A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
On mainstream political reporting: "... the entire way the arc of the story is told ... it never ever looks into the merits of anybody's claim on either side. ... You never, ever, ever assess the merits. You describe them. You compare them to other things. And then you bring in an expert. And every single story has that same formula. ... It's up to citizen journalism and populist journalism, like we're doing online and in progressive radio, to do basic, basic, basic reporting. It's embarrassing."
-- Rachel Maddow, Air America Host
Periodically, BuzzFlash has been conversing with progressive radio talk show hosts as part of our weekly interview series (we think BuzzFlash has the best ongoing liberal interviews on the net, but we're not biased at all).
Thus far, we've interviewed Thom Hartmann, Randi Rhodes, Stephanie Miller and Mike Molloy as part of the radio interview series. (Ed Schultz stood BuzzFlash up twice for scheduled interviews.) You can find all our interviews (with authors, politicians, etc.) in the archive section of BuzzFlash.org.
Today we are adding the ever-informative Rachel Maddow to the series.
Why is BuzzFlash doing this?
It's quite simple. We want to promote progressive radio. The Internet has started to provide a counter-balance to the corporate print media, but progressive radio is the only real and potential beachhead we have into the mass influence of electronic broadcasting (except for Keith Olbermann on MSNBC).
We think that it is extremely important for progressives to listen to and support their favorite liberal talk show programs. Each person we interview has a different style, and you might prefer one to the other.
And remember, you can listen to almost all progressive radio talk show hosts over the Internet, so there's no excuse if you are in an area where they are not broadcast on the radio.
On a practical level, one of the most important things that you can do is let the advertisers of the programs know that you heard about them from listening to a given progressive radio program. This small action is an investment in the future of countering the right wing, because these programs need advertising. They are not run on goodwill alone.
As for today's interview, Rachel Maddow is an early evening host (6 -8 p.m. EST) on the Air America network.
Maddow's style is learned, enthusiastic and affable. She also appears fairly regularly on television as a "liberal" spokesperson and does a great job.
And now, here's the BuzzFlash interview with Rachel Maddow.
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BuzzFlash: First of all, when does your program air?
Rachel Maddow: From six p.m. to eight p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. A lot of markets that air my show, air it live, but some places air it on delay. You can get a list of stations that carry my show at airamerica.com, and you can listen live to all Air America's programs on airamerica.com. We also make available the most recent program as a free stream that you can listen to until the next show is posted. You can always go to the most recent show at any time at airamerica.com.
BuzzFlash: How would you describe your style?
Rachel Maddow: I get asked that a lot, and a lot of people have come up with descriptions for me. I feel like I ought to have a pat answer, but I feel different about it every day.
I was recently described in print as Amy Goodman with animal noises. I don't think that's exactly right, but there's an element of kind of hard core news. In one sense, I really would like to replace people's NPR listening. I really feel like you can listen to my two-hour show, or you can just listen to the first super news-intensive half hour of my show, and it can really supplant any traditional news outlet that you're checking out for your daily news.
I try to be authoritative, transparently sourced, and pretty comprehensive in terms of what you need to know is happening in the world. I always cover the Iraq war at the top of every hour of the show. I am committed to always covering the war every day, and I'm pretty seriously committed to just being good at delivering news.
I'm also a total dork, and there's a lot of dorkiness, and animal noises, and humor.
BuzzFlash: We've listened to you and would agree you're very newsy. I recall listening to your program when you were talking about one of the scandals in relation to the contracting of this behemoth of a U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. You were quite detailed about it. So, how do you prepare for a program each day?
Rachel Maddow: In the context of other talk-radio hosts, I am the slowest preparer in the whole world. The rule of thumb in talk radio is that people prepare an hour for every hour that they're on the air. I do a two-hour show, and I get here every day at least six hours before my show starts.
BuzzFlash: And what do you do?
Rachel Maddow: I read for most of that time, and I do everything online. I do not allow myself to watch TV, because I'm easily distracted and easily duped by television. There isn't any TV consumption in my prep, although one of the producers who works on my show keeps a TV on all day and pulls down from it.
I do literally read for hours. One of my two producers and I divvy up what we want to look at online. It's a lot of newspapers, and it's a lot of websites, including BuzzFlash and others. We just read for the first few hours of the day. Sometime before three o'clock in the afternoon, we get together and have a news meeting. I pitch all the stories that I think could potentially be on the show today, including ones that deserve longer treatment -- kind of a more extended discussion than just hitting them with a headline. And I give what my proposed angle is for that longer pitch. Then Vanessa pitches what she's also read, and then Tim pitches what he's got in terms of what's been on TV, and what's out there and what happened in Congress, because he's been monitoring C-Span. From that, we make the schedule. We come up with the rundown for the show.
