My last plea for a smart woman to help all Americans in this time of crisis has gone—thus far—unanswered.
But I march on, undeterred, with another plea.
Where is Rachel Maddow?
I don't know exactly where she is, but I know she is somewhere safe, and she certainly looks healthy.
That’s not my question.
What I am wondering is where the real Rachel Maddow is.
You see, many times over the last few years when I just couldn’t deal with the reality of the day, I would watch her show.
I would watch it not because I agreed with her politics. Nor would I watch because I thought I would learn some headline of the day that I hadn’t heard a bunch of times before.
No... I would watch her because I needed to know that I wasn’t alone.
I needed to hear it from another human being that things going on in the world were so crazy that, well, that I was not the only one who thought it was crazy.
It’s one thing to just give the headlines of what the craziness is. It’s another thing entirely to stand back and make a human connection to understand the insanity of it all.
For a long time, I didn’t know how she did it. I knew she was good at starting with bits of history, and weaving those bits into the current narrative. I knew she was better than anyone at just having a conversation with us, the viewers, rather than talking to other talking heads.
(In that way, she reminds me Vin Scully, perhaps the greatest radio announcer of all time. While sportsball announcers always—always—work in at least pairs, and often in even larger groups, Scully worked alone. He said that what he wanted was a conversation with the listener. We felt that, and that was a huge part of the reason Scully was so beloved. With everyone else, we are observers. With Scully, we were participants in the conversation.)
So, I had those observations, but I wasn’t alone in thinking Rachel Maddow was great. But what really made her different?
I never did figure it out, but my son did.
(Do the Germans have a word for that feeling a parent has when an offspring figures out something before you do, some mixture of pride and wonder and... annoyance?)
What did he figure out?
Well, for that you need a bit more back story.
Here in isolation, our family started a little book club. (My wife’s idea, nothing but admiration for this idea.)
We all read something, and then talk about it. My contribution of reading material was Tom Wolfe's introductory chapters in The New Journalism.
For those of you cursed with a life where you haven’t read that, it is an amazing look at the state of journalism from the 1960s through to when it was published in 1973. It still reads as fresh and vibrant today as I imagine it did at the time.
One of the main thrusts of the text is the explication around the notion that some journalists adopted the tools and techniques of the novel writer, and used it for feature stories. That is, working journalists would do reporting in the way it has always been done, but instead of writing “news” with the "most important" fact at the top and then supporting material after that, the writing would be done using a number of techniques that had come down from Balzac to Dickens, and right through to Steinbeck and other renowned novelists.
Wolfe even lays out exactly what those tools and techniques are.
- Scene by scene construction
- Realistic dialogue
- The third-person point of view
- Status details
My son pointed out that he has seen all four of those elements in Rachel’s opening segments.
- She often starts out (or did, before Covid) with an elaborate description of a scene. It might be the room where the foreign minister is holding a hearing, or the committee room during the Watergate era. Then she jumps from one scene to another, one that is part of the news of the day.
- One of her favorite things to do is read at length transcripts from court hearings. Anyone in TV would tell you that this is not “Good TV” to just have a person reading text that is also on the screen. Sometimes there’s a bad courtroom artist sketch, but that’s it. And still, it is riveting.
- Rachel quite often will use a third-person point of view, but not when she is interviewing people. She will use other evidence of a person’s internal monologue, gleaned from interviews or court transcripts. For instance she could talk at length about Michael Cohen, laying out exactly how he felt about his motivations in the context of acts he was doing at the behest of the President because he described them so vividly. To have those descriptions in a vacuum fall flat, but to have them placed in the scene of having conversations with President Trump about his relationship with adult film stars... That’s a literary technique that sets tenterhooks into anybody who is passing by a television.
- And even Wolfe pointed out that status details are little understood in the abstract, but we all know them when we see them. And Rachel is a master at getting just the right little details and inserting them in her descriptions. I think Wolfe himself would have smiled watching her talk about how much money he spent on his suits, and really would have admired this segment, No Suit for you!:
That is Rachel Maddow.
That is the person who is now missing.
Her shows over the last few weeks are probably better than most of the rest of cable news. I don’t know, I don’t watch a lot of it.
But I know I haven’t been able to watch Rachel most nights the way I once did. She’s just giving me facts.
(That’s to be commended, the giving of facts. If only we had a president interested in that instead of making a buck off this crisis.)
Why is she unable to be more like herself in delivering the show? I don’t know. Maybe she’s just scared.
Just like the rest of us.
She is human.
But this is my message to you, Rachel.
Remember back to the day after the election in 2016. Everyone was in full freak out. The world was completely turned upside down.
And yet, you went deep inside yourself, and deep into a little bit of history, and you came up with a monologue that helped me so much. I am certain I was not alone.
Now, every other newscast that day in the world used the name “Donald Trump” in the first sentence of the newscast.
You went the other way. I watched it again just now. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Boston watching that thinking Where is she going? What is she doing?
And when she got to her main point, I felt like I could take a deep breath for the first time in 24 hours.
Night after night since being quarantined, I have tuned in hoping to get a story... a story that has some novelistic characteristics. I want and need a story that will help me make sense of the world when nothing makes sense.
There’s lots of great journalism being done. There are plenty of people being very creative and giving us distractions. All of that is great.
But we need one other thing. We need Rachel to be Rachel.
So, Rachel, if you are reading this... (And anyone else who is stuck doing work that they know isn’t really their best work because they are feeling all the feels that go along with this mess) ...
Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Say to yourself: I’ve got this.
And then go out there and do the kind of thing you are capable of.