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Inside Rachel Maddow’s Plans to Reinvent Her MSNBC Show in Trump Era

Even the busy Rachel Maddow has the right to expect the first week back from a holiday break to be an easy one. But in the current news cycle, easy is hard.

In a rare maneuver for a cable-news host who rarely books big-name guests in advance, her MSNBC staff had locked in Sen. Bernie Sanders for a three-segment interview on Jan. 2. With an hour and 15 minutes before “The Rachel Maddow Show” was set to air that day, producers discovered that the influential politician could not make it. Maddow had to rely on extra material her team had produced to fill the time. The next day, she journeyed to Washington, D.C., for back-to-back segments with Chuck Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, and Sanders, in a make-up for the previous night. On Thursday Jan. 5, she led with a look at how the National Enquirer mirrors current politics; the segment used so many on-screen elements, she joked, “I almost killed my graphics team!” On Friday, the capper: an analysis of President-elect Donald Trump’s downplaying of a much-scrutinized intelligence report stating in clear terms that Russia had influenced the U.S. presidential election. “I have to say, I don’t get weirded out by that much stuff in the news, but this kind of puts a shiver down my spine,” Maddow told viewers. “Our president-elect is lying to us.”

She doesn’t want any rest. “I’m more energized about my job now than I have been in a very long time,” she says in a recent interview. “I see my job as explaining stuff. Boy, there’s a lot to explain.”

With the election of Trump, Maddow is ready to embrace a new tactic that could be an immense challenge for her. Though she acknowledges that she has faced hurdles in luring top politicos to her show, she wants to land the big players in this new and difficult-to-read political epoch for interviews that could extend for 30 to 45 minutes. If senators, policymakers, and White House machers can go toe-to-toe with the anchor, so the theory goes, they will be rewarded with something significantly more valuable than a sound bite, the usual coin of the cable-news realm.

“I don’t pretend to be anybody other than who I am.”
Rachel Maddow

Maddow won’t be leaving behind the reporting and commentary that made her famous. Since she launched her program on MSNBC in the fall of 2008, she has established herself as a sort of news raconteur. She immerses herself in the wonky details of whatever she may be examining — a river in North Carolina polluted by Duke Energy coal ash, for example — then weaves those granular bits into a colorful tale of national import, one she often tells in a mammoth 20-minute opening segment. So reliant is her program on her investigations and storytelling that it has typically had little use for the talking heads who tend to populate so much of the cable-news landscape.

“I do feel like where I do best, and what our audience seems to respond to the most, is expository work, explanatory work, putting things in context,” she says. “When I can get interviews with people who are in positions of authority, people who are decision-makers and players in this new political era that we are in, I hope I can have a conversation with them and press them so that they talk about things they would not necessarily talk about in other places.”

While she is open that her politics are liberal, she says her news delivery is not: “I’m just doing my job. I don’t pretend to be anybody other than who I am, and I’m telling you what I think is going on in the world. Whether or not that appeals to you is sort of your call.”

She points to two interviews she conducted with senior Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway in recent weeks. The exchanges were never impolite, but they were certainly tough. In a late-December interview, Maddow appeared to school the presidential counselor in the nuclear-arms race. She also prompted Conway to acknowledge that the Trump transition team had reached out to ABC News after the president-elect suggested that journalist Martha Raddatz had broken out in tears on TV upon learning of his election — a false assertion.

“I actually have high hopes for the willingness of this new administration to put people out to talk,” says Maddow. “I’ve had Kellyanne Conway doing very long — very intense, at times -— interviews with me. I give her credit for coming back and doing a second one after the first.”

PRE-SHOW PREP: Maddow conducts meticulous research for her self-described job of “explaining stuff.”
MIKE MCGREGOR for Variety

Of course, she wants to talk to Trump, whose team, she says, brought up the idea of an interview a few times in the recent past. What would she ask him? “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” She’d also like to land Hillary Clinton and learn her future plans.

Maddow and MSNBC have good reason to pursue the idea. The cabler has contended with ratings woes and a massive reorientation of its programming strategy in recent years, but Maddow in 2016 attracted the most viewers to her 9 p.m. time period in her history at the network. Indeed, of the 15 most-watched cable-news programs in 2016, the only one not airing on Fox News Channel was hers. The feat might have been expected in 2008, when MSNBC enjoyed a wave of popularity among progressive viewers encouraged by the election of President Obama, and when Maddow had Keith Olbermann as her 8 p.m. lead-in. But in 2016, it’s quite an accomplishment.

The trick now is to keep her viewers tuning in, even as the ardor of some political aficionados begins to dim. To parry with CNN and Fox News, MSNBC has relied less on shouting pundits and worked harder to nab guests who are involved in or experts on the events of the day. Long-form Maddow interviews present “a huge opportunity for us to do real reporting,” says Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president.

Success is not guaranteed. Not everyone wants to spar with Maddow. “I don’t think you go on ‘The Rachel Maddow Show’ without doing a lot of preparation. You cannot wing it,” says Griffin. “She’s going to be smart, and she’s going to ask hard questions.”

But Republicans would do well to meet with her, argues Jeffrey McCall, a media studies professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. “The GOP needs to appear to be speaking to all Americans, and going on MSNBC could help generate that image,” he notes. “Republicans on Maddow’s show won’t likely win over her viewers, but creating rational discussion would be good for all involved.”

On set and off, Maddow bears the demeanor of a graduate student. MSNBC executives liken her office to a library, and note that she spends hours there poring over source materials. She regularly dashes into her New York studio with less than five minutes to go before airtime. Some TV hosts gab with crew or producers during breaks; during one recent broadcast, Maddow spent the commercial hunched over her screen, so focused on prepping for a guest in her next segment that she chose to forgo getting a cosmetic touch-up, despite suffering from a runny nose.

“Republicans on Maddow’s show won’t likely win over her viewers, but creating rational discussion would be good for all involved.”
Jeffrey McCall, DePauw University

She discovered a desire to explain things during post-graduate study, when a series of odd jobs led her to audition to be a “news girl” on WRNX, a small, Massachusetts radio station. She won the job and went from ripping AP wire to meeting with local lawmakers and talking over issues. She left to pursue her doctorate, but after 9/11, she recalls, “I missed the opportunity to explain stuff” — so much so that she called up another Massachusetts station, WRSI, and asked if she could do fill-in shifts on the weekends, even for free. That led to her own morning program, then a stint on Air America before she made the jump to television. Little of it, she says, was planned.

Now she’s facing another intriguing opportunity. Her time-slot rival, Megyn Kelly, has jumped to NBC News from Fox News, leaving Maddow as the only female host on cable news in primetime. She doesn’t anticipate making changes to her show — she didn’t do it when Larry King left the 9 p.m. slot on CNN, she notes, or when Sean Hannity made way for Kelly on Fox News — but she wonders why only one woman is scheduled during the news networks’ most popular time slots at such a point in modern history, when the president-elect has been accused of forcing himself on women. “The American people litigated that when they went to vote in November, but that stuff doesn’t go away,” she says. “To simultaneously have him taking over in Washington and to have women gone from primetime news — it’s just worth noting.”

The world is growing extraordinarily complex, but Maddow already operates on the premise that things aren’t easy. “I have always felt like my job is to chart the waters,” she says. “We are at sea.”

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