Since Jan. 20, Washington has received ample indication that nothing is the same anymore. There’s been a press briefing merely to berate the media about its coverage of inauguration crowds; there have been presidential tweets about a reality TV show; “Fox & Friends” finally has someone who takes it seriously.
And yet! Perhaps no indicator that the media has veered into terra incognita Trumpi is more sturdy than prime-time cable-news ratings from the past several weeks. So ho-hum have been these numbers over many, many years that they’ve been barely worth glimpsing. Well, let’s see just how badly Fox News is vanquishing CNN and MSNBC! — that’s the analytical consideration to which this exercise commonly boils down. Flacks for the lesser-ranking cable networks are left to spin their defeats into something sufficiently boosterish to place in a press release. MSNBC continues its growth in the 25-54 demo in the pivotal 5:00 p.m. to 5:01 p.m. time slot! Or something like that.
Then “The Rachel Maddow Show” started threatening Fox News. For the month of March, Maddow’s program eclipsed its 9 p.m. counterpart at Fox News — “Tucker Carlson Tonight” — and at CNN in the all-important 25-54 demographic. Though Maddow has previously secured weekly victories in the demographic, this is the first time she — or her predecessors — has won a full month in this category at 9 p.m. The surge preceded Maddow’s much-hyped and much-criticized rollout of two pages from President Trump’s 2005 federal tax return on her March 14 show, a get that she procured through longtime tax reporter David Cay Johnston. She has also narrowed the gap between her program and Fox News in total viewers.
As this blog noted, Maddow’s tax scoop and ratings surge just so happened to coincide with a surge in Fox News mockery. In hour after hour after hour, Fox News hosts took turns bashing her handling of the story — a strain of programming overlaid by other critiques of NBC News programming and alleged bias. In an interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, Maddow said this about Fox News’s reaction: “You know, Fox does what they do,” she said. “They’ve got PR strategies, they’ve got corporate competition strategies. They’ve got messaging strategies in terms of their on-air talent. Because I don’t work there, I don’t have to worry about it. I sort of just let them do what they do. I will say that having been in the business for, I guess, this is my eighth or ninth year doing this, I feel like you can kind of — you can kind of see it coming. They have a few greatest hits that they like to play. But I don’t worry about it too much. They do their thing and I do mine.”
The rising numbers for Maddow raise an interesting possibility. Study after study has shown that left-leaning folks spurn a home-base network, whereas conservatives have remained loyal to Fox News. Or, as this blog put the matter in a headline, “Study: Liberals blasé about MSNBC; conservatives crazy about Fox News.” Is the Trump administration changing this dynamic? Is the resistance marshaling for Maddow?
Maddow isn’t certain, claiming that she’s not the “best analyst” of audience data. That said, she thinks there may be a yearning for her extensive newsplanations. “I think I may just be lucky that we’re at a time in the news cycle where there is an appetite for that kind of explanatory work,” she says. “I don’t presume to expect it to last necessarily. But I’m happy for it. And I feel like as long as there is an appetite for that, I’m going to keep providing it. I think my bosses know that when there isn’t an appetite for that, I’ll keep providing it, too, because it’s — I’m sort of like — like those hipster bikes that don’t have gears, you know. I’m a fixie.”
- Asked whether Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi was right to compare her rollout of the tax returns to something “Trump would have done,” Maddow replies, “I love Matt Taibbi. I’ve never disagreed with him in my life and I’m not going to start now. But, listen: Everybody has their own way they would have done that. And I did it my way. And that’s the way I treat the news, which is that I try to put stuff in context.”
- Asked about whether she’s interested in having more Trump staffers on her show, Maddow said, well, not really. “The new reality that they’ve created is sort of a new low,” says Maddow. “And in my case that means that I don’t necessarily want to hear from the White House on almost anything.”
- On the rigors of news coverage under the Trump administration: “I threw my back out on Friday as I was getting ready to prep the show for the day and I haven’t really been able to walk or move around like a normal person since then. I wrote to my mom about it and she was like, ‘Well, of course: You’re not taking care of yourself.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, mom. I don’t think you can blame Trump for this.’ And she was like, ‘Well, your life has been a little upturned.’ My mom thinks I keep throwing my back out because of Jared. You know, I don’t know.”
