Part 2—Christie disappears: At least to judge from the magazine profiles, Rachel Maddow isn’t like you and me.
Blinding sunsets seem to frame her life story’s major moments. She flings tomahawks on first dates. Working with the AR-15, she is either an astonishing shot or someone who fires off into the air.
For details, see yesterday's post.
Whatever you think of Maddow’s journalistic work—we think it has been increasingly shameful, which is why we’re doing this series—her skill at self-promotion seems to be endless. A skillful cocktail of humble-bragging mixed with piteous self-deprecation allows her to portray herself as a superior being whose helplessness means that we mere mortals must learn to love and protect her.
Maddow is a skillful self-promoter. She works her various themes much as the late Tim Russert once worked his humble Buffalo childhood. That said, we can’t say we always believe what we read in profiles of Maddow.
Do you believe everything you read? Way back when, in that profile in Newsweek, Julia Baird wrote this:
BAIRD (12/1/08): She says she is not an angry person—just emotional. “I get teary a lot,” she says cheerfully, pulling one of the handkerchiefs she carries with her at all times out of her pocket and pointing out the bubble pattern on it. She believes in ghosts and is “knock on wood” superstitious. She is also anxious, often lying awake worrying about America's need for improved infrastructure and national security.Do you believe that Maddow believes in ghosts? More momentously, do you believe she “often lies awake worrying about America's need for improved infrastructure?”
That claim by Maddow was rather common in the first year or so of her show. It’s the type of claim in which Maddow seems to set herself apart from us mere mortals.
Does Maddow often lie awake worrying about infrastructure? We don’t know if the claim is true, or if we want the claim to be true. It goes to the question of Maddow’s psychological composition, a question we’ll find ourselves forced to address before this series is through.
As the news business spirals downward, it sometimes seems you can’t get a program on cable TV if you aren’t a visible nut. Is Maddow perhaps a bit of a nut? For our money, her work had become so bad, and so morally careless, that it’s time to ask that question.
We can’t say we always believe the things Maddow says about herself. Many times, these claims tilt toward the unintentionally comic. Consider the several years of claims concerning the TV set.
When Maddow emerged on the scene, it was perhaps her principle hook, her version of Russert’s Buffalo boyhood: Maddow was the TV host who didn’t own a TV set!
In a profile for her hometown San Francisco Chronicle, she explained the situation, just as it would be explained a million times after that:
GAROFOLI (9/11/08): Armed with self-deprecating humor and an impressive intellect, Maddow is the newest marquee commentator on a network that finds itself in the middle of controversy about blurring the line between political commentary and straight reporting...Poor Rachel! Unlike you and me, she couldn’t own a TV set, due to a constitutional weakness; it seems she can’t control herself in the presence of flashing lights! This construct was quite routine in the first year or so of the Maddow profiles, with Maddow careful to explain that her choice doesn’t mean she’s “too righteous for television” or better than everyone else.
Maddow won't touch the turmoil, saying she doesn't follow media issues. She might be the only TV talk show host who doesn't own a television—she hasn't since she left her folks' house to attend Stanford University.
“It's not like 'Oh, I am too righteous for television,’” Maddow said over lunch recently during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. She lives in western Massachusetts with her partner of nine years and maintains an apartment in New York, where her nightly (6 p.m. Pacific time) show is produced.
“I have a constitutional weakness in which I am very easily distracted by flashing lights. If there is a TV on in the room, I can't have a conversation with you. I won't eat, I won't sleep, I'll just meld with my couch.”
Had Maddow ever owned a TV? We’ll accept the somewhat peculiar claim that she never had.
But uh-oh! In the spring of 2009, her status suddenly changed! Do you believe her explanation of the way she came to buy her first-ever TV set?
This Q-and-A comes from an interview with Dossier magazine:
COLE (5/09): On a lighter note, people love to talk about the fact that you are on television and yet don't actually own a television.In one way, it's a comically familiar story. Maddow got drunk one night and then, it just happened!
MADDOW: Oh no, I got drunk last Thursday and ordered one on Amazon! (Laughs) Susan and I ordered takeout Chinese, and I made cocktails and then somehow it just happened. I mean, it wasn't like we were on some total bender or something—it was a weeknight—but I woke up the next morning, and there was the confirmation e-mail stating that we had indeed bought a $400 television. Of course, since we were drunk, we had it shipped to the wrong place, so now we have to get this giant box all the way to NYC from our place up in Massachusetts and figure out how to install it. Neither of us have had a TV in years and years. The last time I lived in a house with the TV was in 1990, when I moved out of my parents' house to go to college. Now there's a giant box with a TV sitting in Susan's art studio waiting for us.
