Rachel Maddow, the Obama Era's 'Defining Liberal Newsman'?

Brent Bozell mentioned that NPR "Fresh Air" host read from her own contributor John Powers for The American Prospect liberals on how many ways Rachel Maddow was fabulous. The long tribute is worth more attention.

Powers began: "I can’t say for sure when it happened—it was after Barack Obama’s swearing-in yet before Keith Olbermann got suspended for giving money to Democrats—but at some point it began dawning on people that the face of MSNBC was Rachel Maddow." That, Powers thinks, is excellent, and Maddow is the Obama era's "defining liberal newsman": 

If Olbermann was the Bush era’s defining liberal newsman—as saturnine in his righteousness as Dick Cheney in his—Maddow has taken on that same role for the Obama years (even spawning protégés of her own). Deeply critical of Obama’s failings yet mindful of his successes, she presents a bracingly sensible, buoyantly bemused response to a Democratic presidency that (as ever) most on the left find disappointing yet know they’ll be voting to re-elect anyway.

Powers, who also writes about politics for the fashion magazine Vogue (run by Obama bundler Anna Wintour) and is the author of Sore Winners (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush's America, thinks Maddow is an ideal model for the "Lean Forward" motto:

You can understand why MSNBC execs would want Maddow in this talismanic chair for the 2012 campaign. Young and sunny, she’s their highest-rated anchor, especially among the magical 25-to-54 demographic, which makes her the ideal front woman for a network whose tagline is “Lean Forward.” Just as important, she’s their easiest and most polite host, a woman who once chastised Pat Buchanan on Dan Abrams after he told a Clinton campaign worker to “shut up,” a rebuke that left the old pitchfork-waver abashed.

Although she can sometimes be too doggone cute, Maddow embodies virtues—rationality, good humor, and courtesy—that make her an alluring alternative to our culture’s furious partisan stridency. Her upbeat civility is perfect for wrangling MSNBC’s election-night panel, which includes such monsters of vainglory as bluff, blue-collar Ed Schultz, Lawrence (“I’m the real insider here”) O’Donnell, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose patter has become so lazily formulaic that he seems like a refugee from Portlandia. Smiling and cajoling, Maddow turns them as amiable as puppies.

The "virtues" sentence is part of what Terry Gross read on NPR -- but Powers later admits Maddow is a partisan, if not furious: "As on her show, Maddow is partisan but not dismissive—she tries to be fair."

Powers finds Maddow to be far superior to Keith Olbermann, her original promoter, because Olbermann's show was somehow brilliantly written, but Keith was too overbearing in his delivery:

Although The Rachel Maddow Show is probably the second most painstakingly written news show ever, she reads her script in a deliberately shambly way that feels down-to-earth. (Think of her wearing that blue hard hat in the terrific MSNBC promo at the Hoover Dam.) Her persona appeals to the viewer’s intelligence by being hard to catch in the act of being intelligent.

Powers also feels that Maddow's homosexuality is a big plus. She's making it all so ordinary:

Topping it all off, she’s an openly lesbian anchor in an era when people still discuss whether Anderson Cooper is gay. Not so long ago, being out would have kept Maddow off the air. Now, it feels positively ordinary.

....As Obama must carefully avoid the cliché of the angry black man, so Maddow must forever battle the continuing stereotype of the humorless lesbian. It’s not accidental that America’s three most famous gay women—Ellen and Rosie are the other two—are all known for their jokiness. In a way, so are The New York Times’ two women columnists, Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins, which makes you wonder whether cuteness is the price female journalists must still pay to get high-profile jobs. Curiously, the cuteness is less prevalent in places that aren’t officially supposed to lean forward: places like CNN, which has had several uncute women anchors; Fox News, whose Greta Van Susteren is nobody’s idea of a barrel of monkeys; and The Wall Street Journal, where Peggy Noonan’s column is hilarious precisely because it’s written in such earnest.

Powers came strongly to Maddow's defense against criticism in The New Republic:

The New Republic recently included her on a list of “Over-Rated Thinkers,” labeling her “a textbook example of the intellectual limitations of a perfectly settled perspective. She knows the answers even before she has the questions. … Her show is a great tribute to Fox, because it copies the Fox style exactly.” What made this attack so striking wasn’t merely its own desperate-for-attention, Fox-style crudeness—do they now teach a course in drive-bys at Harvard?—but the lazy way it torched a straw woman. Does anybody really think of Maddow as a “thinker”? Profile writers may gush that she was a Rhodes scholar, but does she present herself as an intellectual on the air? Hardly. She’s a TV host, a popularizer with a vigorous point of view on a network whose audience basically wants to see this point of view reinforced.

He was not referring to Leon Wieseltier's recent notes in The New Republic on her new book, where he said it was "Written in the same perky self-adoring voice that makes her show so excruciating...Maddow is one of those better people who believe that nobody who supports a war can possibly understand what a war is." Powers concluded:

It’s a cliché that Americans don’t know anything about their history, yet when a book like Maddow’s appears, you’ll hear grumbling that it’s old hat—everybody already knows about Iran-Contra, Bush’s maneuverings before the first Gulf War, or Cheney’s ideas about privatizing the military.

They don’t know. And they won’t learn these things from reading Chris Matthews, Michael Moore, or anyone else on what we might call the news-entertainment left. But they will from Maddow. Her optimistic good cheer is not some sort of Sacha Baron Cohen shtick. She is what she appears to be, an idealist who believes in the power of sweet reason. Maddow doesn’t merely want to win viewers over to her side—she wants to make them smarter and better informed.
 

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis