Fiercely intelligent, acerbic and relentlessly liberal Rachel Maddow has defied ultra-feminine stereotypes to become the most watched news host in the United States, riding the wave of the Trump presidency and chaos at Fox News.
The 44-year-old former Rhodes Scholar who has lived publicly as a lesbian since college looks like no other woman on image-obsessed US television news.
Her hair cropped, she never wears earrings, dresses or necklaces, and favors sharply tailored pant suits in somber colors with a plain contrasting top.
It’s an image that frequently exposes Maddow to derision on social media. But if she minds, she never lets on.
“The Rachel Maddow Show” airs Monday to Friday at 9:00 pm on cable news channel MSNBC, as popular with liberal Democrats as Fox News is with Donald Trump’s Republicans, and part of the Comcast group.
She typically opens each program with a monologue, often as long as 20 minutes — her take on the day’s events in a sweeping arc that can draw dots between events in Romania or Venezuela before returning to the US president.
“What I end up doing is trying to find things that happened in our past or in other countries, or in fiction, or something that can put in context what’s happening,” she trailed off during a recent interview on Viceland.
If at times it’s less news anchor and more professorial then it’s worth noting that Maddow has a doctorate in political science from Oxford University.
Republicans and conservatives attack her from the right, insulting her as “Madcow” or “Queen of Fake News.”
From the left, MSNBC’s identification with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, Maddow’s solemn style and her fondness for conjecture are also criticized.
In mid-March, she had social media in uproar after announcing, pre-show, that she had Trump’s tax returns, only to keep the country on tenterhooks as she waded through an extensive monologue before ultimately reporting little that was new.
Late-night satirist Stephen Colbert lampooned Maddow, dressing up to look like her and delivering his own derisive monologue.
But critics aside, Maddow hosts the most watched cable news show in America, supplanting a position held for 15 years by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who was sacked late last month amid a blaze of sexual harassment allegations.
She has crossed the threshold of three million viewers — never previously seen by MSNBC, which has traditionally trailed not only Fox but the centrist CNN.
It’s a remarkable achievement for a woman whose audiences were at a record low only two years ago, in early 2015. But then Trump ran for president, defeated Hillary Clinton and more than tripled her audience.
“This is a chaos presidency. So there is almost daily drama that has turned the news into a reality show. It’s compelling television,” said Frank Sesno, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.
“Her calculation,” he said, “is that the country needs grownups and more measured voices, even if they are partisan voices.”
If she has positioned herself to be a partisan voice, then it’s “a more measured voice than the Bill O’Reilly model of high volume and insult,” Sesno said.
“When she’s focused and she’s not speculating, she can often lay out a very clear and coherent and persuasive argument with good video clips,” agreed Jeff Cohen, director and associate professor at the department of journalism at Ithaca College.
The change in the White House has given MSNBC a new visibility and a new direction, having been criticized during the Obama years for vigorously defending the Democratic administration.
Besides Trump, the former radio journalist has also indirectly benefited from disarray at Fox News, even if the audience of the two channels rarely see eye to eye.
In less than a year, Fox News has lost its co-founder and CEO, Roger Ailes, and star presenters O’Reilly and Megyn Kelly, beset by a blaze of alleged mismanagement, misogyny and sexual harassment lawsuits that saw Ailes and O’Reilly pay out millions. Ailes died last week at the age of 77.
“There aren’t going to be very many conservatives who suddenly are going to look to Rachel Maddow for their inspiration,” admitted Sesno.
“But over time, if she moderates her voice, she can widen her audience somehow.”
Another way of climbing up the visibility stakes is an interview with Trump. “I’m assuming it’s going to happen eventually,” she said last week on Access Hollywood.
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