More than any other broadcaster, Rachel Maddow has taken seriously the implications of the 24/7 news cycle in which we find ourselves. It’s not just that she knows that her viewers know, pretty much, the news of the day. Unlike other people who have something as precious as an hour of network TV at their disposal, she doesn’t begin by telling you what she’s going to talk about. As somebody who won all the academic honors that there are to win (Stanford Phi Beta Kappa, Rhodes Scholar), she wants to educate her audience.
Her trick is not to tell her audience what she’s going to do. It often happens that five minutes into the show, you still don’t know where she’s going with a segment. Gradually, though, you realize that she’s giving you a history lesson.
Just think for a minute how radical that is. As a nation, we Americans aren’t interested in history. We left Ireland, or Vietnam, or wherever, precisely to get away from history and start all over. Don’t believe me? Try doing what I did. I did a Google search for “history is a boring subject,” and found one article after another. History majors are declining all over the country, and former students have uniformly bad memories of memorizing pointless dates and meaningless events for exams. Reading these posts, I got the impression that history is being taught the way Latin used to be. Learning Latin was a challenge in brute memorization. Well, Latin has pretty much disappeared from our curriculums, and history may be disappearing, too.
Only not the way Rachel does it. It’s a very curious thing that she does-she decontextualizes history. That is to say, she starts telling you about something, and gives you no way of figuring out what its relevance is. You sit there thinking, ‘Why is she going on and on about this?” Instead of telling you about a current event, or trend, and then explaining how it grew out of the past, she starts with the past, and then unexpectedly connects it to the present. When she finally does that, it’s like she was pulling a rabbit out of a hat, and you’re surprised and intrigued.
Here’s how she does it. She began a recent show by saying, “On the Fourth of July, in 1995, a county commissioner in southern Nevada decided to celebrate Independence Day by declaring that Nye Country was independent.” And you gradually became aware that this was not about 1995 at all, but about the Cliven Bundy controversy. The point is that Cliven Bundy was acting (and later talking) in a context that encouraged him to be a scofflaw. (It’s remarkable to me that no one has commented on Marlboro ads as a key precedent in this story. Bundy thinks of himself as the Marlboro Man, whether he knows it or not.)
Or take a later program in which she began by talking about Colorado Senator Michael Bennett’s 2012 re-election campaign, in which his opponent was a man named Ken Buck. Ken Buck, she said, was so pro-life that he opposed all abortions, even in the case of rape or incest. Although he lost by only one percentage point, he lost women voters by 17%. When Rachel starts out like this, you trust her to make a point about the present, and she finally got to it by saying that in 2014 the other Colorado senator, Mark Udall, is running against a Cory Gardner, who has a similar position on abortion. So it’s likely that the Udall/Gardner campaign will play out very much as the Bennett/Buck campaign played out. That is to say, it’s likely that Udall will win.
So Rachel doesn’t do the nightly news as Scott Pelley at CBS does, and she certainly doesn’t just sit there and give opinions the way Bill O’Reilly does. What she does is much more imaginative and creative. Think about it like this: Rachel treats the news very much as a jazz musician treats a melody. She riffs on the news; she takes it apart and re-combines it in unexpected ways.
What it comes to is that she really is more like a performance artist than a normal broadcaster. She has the confidence and presence to talk casually to her viewers, and in slangy English, too. (Sometimes, when provoked, she says “freaking.”) And then there’s her body English. She rolls her eyes dramatically, and makes extravagant arm gestures to make her points.
So far, Rachel doesn’t have any imitators, but if there’s one thing we know about show business in America, success inspires-if that’s the right word-other people to imitate it. So her creative way of organizing an hourly news show may have a ripple effect that may make other news shows livelier.