She’s staunchly liberal, outspoken, and smart — armed with a Rhodes scholarship and a D Phil in political science from Oxford, to prove it. Oh yes, and she came out as a lesbian aged 17, while still at high school. MSNBC’s political news show host Rachel Maddow is certainly not your conventional TV anchor, yet she’s managed to leave the big-hair-and-botox brigade floundering in her wake.
And in the wake of this month’s mid-terms — with the prospect of possible gridlock on Capitol Hill and a whole bunch of newly elected Tea Party supporters thrown into the mix — Maddow’s brand of news as liberal commentary has become the refuge of choice for distressed Dems.
And this week, hundreds crammed into the Harvard Kennedy School to hear her deliver the annual lecture on press and politics — at a time when, as she put it, newsrooms were facing a financial apocalypse — and journalists have replaced lawyers as the public’s hate figures of choice.
Her basic thesis was this: TV news can have a future. It can even make money. But it’s those who voice their opinions over the air who are pulling in the ratings. Political conflict, electioneering, the thrills of the campaign: that seems to be what viewers love to watch, especially if the presenter is telling them exactly what they want to hear. Not just news you can choose, then, but views you can choose as well.
Of course, most of the noise which blares out over the airwaves doesn’t come from the likes of Maddow, but the shriller voices on the right, the likes of Glen Beck and Ann Coulter. And isn’t the whole idea of politically-driven news a problem for democracy? That in only tuning into stuff they already agree with, people might be missing half the facts?
Not according to Maddow. The motto of her show is to “increase the amount of useful information in the world”. The skill of argument, and thus political journalism, is, she says, to know your facts, and have the evidence at your fingertips — the evidence to support your case, and more importantly the evidence against. And she argues that nostalgia for the way it all used to be, when Ted Koppel and the New York Times sounded the one true voice of journalistic authority, is a waste of time.
Instead of the one true voice, new technology has created thousands, if not millions of voices. It’s called change — and for the media, it’s challenging and creative as well as potentially dangerous.
The rise of the internet, she says, shouldn’t be a problem for the media – there’s even more of a place for journalism in this new world. Where there is a problem, though, is for politics.
Because if electioneering and conflict creates ratings for TV news shows, it creates ratings for politicians too. The lure of the political talk show, where you’re free to rant and rave without anyone so much as questioning your political views is far more attractive than the dull old business of – well, governing, “making laws and stuff”. Government by television simply isn’t government.
To put all this in context, last week Maddow clashed with the Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart over the uneasy mix of entertainment, political commentary and news. And it was Stewart who accused cable news of consolidating an artificial divide in the country, pushing people into “red” and “blue” corners — in a way which shuts down any kind of free flowing debate.
It’s created a world, he said, where right-wing politicians were choosing to only appear on channels that already agree with them — and were turning legitimate criticism into claims of persecution. Fox News, said Stewart, had delegitimised the notion of a balanced media — but creating a left-wing news channel to oppose it was simply fighting fire with fire. And the desire to fill 24-hour news channels with something people might want to watch, in the absence of any real “breaking news”, is only creating more and more noise.
So although shows like Rachel Maddow’s have helped turn cable channels into profitable enterprises, although she argues it’s the only financial model for the future of TV news, she admits that so far, if it’s not bad for journalism, the rise of politically-driven media is likely to prove bad for governing.
And with the incessant cycle of fund raising, and campaigning, getting and spending, already dominating the whole business of politics, ad absurdum, isn’t this a prospect that we should all be worrying about?
Felicity Spector is chief writer and US politics expert for Channel 4 News.