I'm just looking at yesterday's rundown, and we probably covered thirty stories in the course of the show, and some of them at length. For example, on yesterday's show, we talked an awful lot about Ari Fleischer's new group that's putting out these pro-war ads. They claim we can't leave Iraq or there will be another 9/11, which seems like a kind of ominous threat to be able to make. In order to talk about this, we played a bunch of clips from those ads.
But I also wanted to kind of go back in time and play reminders of the other great things that Ari Fleischer has told us about Iraq. He was the spokesman for wrong about Iraq, incorporated. He was literally the White House spokesman when the White House was lying to us. If you want to know who you ought not believe about Iraq, then pick this guy, by all means. So we do that kind of historical research. We have to go back in time and look at those transcripts. Figure out what we wanted to hear him saying, and find it.
BuzzFlash: When you decide on what your menu of the day is in stories, do you give a time allotment to each story, or see how it flows?
Rachel Maddow: I give a kind of informal time allotment. In the first segment of each hour, I usually do five to seven stories before I talk to Kent Jones, who is the comedy writer who's on my show. In order to end that segment at a reasonable time, we've got to hop. Those can't be that long. In terms of scripting the show, none of those is longer than a page, and usually, they're quite a bit shorter. There are a couple of segments of the show where I stretch out a little bit, and I give myself a little more time. Those tend to be driven more by how much I have to say, and how good the audio is that we have to play.
BuzzFlash: A technical issue that fascinates me is, how do you handle hard breaks?
Rachel Maddow: With great dread. There are two hard breaks an hour, and sometimes three, when I get interviews and the people can't talk to us live, and so we have to pretape them earlier in the day. That essentially creates a third hard break in the hour.
I've been in commercial radio a long time. I was a music DJ at the beginning of my career, so I kind of feel like it's starting to become wired into me -- to know to stop talking before that break. But if I'm taking a call, or if I've got a live interview going, and we're coming up against that hard break, my blood pressure is like triple the normal. I'm trying to make sure I don't slam into that post.
It's never not stressful. But I just keep an eye on it and try and make sure things are wound down, and I've got thirty seconds to spare that I can spin out with wrapping up the segment. But if you listen to my show, particularly if you listen to the podcasts where I think it's pretty easy to identify where those hard breaks are -- you just get used to it. I will get to ten seconds before the hard break, and I'll say, "It's the Rachel Maddow Show on Air America Radio." That's how it ends. That's how it comes out, and in maybe a second and a half, I can say that.
BuzzFlash: When you begin your broadcast, do you adopt a different personality? Or are we hearing Rachel Maddow as she is outside of the studio room?
Rachel Maddow: I'm a pretty moody person, I always have been, ever since I was a kid. And when I'm on the air, the mood swings up are just as high as they are in my non-radio life. But in terms of being bummed out or depressed, or sleepy, or any of those kind of low-energy things, I can't get that low when I'm on the air, just because of the excitement that I'm on the air. I can be in the worst mood in the entire world, or I can be tired, or jet-lagged, or whatever, but when the theme music of the show comes on, I'm like, oh, hey, this is exciting.
Sometimes I surprise myself when I hear my voice at the very top of the show on the very first segment, if I've had a miserable day or if I'm sick or whatever, and hear my voice come out at the top of the show. I still feel like every minute I can be on the air is golden. It's literally exciting to me every day to have the chance to say what I think and explain the news.
BuzzFlash: Is there a letdown when you're over?
Rachel Maddow: No, I'm not let down, but I am a little brain-dead. I'm usually off the air at eight p.m., and sometimes I go and do TV appearances on MSNBC and CNN and some other TV networks, right after the show. But I am a puddle of mush. I use a lot of energy, I guess, and a lot of my intensity, on the air.
So I tend to kind of deflate a little bit, at the end of the show, and I become a little nonverbal, which is so funny, because that's when most people know me from, because that's when I go on TV. That's literally when I'm at my worst.
BuzzFlash: How important is listener interaction to you, or how does it impact you?
Rachel Maddow: I don't take calls regularly, the way that a lot of hosts do. I do take calls for "Ask Dr. Maddow," which is kind of this trivia segment that I do. And I will take calls on hot issues where I know that everybody either needs to swap ideas or needs to emote about stuff that's in the news, like on the Scooter Libby commutation day. That's a day that we opened the phones and let people talk about how they felt about that, and say how mad they are, and swap ideas about how to proceed. So on an issue-by-issue basis, we'll decide about opening the phones. But we don't every day.
