MSNBC’s new liberal spark plug

Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Rachel Maddow looked as if she were about to leap into the air with excitement. The newly minted MSNBC host was crouched on a swiveling office chair, her feet propped underneath her, gleefully contemplating the day’s sudden turn of events.

Bill Wolff, her executive producer, had just walked into her office with the latest news: Sen. John McCain was suspending his campaign to rush to Washington and work on the Wall Street bailout.

“No more campaign events for the whole week, he’s just going to be on Capitol Hill?” Maddow asked incredulously.


It was the kind of unexpected development that delights Maddow, whose enthusiasm for all things political has helped make her a breakout star on MSNBC. Just nine months after joining the cable news network as a political analyst, the 35-year-old outspoken liberal has her own hourlong program, which airs after “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” the network’s top-rated show.

An animated dissection of political events and offbeat news, punctuated by the host’s sardonic humor, “The Rachel Maddow Show” has debuted with a strength that surprised even MSNBC executives. An average of 1.64 million viewers tuned in since the show launched on Sept. 8, more than double the number who watched the same hour in the first eight months of the year.

In her second week on the air, Maddow beat CNN’s “Larry King Live,” a cable news institution -- quite a feat for a self-described television novice and former AIDS activist who doesn’t even own a TV.

Maddow posted her biggest audiences yet last week. (Though it wasn’t enough to beat King, who scored interviews with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former President Bill Clinton.)

It was the best launch of a new show on MSNBC, which for years trailed far behind Fox News and CNN. But Maddow’s early success also coincides with a period of uncomfortable scrutiny of the cable news channel. Powered in large part by Olbermann’s unremitting attacks upon the Bush administration, MSNBC has remade itself as a destination for brash, provocative commentary, often from the left side of the political spectrum.

That strategy has both boosted ratings and brought charges of bias. MSNBC executives insist the network does not have an ideological agenda. But the promotion of Maddow has only reinforced perceptions that MSNBC is partisan.

“Do we have a point of view with our shows?” MSNBC President Phil Griffin asked. “Definitely. But we’ve established ourselves as a news organization, NBC News, as uncompromised and as good as anybody in the country.”

For her part, Maddow said she doesn’t think of her show as a platform from which to espouse her political viewpoints.

“I certainly have beliefs and opinions, just like anybody does,” she said. “But I don’t have an agenda. This wasn’t like, great, an opportunity to impose ‘X’ on the world. I think of this as a chance to talk about the news on TV for an hour each day. How awesome is that?”

Some of her interests don’t fit neatly within the political spectrum. Maddow is something of a buff on the history of the military’s role in U.S. politics (she’s writing a book on the subject) and calls herself “a real rah-rah patriotic American.”

“I get very misty about the national anthem,” she said.

Still, there’s no question that Maddow’s unrestrained indignation at Republican policies is a big part of her appeal. On a recent night, in discussing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s suggestion that U.S. officials have delayed withdrawing troops because of domestic presidential politics, she said, “If you feel like your hair is on fire right now, you’re not alone.”

“The politics and the familiarity with her are 90% of the equation,” said Olbermann, who boosted her profile on his show and lobbied the network to make her a host.

“But you never are just talking to the blog crowd, as loud and as luminous and as loyal as they are,” he added. “You have to be able to deliver something.”

Olbermann believes that Maddow’s popularity is rooted in the fact that she strikes a balance that has eluded many other female hosts, who have historically not fared well on cable.

“There is a different set of standards regarding women and credibility and aggressiveness on the air,” he said. “And Rachel manages to keep her credibility and her forcefulness and obviously her intelligence, but there’s also just a fundamental likability that really works to her advantage.”

Maddow makes an unlikely cable star. A Rhodes scholar, she was living in western Massachusetts, finishing her dissertation on AIDS in prisons for Oxford University, when on a whim, she tried out for a job as a morning radio sidekick. (She still commutes back to Massachusetts every weekend, where she has a home with her longtime partner, Susan Mikula, an artist.)

In 2004, she made it onto Air America, a self-styled liberal antidote to conservative talk radio. The post brought her to the attention of cable news producers looking for fresh voices.

“I thought it was funny to be asked at first,” said Maddow, who still hosts a daily Air America show. “Really, me? A face made for radio, if there ever was one. I think I was very self-conscious about being visually presented, and I still am, to a certain extent.”

On one side of her still-bare office hang about a dozen suits in varying shades of black and gray, her on-air uniform.

“It is a rainbow of monochrome,” acknowledged Maddow, who dresses off-air like a gangly teenager in baggy jeans and sneakers. “I just want to meet a basic threshold of what you’re supposed to look like on television so it’s not a topic of concern or discussion.”

Maddow worries about losing her distinct persona in the glare of television but said she has no desire to remain in the freer environs of radio.

“I’m trying to be influential,” she said. “I’m trying to be part of the discussion. You reach people in television in a way that allows you to make more of an impact. If that’s the game you’ve decided to play, you might as well try to win.”