In the offices of MSNBC, Rachel Maddow is known for the meticulous preparation she puts into the network’s signature primetime program, “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Somehow, she has found time to take on two other projects that don’t have much to do with her daily showcase.
At the end of October, Maddow and MSNBC launched “Bag Man,” the host’s first podcast series. The seven-episode serial tackles the story of former Vice President Spiro Agnew, who stepped down from the post after pleading no contest to tax evasion, and has topped recent podcast charts on iTunes. This Sunday at 9 p.m., Maddow will launch a documentary special, “Betrayal,” that looks at the darker side of the 1968 election and how then-candidate Richard Nixon seemed willing to collude with a foreign government to win it.
Grappling with the extra work can be difficult, but Maddow felt each project had value – and might even resonate within the current news cycle. “My show affords me a lot of freedom to do long segments and to unspool a lot of historical context if I feel that’s what’s needed to explain the day’s news. Both these stories needed a few months of dedicated production time, though, and I wanted to be free to let them stand on their own as historical exposition, without having to overtly tie it into the existing news cycle,” Maddow says via an email exchange. “I mean, with both stories — the parallels to controversies in today’s politics are as clear as the nose on your face, but I think viewers and listeners can make those connections on their own.”
Even with the all-consuming duties of her weekday program, there’s reason to pursue extras.“The news cycle for the last two and a half years has been all consuming,” says Cory Gnazzo, executive producer of “The Rachel Maddow Show” in an interview. He has worked with the host for more than a decade. The new projects “represent a way to give us an outlet to do something a little bit different and not feel like we have to take up real estate in the show to do it.”
The appeal of both projects, says Maddow, came from discovering new details and having assumptions challenged. “Compared to Nixon, I had assumed that Agnew was somewhat of a lesser figure in terms of personality, charisma, devotional following, ideological punch — that couldn’t have been more wrong,” she says. “All those mistaken assumptions made me interested to learn the real story; and the more I learned the real story, the more amazed I was that the Agnew saga doesn’t loom larger in our popular understanding of White House scandals. Especially now, in the Trump era. If you’re looking for a modern political thriller about a hard confrontation between law enforcement and politicians at the pinnacle of government, this one is hard-boiled and ready to go. The podcast is seven episodes — but honestly the details and Agnew-adjacent history is so interesting, we could have done about thirty more. If there’s ever a job-opening for a full time storyteller about the life and legacy of Spiro T. Agnew, I might apply.”
Maddow’s team has teamed up with others to get the work done. “Bag Man” is supervised by Mike Yarvitz, a former producer on her program who came to her with the concept and secured her involvement.
Maddow hails from radio – indeed, one of her earliest jobs was working at a local Massachusetts station, and her TV program follows some of the cadences of a radio format – but a podcast is not the same thing. “This is a new thing for her,” says Gnazzo, though her MSNBC program is itself available in podcast form. “These podcasts go through so many iterations, so many edits. Things look good on paper and read very well, and you hear it and it doesn’t quite work. She has been very involved in that – rejiggering things, moving things around, cutting this, telling the story in a different way. It sounds different when you are hearing it with your own ears.”
This weekend’s documentary also taps outside help. “The staff of our show is involved in them, but it’s not just the staff of our show,” says Gnazzo. “There’s no way we could do it all.” Peter Schnall is executive producer.
But the color and detail in the extra work can be hard to ignore. “I had always known the vague concerns and accusations about the Vietnam war being strung out for domestic political advantage, but when I saw and heard the smoking-gun evidence that we’ve now got access to, I almost couldn’t believe it. I mean, there’s literally something called an ‘X File’ here. There’s a president on tape anguishing over what to do about the fact that he believes his presidential successor has just committed treason,” Maddow says. “It’s wild.”
The anchor has taken on outside projects in the past. There was a two-hour documentary in 2010 that sifted through 45 hours of interview audiotapes of domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh during his stay in prison. And there was a 2017 special report that investigated the background of Christopher Steele, whose memos signaled that Russia exerted undue influence on the 2016 elections in the U.S.
Maddow and her producers have long demonstrated interest in stories they feel have not been covered as much as they should, and that guideline extends to whether host and staff feel they should take on something extra, Gnazzo suggested. “We’d love to do other projects, but what we have to come up with are great ideas,” he said. “We are not going to do it just to do it.”
The love of a good story can prod a journalist to ignore the demands of telling it. “I have loved working on both these projects. But no, I have no time to do them at all,” says Maddow. “I am a husk of my former self. I’m planning to sleep for all of 2019. Or maybe 2020. As soon as I’m caught up with everything, I’ll sleep!”