I know that's a controversial decision, but that's part of the decision to try to be real news-heavy, to be less discussion, more information. I do read the comments on my own blog at Air America religiously. I read all sorts of feedback about my own show online, kind of obsessively. We get a lot of e-mail and phone calls, and we're right on those, johnny-on-the spot.
I'm not sure people always know what a disproportionate impact people can have on how a host feels about a show just by participating in one of those feedback groups, just by commenting on a blog or sending an e-mail. But we all read that stuff, and it really does make a difference. So it's a way that you can hurt us. It's also a way that you can steer us or bully us. It does matter.
BuzzFlash: The Bush administration never ceases to astonish anyone. Recently, for instance, there was the comparison to Vietnam, after years of him saying that there was no comparison. Now there is a comparison. Sometimes, people who care about the Constitution and care about civil liberties, who care about getting our troops out of this insane war in Iraq, are tempted to just give up. Also, the failure of the Democratic leadership in Congress to really lead a forceful counter-attack is depressing. Just when people think there's some hope, like in the 2006 election, we see the Bush administration continue to steamroll Congress. The point is, the Bush administration is still getting what it wants. How do you keep your energy up in the face of that?
Rachel Maddow: I think everybody's wired a different way in terms of how they respond to that kind of patriotic adversity, I guess we could call it. But for me, I feel like a big part of my job is to catalog what they're doing wrong, most particularly in the Bush administration and on the conservative side, but also the failure to have spine among those who ought to be the opposition party. I feel like I catalog what's wrong, and that doesn't make me feel like giving up. It makes me feel like, oh, my God, we can't give up! Because look who we'd be giving up to! Look at the depths of the people who want us to give up.
So for me, it's energizing. It's something that makes me want to fight more. I was never tempted to go to Canada. I lived abroad for awhile. I was in England for three years, and I actually was there when Tony Blair first got elected after all of those years of conservative rule. It was very exciting, and it just made me want to be here in the U.S. again. It made me want to be back in the U.S., pushing for progressive victories.
Blair ended up being such a disappointment to liberals then, after his ten years in office. And here, Democrats have been kind of a consistent disappointment in terms of willingness to stand up to the worst abuses of the conservative movement and the Republican Party in this country. But it just makes me want the right thing more.
BuzzFlash: Well, this is our country. I think that's the point. The people who remain invigorated, who want to win back the Constitution, win back democracy, do feel that this is our nation, and that someone's trying to take away its basic foundations. And that battles are won in battle.
Rachel Maddow: It's kind of a call to account in terms of how much we are willing to do to defend our Constitution, and how much we value things like the separation of powers, and the Fourth Amendment, and the First Amendment, and actually even the idea of America as an honest broker in the world.
Liberals have a lot of reason to be cynical, because as liberals, we're very conscious of the things that have been done in America's name, sometimes secretly and sometimes not, that are not honorable. But in this overt threat that we've got, to the very traditions of what it means to be in this country, and to respect ourselves as a republic, as a constitutional republic, it makes us identify what's valuable in those things that we need to defend, that makes us identify what's valuable in the Fourth Amendment and the First Amendment, and the rest of the Bill of Rights. And the idea of America as an honest player in the international stage.
I think it's made me as a liberal be much more conscientious about what in our history, and what in our traditions, is worth fighting for. It's not just about the CIA overturning governments that weren't friendly to American business interests. I mean, that's part of our history. But what else is part of our history? A lot of stuff that we ought to feel more proud about, and that is worth salvaging. This country's legacies and traditions are complicated, but they are worth fighting for, too. We need to be more than critical. We need to be also proud and enthused by the potential of this country. I just feel like Bush has made me more patriotic.
BuzzFlash: And let me ask you a question which has been asked of me. BuzzFlash was founded in May of 2000 before the infamous fall presidential election of 2000. And you had people say, well, I guess you would stop BuzzFlash if Bush were to leave or Cheney were to leave, and there were a Democratic administration. When people first asked me that, I was sort of puzzled because I'd say, of course not.
They'd say: Well, what would you do? Well, continue offering news and commentary from a pro-democracy perspective. The challenge is an ongoing one. Just because there's a Democratic person in office, it doesn't mean that challenge, as we've seen with the Democrats, isn't going to continue.
Also, we are going through a change in journalism. BuzzFlash and progressive radio are both participants in the net roots change, and I don't see that going away. How do you feel about it? If someone said to you, what are you going to do when Bush leaves office --
Rachel Maddow: If there's still an office to leave.
