Thursday, June 5, 2008
Best and brightest of the pundits: Rachel Maddow
Since I still actively listen to the Device Forgotten by Time, namely radio, I am always glad to hear someone who knows how to use the medium properly (read: entertain and/or enlighten ME, I ain’t worryin’ about the rest of yez). In line with that, I will publicly proclaim that, yes, I’ve been listening to the trainwreck known as Air America Radio since its inception, and as the network has continually gained and lost ground on a creative level, there has been only one constant in the whole process: Rachel Maddow.
Rachel is best known these days as a talking-head on MSNBC (most notably Countdown, which I commented on below), but she has maintained her foothold in radio, a medium that she utterly rules. I’m taking nothing away from her as a TV presence: she is beyond welcome in the 24-hour news-net jungle. She is as fresh a face on the scene as Obama, representing a new kind of broadcaster (yeah yeah right, now’s the time to mention she’s an out lesbian. Okay, done). She looks different than the other women pundits on the “cycle,” she’s leagues smarter than just about all of them, and she has an extremely natural presence on-air, which is of course a double-edged sword.
Meaning? Well, I'm glad that MSNBC allows for a slightly less frantic pace than CNN or Fox, because Rachel's particular talent lies in explaining a situation clearly and concisely, while conveying her own opinion. She is quite open about venting her frustration with certain events and policies, which I like and respond to (see my post on Olbermann below), as it's something we haven't seen from the Left in the mainstream media; we have had exemplars of classic journalism like Amy Goodman, but they never exhibit any true despair or (more importantly) annoyance at the way things are going. Rachel, however, also possesses the worst ailment Left Wing thinkers suffer from, namely an overload of good solid information (information that, of course, the average American dunce would prefer to ignore, and does NOT want to hear about). This makes her have to speak faster on some of the pundit shows to convey twice the information in half the time (whereas hardcore racist expert "Uncle" Pat Buchanan can take his own sweet time about things, because he just believes in simple things, like war and White Folks). She is lost in the context of a panel show like the current MSNBC series “Race for the White House” (sorta like that late-night “America: Held Hostage” ABC series, but without the drama) because each “head” gets their two minutes and they’re out. She does not back down from the Right reps on these shows, but is also not a master of oneupsmanship, which is the key to these clusterfuck programs (possibly the most bizarre place to see nasty Left/Right arguments is on Larry King; then again, most things on King’s show are actively surreal — from his tributes to old show-biz to the several weeks he’s spent on those underaged moms in the Texas compound).
So we have a new presence in the pundit world that doesn’t quite fit into the mold. Her radio background came to the fore when she guest-hosted for Olbermann recently and she got the chance to interview guests, something that brought out her “warm” side from radio (see my McLuhan post above!) and her ability to clarify, footnote, and still make the conversation seem mellow. Interestingly, given her current work on TV, she has publicly expressed her doubts about appearing on the “TV machine” as she likes to call it, and had a very interesting exchange on her radio show with the ubiquitous Ms. Huffington, where she asked the latter if being a Left representative on TV merely opened the floodgates for more right-wing propaganda to be spread during the faux "debates" those shows thrive on. You wouldn't hear most pundits even stopping for a second to question their own legitimacy as experts, and for this I value Rachel all the more.
I’m glad as well that, despite the fact that her star is now rightfully rising, she has remained on the uneven, uncertain institution that is Air America Radio. For the moment, her show really runs only about an hour (7-8PM EST, normally 6-9PM), since she’s on MSNBC’s nightly run-the-election-into-the-ground-cast (which is aired on AAR, and man, you don’t miss a thing on radio), and the third hour of her show is a call-in fest hosted by her friend and “political guru” David Bender (who is extremely intelligent and incisive, but just doesn’t grab me as a host). That said, even an hour of Rachel on the radio is better than catching her only as a talking-head stuck in between “Uncle Pat” the friendly hater and various journalists.
I know that others share my appreciation of Rachel’s intelligence and easygoing media presence — in fact Time’s Richard Corliss (whom I admire as a critic, but am even more thrilled to count as a regular Funhouse viewer) wrote an article on Air America in which he proclaimed himself “president of the Tribeca branch of the Rachel Maddow fan club.” Sez RC, “Maddow, with a Stanford undergraduate degree and a doctorate from Oxford, is a natural radio personality: sensible, charming, with an easy-going commitment and flashes of impish wit. She'd please any listener, make any parent proud. And she's cute too.”
In closing, I can add nothing, except that I do hope that, whatever offers come her way in the news-net jungle, she will continue to stay on radio, since that medium really (really) needs as much help as it can get, especially in NYC. And if they bring her to TV for a Countdown-style show, I hope they rehire her terrific radio colleague — who was axed by Air America in its Mark Green-era crackdown on show budgets — the wonderful comedy writer and performer Kent Jones (only guy to get the Winchell bit right, and he’s not trying it on seriously, like that oh-so-aptly named Drudge dude). He and Rachel were a team for quite a while (from the “Unfiltered” show she hosted with Lizz Winstead and Chuck D. of Public Enemy — now those were some fun mornings — to the insanely awful 5:00AM slot). With Jones along for the ride, I can see an incredibly smart and (can it be?) easygoing left-wing political show that would represent (it can happen!) something new under the sun.
I would link to video clips of Rachel, but you can find them all here at the “Maddow fans” website.