Maddow said. But in those days, a viewer had a shot at learning things from watching Maddow's program.
In calendar year 2015, her program fell apart. At least by early May, Maddow's program had become a silly and ludicrous clown car.
In retrospect, it's reasonable to assume that MSNBC's decision to brand itself "The Place for Politics" played a role in the shift in Maddow's subject matter. As for the horrific increase in mugging and clowning and the turn to propaganda, we'll offer a total speculation. It will go something like this:
In August 2014, Bill Wolff left MSNBC to take control at (sigh) The View.
Wolff had no background in news when he came to MSNBC, where he we named executive producer of the Maddow Show; his background was in sports shout programs and in comedy. That said, Wolff seemed to provide an adult presence at the Maddow Show, where he was highly visible, both on line and on the air.
Here's our speculation:
Wolff may have provided the last bit of adult supervision for the Maddow Show's rather juvenile host. At this point, there is no visible journalistic supervision of Maddow's increasingly horrible work. There is no brake on her endless mugging, clowning and self-involvement.
At least by early May of last year, Maddow's coverage of the White House campaign was ubiquitous and remarkably inane. It was also highly propagandistic.
Other topics went under the bus as Maddow followed her bosses' direction, making her show the place for a type of brain-damaged, low-IQ "politics." We've discussed the inanity of her past year in endless detail at this site. We've also discussed an increasingly obvious fact:
Given Our Own Team's tribal vision, most of us liberals are unable to see how horrible Maddow's work is.
Maddow has become a cable news clown; her program is a clown car. When she does pretend to cover real topics, her coverage tends to be a silly, clownish disgrace.
We'd cite her pseudo-coverage of what happened in Flint as a shameless, disgraceful example. Her pseudo-coverage of Flint has been the latest silly game she has played at her viewers' expense.
That said, her shameless conduct is endlessly designed to please the tastes of us liberals. Apparently, we think her mugging and clowning are funny. Apparently, we're unable to see how much she distorts the "news."
It seems fairly clear that MSNBC, a corporate enterprise, performs no journalistic supervision of Maddow's gruesome program. That state of affairs is unlikely to change.
That said, as we close this week's report, we'll ask a slightly different question. We'll ask if the suits in question should be concerned about Maddow's increasingly peculiar conduct.
Back in March 2012, Maddow spoke at length to NPR's Terry Gross about a condition she described as "cyclical depression." This led to a profile in Rolling Stone which appeared beneath these headlines:
Rachel Maddow's Quiet WarThe battle to which the headline referred was her battle with depression.
America's leading lefty wonk has seen the enemy, and it's not just the GOP—it's the battles she fights every day with herself
In the Rolling Stone profile, Ben Wallace-Wells severely distorted a recent episode in which Maddow had been much less than obsessively honest. With his requisite dissembling done, he then offered this capsule account of Maddow's battle, which she says she's been conducting since she was 12 or 13:
WALLACE-WELLS (6/27/12): Maddow suffers, she says, from "cyclical" depression. "One of the manifestations of depression for me is that I lose my will. And I thereby lose my ability to focus. I don't think I'll ever have the day-to-day consistency in my performance that something like This American Life has. If I'm not depressed and I'm on and I can focus and I can think through something hard and without interruption and without existential emptiness that comes from depression, that gives me–not mania. But I exalt. I exalt in not being depressed."Maddow is tremendously skilled at getting liberals to praise her for her greatness. In this case, she was praised for her courage and, of course, for her candor.
Over dinner, Maddow keeps talking about her career as if its end might be imminent. She says she sometimes thinks, "This show could be the last one I ever do." I ask her why that anxiety seems so present for her. What would she be losing if she lost her show? Her response is immediate. "My freedom," she says.
No one explained how they knew that Maddow was being candid. This is the way the game is played, even Over Here in our own admittedly brilliant tribe.
As everyone knows, depression is a horrible condition. No one should have to suffer its effects.
Maddow seemed to describe a type of depression which trades off with bouts of mania or perhaps what she called exaltation. In an ideal world, no one would have to endure that.
"Cyclical depression" doesn't seem to be a widely-used technical term. Whatever you want to call the syndrome she has described, no one should have to suffer such effects.
That said, we keep getting the impression we've seen a lot of mania/elation/exaltation on Maddow's face over the course of the past year. We keep wondering if there's anyone at her sleazy corporate channel who has noticed her somewhat peculiar elated appearance, or if any such people would care if they ever did think they saw some such thing.
Maddow is a money-making major TV star. The history here is very clear. The suits will ride such profit centers until the horses break down.
They did it with Judy Garland, then they did it with Elvis. It has happened a million times since then.
Journalistically, Maddow's program has become a clown car, a joke—a journalistic disgrace. Journalistically, Rachel Maddow needs a ton of help.
That said, is Maddow completely healthy and well? Watching her program, we don't feel real sure.
Given the business she's chosen, we're not sure her owners will care.