Rachel Maddow has departed MSNBC but her legacy there and across cable news will live on. The network’s transformation from Keith Olbermann’s George W. Bush hyperventilations to Nicole Wallace’s intelligence apparatus would not have happened without Maddow massaging the crazy through her windy pontifications.
Maddow was Alex Jones with a smug Ivy League elitism and inside voice. No one has ever mastered the “Weekend Update for very serious people” format better than her. While some point to how Bill O’Reilly mainstreamed pen pointing at Fox News, Maddow perfected gestures of disbelief. She might have been intelligent and sincere yet it’s not so much Keith Olbermann who she has to thank for paving her way as Jon Stewart. Maddow simply repackaged many of the same subjects that Stewart was lampooning Republicans over and made them sound more serious.
Her trick was to make her audience believe they were smarter for listening to her, while telling them almost nothing. Now, her replacement host, Alex Wagner, is hoping to hold onto Maddow’s audience, yet it won’t be easy. Maddow’s following is personal, like a pop star’s. She can’t just be replaced by someone filling a chair. Time will tell whether Wagner’s softer touch (while still saying things that are committably insane) will be a success at an MSNBC that seems to be shifting away from the extreme crazy of online Twitter libs. Early signs are not good for her.
Nothing was really the same for Maddow after she had her Geraldo moment. Back in 2017, she claimed she had obtained Trump’s tax returns. It was a huge story that trended to the top of Twitter and had almost the entirety of the national media tuning in. How did she get these documents when the left had been obsessing over them for years like they were the lost ark? As it turned out, she hadn’t. She obtained only two pages from the president’s 2005 1040 form. Golden Donny T had slipped through her fingers once again!
From that point on, Maddow seemed to fade into the background. The Resistance is not a forgiving bunch. During her Free Agent offseason, so to speak, CNN’s Jeff Zucker reportedly offered her 15 million to land at CNN+, which she wisely turned down. Maddow is a lot of things, but she’s not stupid. She also turned down a reported $30 million a year from Sirius XM. She gave up her nightly show but remained in the fold at NBC Universal, producing long-form specials and podcasts under her own media spinoff.
What she leaves behind, in spite of her sloppiness and hyperbole, is a format that almost everyone has copied, including her clone Chris Hayes. Tucker Carlson seems to be the only cable news host pushing the medium forward, which is poetic considering that Carlson gave Maddow her first big break on TV in 2005 when he was at MSNBC. Whatever Maddow does next, the political landscape is primed for it. The GOP will most likely return to power in 2022, and Donald Trump may follow in 2024.