Here’s a transcript of the interview, which has been compressed and edited for clarity. (Disclosure: Maddow is a Washington Post contributor.)
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: We’ve seen over the years how sort of liberal, lefty news programs have tried to carve out their own niche, kind of the way Fox News has. It’s often been a disaster simply because all the research suggests that liberals don’t want to rely on a single outlet. They don’t channel, they don’t stovepipe the way that conservatives do. Do you think that this is — that what we’re seeing here with your show is a breakthrough of some sort, if you understand what I’m asking?
MADDOW: I honestly don’t know that I’m the best analyst of what’s going on in terms of the audience and the ratings. … But I do think that I have always done something that is a little bit different in style on cable news. Everybody in cable, we get to be our own self. Nobody’s generic. What I have done that I think is unusual is these sort of longer-form, less guest-driven, more expository pieces, where there’s just time to talk. Time to lay things out. Time to deal with and present complexity. Rather than being driven by, you know, always having newsmaker interviews or something on the show. I just have always had that. And for some reason I think I may just be lucky that we’re at a time in the news cycle where there is an appetite for that kind of explanatory work. I don’t presume to expect it to last necessarily. But I’m happy for it. And I feel like as long as there is an appetite for that, I’m going to keep providing it. I think my bosses know that when there isn’t an appetite for that, I’ll keep providing it, too, because it’s — I’m sort of like — like those hipster bikes that don’t have gears, you know. I’m a fixie.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: Have you noticed that perhaps the Never Trumpers — that you’re getting a surge, just from your feedback and Twitter and email, do you think that you’re getting the Republican anti-Trump segment of the American audience?
MADDOW: Oh, that’s interesting. I mean, anecdotally, I always get feedback from people who say, ‘Don’t tell anybody, I’m a Republican, but I watch you.’ Or: ‘My mother was super conservative and said she never met a liberal that she liked, but I told her to watch you and now she’s hooked.’ Like, I’ve always sort of had anecdotal response like that. Again, it’s hard to measure. Obviously the overall audience is bigger and so I expect that that means it’s a slightly more diverse audience. But we don’t really know. I mean I will say that the Never Trump sort of professional class of Republican seems to have disappeared. You know, I don’t know who those folks are anymore. There’s a handful of them around. But you know — you look at the people who auditioned for Trump administration positions, you contrast Ted Cruz at the end of the campaign with Ted Cruz standing in the lobby at Trump Tower and it’s hard to identify the Never Trumpers as a distinct species that would have a second generation and be able to produce offspring.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: So you’re unsure how much of a TV audience they could possibly comprise at this point? Or constitute?
MADDOW: Yeah, I don’t know how many people would either take or deserve that label. … To be fair, I think it’s worth noting that everybody’s numbers are up. I’m very happy that we have good ratings relative to our competitors right now. And I’m super excited about that and I want it to last as long as it can. And I’m looking for wood to knock on right now. But it’s heartening to me just as a citizen and as somebody who works in this business, that everybody’s numbers are up. That there’s a big appetite for news about the new administration. And for news about this strange time in our politics. I was really worried after the election when everybody’s numbers shrank. And I’m actually — I don’t know if it was everybody, but like certainly the MSNBC numbers, everybody just went down in absolute terms. And I was just worried that people were going to check out. That this was a time when politics just felt too brutal for regular people to pay attention to. So the size of our numbers — but the size of everybody’s numbers who’s covering politics right now is itself heartening because it means that the country’s engaged at a time when stuff really is unprecedented, unpredictable, strange, scandalous. And that’s good.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: Is that good news, though, really, because people seem to be freaked out? That they can’t afford to disengage from politics in ways that they used to. I mean before it used — maybe perhaps it was a luxury to stay informed. Now it seems more of a necessity.
MADDOW: Yeah. And I think that the sense that it was a luxury was an illusion. And you know if you don’t pay attention, if you’re not aware, if you don’t show up, not only do you lose in political fights, but you get taken advantage of.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: Right.