Do you believe that account of the way Maddow bought her first set? That she got drunk, then was surprised in the morning by the email confirming the purchase?
At the time, we couldn’t help wondering if Maddow was trying to explain away her purchase of such a marker of everydayness. One year later, Maddow’s partner, Susan Mikula, was still working this tired theme in an interview with People magazine:
PEOPLE (4/6/10): Rachel Maddow doesn't bring her work home with her.Mikula seems to be above watching TV too!
The MSNBC host, 37, and her artist girlfriend Susan Mikula spend each weekend at their quaint home three hours north of New York in Western Massachusetts, and it doesn’t have cable—or even a television.
“We realized that the two of us have the TV Disease,” explains Mikula, 52. “Rachel can't have one because she'd watch it all the time!” Instead, they enjoy the solitude and home-cooked meals Mikula prepares.
Maddow does have a small TV in their tiny New York City apartment, but Mikula only uses it “so that I can watch her on Friday nights before I come pick her up.”
In several hundred ridiculous ways, perhaps by habit and not by intention, Maddow has crafted an extremely effective song of herself. We aren’t enormously inclined to believe the story about the way she purchased her first TV set. But then, we don’t exactly believe that Maddow believes in ghosts, or that she lies awake worrying about bridge failures.
On balance, of course, it wouldn’t matter if Maddow told a silly stretcher or three about her personal life. More troubling is she the way she misstates, stretches, speculates and invents about important public matters on her national TV “news” program. For our money, the most remarkable such example involves the time she made a misstatement on Meet the Press about the wage gap between men and women, then seemed to dissemble the next night about what she had said and done.
Plainly, Maddow made a mistake on Meet the Press. When we fact-checked the dispute which occurred on the show, it took us about three minutes to see where the problem lay.
It was obvious that Maddow had been wrong in what she said, but she never stopped insisting that she had been right all along. Thirty-six hours later, on her Monday night program, she declared that she had spent hours that day trying to determine why a Republican strategist had challenged her statement on Meet the Press.
In a long, defiant opening segment, Maddow insisted that she still didn’t know why her statement had been challenged. It’s extremely hard to believe that she was telling the truth that night.
(How celebrity works: Two months later, Rolling Stone published a fawning profile in which Benjamin Wallace-Wells embarrassingly took Maddow’s side in this incident, effusively praising her for her overpowering honesty. Translation: Once you reach a level of stardom, the hacks are going to circle the wagons. From this point on, you won’t be allowed to be wrong. The hacks are going to print the legend, which you yourself may have invented.)
That was merely one event. It happened two years ago. In recent weeks, Maddow has come in for criticism concerning her coverage of the Fort Lee lane closings. Even from Bill Maher!
Last Friday night, Maddow appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher, where she acknowledged and defended her “obsession” with the case. In the back and forth which ensued, we got to see an intriguing fact about the nature of modern American discourse.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at those exchanges. Beyond that, we’ll look at some of Maddow’s recent work about Fort Lee, which we regard as hapless and irresponsible. But today, in closing, let’s note a striking fact:
A funny thing happened to Governor Christie over the past few days. Suddenly, he disappeared from the Maddow show.
Last Wednesday night, Maddow opened her program with a pair of gong show segments about the Fort Lee matter. The segments burned more than 26 minutes of broadcast time, roughly sixty percent of Maddow’s total program.
Last Thursday, Maddow did two more segments about Fort Lee, but this time they closed the program. And then, on Friday, as she chatted with Maher, a funny thing happened:
Steve Kornacki sat in as guest host on Maddow’s MSNBC show—and Christie’s name was never mentioned! Last night, with Maddow back in the chair, he went unmentioned again.
Why has Christie disappeared? We can’t answer that. But Maddow’s work last week was horrible, bad, irresponsible, dumb. As we watched, a question came to mind:
Who the heck is Rachel Maddow? How can a famous former Rhodes Scholar produce work that’s so dumb and so bad?
Tomorrow: Clueless, dumb, irresponsible, bad: Who is Rachel Maddow?