MADDOW: For people who love Trump and who love the way he’s transforming American politics, you know, they’re engaged, too. But for a lot of the country that either doesn’t like him or is just concerned about how unusual everything is right now, how unpredictable it is, the reaction to pay attention, to track the stuff, even — I mean, I don’t do a lot of good news stories. I do stuff that people find upsetting and dark and not necessarily positive, but they’re willing to hear it and I think that’s a heartening civic impulse.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: You spend a lot of the day writing out what you’re going to say and you spend a lot of time just you and then you bring some guests as you did that night with the tax story, but to the extent that you get guests, have you had — have you reached out to the Trump people or Trump surrogates, and what has been your experience with them in terms of getting them on your show?
MADDOW: We have reached out to them a little bit. As you say, I’m not terribly … guest driven. And I will say that I think that we reach out to this administration probably less than we did to the George W. Bush lame duck White House, which is where I started, and the Obama White House, which is most of my career. And that’s in part because of something that I’m not all that comfortable with but I’ve talked about publicly before, which is that we made an editorial decision and it’s subject to change every day, but we’re sort of working on a baseline assumption with this administration that you can’t take what they say to the bank. That you can’t even take what they say about themselves and their own behavior as a factual indication of what they’re doing. So that makes it really hard to reach out to the White House for a comment, let alone for guests. I mean, I enjoyed my interviews that I did with Kellyanne Conway, but I found that when we went back to them, they didn’t stand up factually. And she wasn’t saying stuff that was a reliable indicator of something, anything that was going on with the administration or even necessarily her boss’s views. And so it almost becomes embarrassing in retrospect to feel like it wasn’t a good deal for my audience for me to ask them to pay attention to a long discussion with somebody like that. You know, it’s not anthropology, right? We’re trying to get information from people and if you can’t get reliable information, don’t put them on the air.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: But I just wanted to ask you whether you thought that it isn’t newsworthy that she would come on the Rachel Maddow show and lie. Or give you — excuse me, not lie necessarily, but say falsehoods and give information that was not reliable to your viewers. I mean you, Rachel Maddow, are more than capable of cleaning up those messes.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: Why is that not an instructive and important process for you to go through?
MADDOW: I think it was at first. And you’re right to — and you’re on the right path here in terms of figuring out both the ethical and sort of strategic approach to these things that initially when this administration, when the campaign became the transition and the transition became the administration, it was an incredibly notable thing that the White House spokesman was saying things that weren’t true from the podium. That top White House surrogates were saying stuff on TV and under direct questioning that proved out not to be true. That everything from their ethics agreements to their explanations of what was going to happen next in terms of particular executive orders and legislation just wasn’t factual. And it was a shock to learn that about this new administration. And now we know. And I feel like a lot of the things that have — a lot of what it takes to sort of live responsibly in the era of this administration, is to come up with what you do after the initial shock. So much of the coverage about a president and his financial ties, for example, was about what a terrible thing and what a consequential thing it would be if a president hypothetically ever decided not to release his tax returns. Well, that happened. And then that’s not the end of the story. Then you have to figure out what you’re going to do next. The White House was known to lie on a regular basis. Well, that happened. And now you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do next. These things — they’ve broken a lot of our political mores and then we need to invent new ones with how we react. The new reality that they’ve created is sort of a new low. And in my case that means that I don’t necessarily want to hear from the White House on almost anything.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: And when you use — you use the word “lie,” at least with me, pretty liberally. Do you break with NBC News guidance on the use of the word “lie”?
MADDOW: No. In this sense I think the word lie is the verbal equivalent of, you know, showing pictures of gory violence in a newsworthy event. That it is not that it should never be used and it’s not that it is not never appropriate, but you should take it with the weight that it deserves. And you should never use it flippantly. And you should mean it and explain it and be deliberate about it when you do it. And that’s I think in the spirit of those rules.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: So you’ve seen how CNN has all these Trump people, these surrogates on air. In my own view I think they foul the airways in extreme cases. What do you think about having the surrogates on? Do you see much value in them?
MADDOW: Well, I think there’s sort of two different ways to think about that. One is that I don’t have too many surrogates for anybody on … I try to bring people on who have either direct experience of the news event that’s being discussed or people who are experts either because they’re the reporter that covered it or because it’s their subject matter expertise. Like, I just don’t — I’m not sure my booking strategies are the same as everybody else’s. But in general my booking approach is that I — whether I’m bringing on somebody who I agree with or I don’t or is a newsmaker or an advocate or an expert, or whatever, I feel like the bargain with my viewers is that I am advising my viewers, either implicitly or explicitly. This person because they are here has passed my test that they are worth listening to and so I don’t believe in — you know, it’s one of these old-school cable-news tropes that you see coming back now — which is like have a grown-ass adult host bring a — bring somebody who’s never been on TV before or somebody who’s bad at being on TV or somebody’s who’s not bright, doesn’t make good arguments — and have the host destroy them. Like I don’t — I just — you know, I’ve played those games before. I’ve been in those Punch and Judy shows. And I didn’t appreciate it. And I’m sure — you know, it’s fun. You know feeding Christians to lions is fun, too, but I want my viewers to feel like if I’m bringing somebody on, it’s because they have something that is worth hearing. And I try not to violate that.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: Last month you commented on air that big breaking news stories happened on Friday nights. “Why is it always Friday night?” The Trump administration, I think, has overturned the journalistic rhythm of work and the understanding what sort of commitments that this job requires. It previously required, I think, a very substantial commitment. Now it requires a humongous commitment. Has Trump upended your own life? Is this straining you?
MADDOW: I totally think you’re right that the unpredictable rhythm of the news cycle since the election is — I mean it’s a real thing. We sort of joked about it at the start of the new administration … at our news meetings, we joke about the fact that, like, when you have a normal government, they do normal government things and they happen at normal government times. But with these guys, you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve since sort of figured out that I think that’s happening for two reasons. One is that the Trump administration is weird. They have an unusual approach to what they’re doing. They’ve got unusual staffing. They’ve got unqualified family members doing really high-end jobs. Like there’s weird stuff. So that makes for an unpredictable rhythm of itself.
But I think also part of their — part of the reality of covering them is that they are not making their own weather in terms of the news. A good administration that’s, you know, popular and in peacetime and has a good agenda and a good message will be able to shape the news cycle the way they want to. Carefully. And by deliberate means. And these guys don’t. They can’t. Certainly they can make news. And they can do stuff that gets coverage, but it’s the Fourth Estate that is driving most of the important news about the Trump administration. News about them has been much more important than news by them, in part because so many of their policy initiatives have been a bust. Or they haven’t even tried. And so when you’re the subject of the news cycle, rather than the author of the news cycle, that means you don’t get to control when it happens. And I think that partly explains why the rhythm is a little weird, too. So it’s been exciting. It’s nice to get out of predictable — out of any sort of predictable rhythm. I won’t say that it hasn’t been disruptive. I threw my back out on Friday as I was getting ready to prep the show for the day and I haven’t really been able to walk or move around like a normal person since then. I wrote to my mom about it and she was like, “Well, of course: You’re not taking care of yourself.” And I’m like, “Oh, mom. I don’t think you can blame Trump for this.” And she was like, “Well, your life has been a little upturned.” My mom thinks I keep throwing my back out because of Jared. You know, I don’t know.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: [On March 10, Maddow did a segment pegged to the news that the President Trump was unaware that former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn had worked at a lobbying firm that had done lobbying work benefiting the Turkish government. The segment wondered how this could be, considering that multiple news outlets, starting with the Daily Caller, had reported on the connection in November 2016. Maddow: “This wasn’t like a rumor or like a secret. The Daily Caller reported it, Politico reported it, CNN reported it, the AP reported it, Bloomberg reported it. On the 11th of November, some dumb cable show did a big long story at the top of the hour at 9:00 eastern on MSNBC.”] On your show, you noted that you were among the outlets that highlighted this dimension. Is it possible that they only read and watch the stuff they want to see?
MADDOW: First of all, I have to admit I felt a little silly being like, I did a segment about it. As if I would presume to believe that the White House should be watching what I do. But I put myself in that list of people who had covered it specifically to show the ideological and even the media heterogeneity of all the different people who covered it. I mean I did — I’m liberal cable TV and I did it and so did the Daily Caller. And so did CNN. And so did all the other media outlets that we listed. And the idea being sort of implicit critique being that if you consume any media about the administration whatsoever, you couldn’t have missed this. There isn’t an ideological hole in which you could have hidden where this story didn’t surface. Especially at the time when you were vetting this guy to be national security adviser. I mean if you’re vetting somebody to be national security adviser, maybe one of the things you do is Google them. Just to see what their news mentions were that week. I mean, it strains credulity to the point of breaking that they had no idea. And that Mike Pence running the transition had no idea. And I continue to believe that there are very, very basic questions at the center of the whole Trump-Russia thing where the purported explanation from the White House makes no sense. And I know that Mike Pence has a different reputation and is seen as a different kind of Republican than the other folks who came in as part of the Trump campaign, but some of the stuff that makes the least sense around the investigation into Trump and Russia and just the Trump-Russia connection, some of the stuff that is really not believable, the most not believable stuff, goes directly to the vice president.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: I wrote in support of you the way you rolled out the Trump tax thing with David Cay Johnston. But Matt Taibbi said one thing that struck me as kind of a decent burn. He said, this is how Donald Trump himself would roll out a scoop. I thought that was a decent piece of criticism. Do you agree? Do you think that there’s something to that? Or does that bounce off you like all of the other criticism?
MADDOW: I love Matt Taibbi. I’ve never disagreed with him in my life and I’m not going to start now. But, listen: Everybody has their own way they would have done that. And I did it my way. And that’s the way I treat the news, which is that I try to put stuff in context. Say what I think is important about it. I try to — especially if I get something exclusively or where the origin story of the news is itself intriguing, I try to be not just transparent about that but to spotlight that. So you know, listen, I’m happy that I got Trump’s tax returns from 2005. And those two pages were in the end, you know, neither a scandal nor a bombshell, but they also remain the only federal tax documents we ever had on Trump.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: I think the fact that we have them is a marker and we’ll learn more about their meaning as time goes on.
MADDOW: There’s already been good analysis in terms of what was going on with his life in 2005 that might have been different around that time than other years. If he did leak them himself or if it was intended to be a favorable leak to make him look good, you know, what would help clarify that in terms of other information from other years. Or even supplemental information from that specific year. How would his own tax policies affect his own wealth and his family’s wealth? I mean, all that stuff, we’re further along figuring that out because of that revelation.
ERIK WEMPLE BLOG: Just as you started beating Fox News … in the 25-54 demographic in March, they started to hammer NBC. Did you see any sort of coincidence in the fact that Fox News just went out like a political organization criticizing NBC News for all manner of corruption just as you started to overtake them?
MADDOW: You know, Fox does what they do. They’ve got PR strategies, they’ve got corporate competition strategies. They’ve got messaging strategies in terms of their on-air talent. Because I don’t work there, I don’t have to worry about it. I sort of just let them do what they do. I will say that having been in the business for, I guess, this is my eighth or ninth year doing this, I feel like you can kind of — you can kind of see it coming. They have a few greatest hits that they like to play. But I don’t worry about it too much. They do their thing and I do mine.
WEMPLE: They seem to have an old boys network sort of mutual protection act with O’Reilly and Ailes in terms of this sexual harassment stuff. Do you see any symmetry in terms of what was going on in the background in the hallways and how women were portrayed on the air there?
MADDOW: I don’t feel like I have any particular insight into that. I mean I have some friends who work at Fox. I haven’t had detailed conversations with them that would give me any insight into what was going on there other than what we’ve all read in the papers. And in terms of what they put on the air, I assume from working in another news organization, that the on-air product is the ultimate result of a lot of different input. Some of them from executives and some of them is corporate identity. And some of them from the way they want to brand themselves. And some of them from the hosts themselves. And so I don’t — I’m an outsider totally to that question. I mean, I do feel like the paucity of women doing their own shows under their own names, particularly in prime time, is something that I feel acutely. And I wish there were more women in not just on-air roles, but big powerful on-air roles, because I think that it would change the overall dynamics of power in the industry. And I look forward — you know, I root for every woman who is getting — who gets up there in terms of — and gets toward the top of the totem pole and can start really making her own weather in terms of what the news business is like. So I don’t have any special insight there but certainly if you look at the industry as a whole, more women in bigger positions of power would be welcome, I think, across the board right now.