BuzzFlash: Right, if we still have a nation in 2008, and haven't nuked Iran and caused a world war, and a Democrat comes into the Oval Office. How will that impact you?
Rachel Maddow: Well, we're seeing a little microcosm of that, with the Democratic Congress. I've had no shortage of things to not only talk about but rant about with the Democratic Congress. And I think that progressive media becomes more influential and more important the more Democrats are in positions of power, because we get to be the truth squad on them. We get to be the ones who remind them of what their agreement is, and why they got the job that they have, and who their supporters are, and what they ought to be doing for the country.
It also means that we get to put people on the air. And you get to interview people for BuzzFlash who are of more consequence to what's happening in the country. When Democrats are iced out, not only in terms of the White House, but both Houses of Congress, then your greatest hope for booking somebody super-influential in terms of mainstream politics is to get the minority leader. And that's a different thing than getting the Speaker of the House. That's a different thing than getting the chairs of all the committees. That's a different thing than getting people from the Executive Branch, if there's a Democrat in office.
I think the more power the Democrats take, the better off progressive radio is and progressive media is and the blog world is, in terms of its influence and the amount it has to talk about, and in terms of its chances of really competing with the traditional media for guests, and access to the people in power.
I felt like I was railing on the outside of a locked door when it was all Republicans in power everywhere. But the closer we get to retaking the country, the closer the Democrats get to retaking the country, the closer we get to overtaking the traditional media in terms of content and influence.
BuzzFlash: One of the key things in current media, which I think your show in particular counteracts, is that there's very little historical context. It's just a series of headlines and press releases. That's what allows Bush to constantly change his story, as he just did on Vietnam. He's probably had 25 to 50 different missions in Iraq. And each day, the television announces whatever the mission of the day is, as though it's always been the mission, because they don't give any historical context. They just don't say, well, this is the forty-third different mission that President Bush has announced.
Rachel Maddow: "We've always been at war with Eastasia (or Eurasia)," like Orwell wrote.
BuzzFlash: You're very good at giving some historical context to what the news of the day is. To many people, who rely on television for the news, it's like surfing a wave. You're just continually churning headlines without any context to any individual headline. And the Washington pres corps grabs onto that headline of the day without putting it in context. So Bush is rarely challenged.
Rachel Maddow: On his own inconsistencies. He's contradicting himself.
BuzzFlash: A few days ago he criticized al Maliki in Iraq and kind of indicated he should go. Hillary Clinton had said he should go, and then al Maliki said, well, if the U.S. doesn't like me, we'll look for other friends, and he was in Syria. Then, Bush said he totally supports him. If you're just on that surf wave, you kind of go, oh, he's a good guy today. The president says he's a good guy.
Rachel Maddow: Llike he's always supported him.
BuzzFlash: The day before, he was ready to toss him out. There is no context. But your show provides the context, the framework, the historical precedent, the statements.
Rachel Maddow: Thom Hartmann's the master, in terms of being able to go back in history, in terms of the base historical precepts and the political ideas we're talking about. That's one of the reasons that Thom's show is so popular. He teaches you about where these ideas came from in the first place, and brings them back to brass tacks in terms of how we understand the politics of today. I don't go back as far as Thom does. I just keep track of what people say.
BuzzFlash: Isn't that amazing?
Rachel Maddow: Here's an example, returning to the Bush-Vietnam comparison. If you go back and check out what Bush actually said, when he said he didn't like the comparison of Iraq and Vietnam -- if you go back and listen to eight seconds of tape, what you hear him say is not only does he not like the analogy, but making that analogy is an insult to our troops and gives comfort to the enemy. And it's all on the White House website.
BuzzFlash: That's right. In another recent example, CREW -- the organization that looks at ethics -- found while the White House was claiming that the Office of Administration wasn't subject to subpoena. On the White House website, it said it was.
Rachel Maddow: The White House website not only said it was, but gave the contact information for the Freedom of Information officer in that department.
BuzzFlash: Right. And all you had to do was go look at the website.
Rachel Maddow: Yes.
BuzzFlash: We see again and again on your show, and other progressive talk shows on the Internet, that the White House press corps is just asleep at the wheel. These are not things like what Woodward and Bernstein did, where they met in parking lots and whatever. This is stuff that's right in front of you, and the Washington press corps isn't even looking at it.
Rachel Maddow: The thing that's amazing about it, too, is the way reporters get the stories and report them. Take, for example, that Office of Administration story. As a reporter, first you get the fast track before a request has been filed. You hear that from the interest group. And then you go to the White House for their response, and the White House tells you, no, we're not subject to FOIA. Then, you think you do deep analysis by saying this is similar to them saying that the Vice President is not part of the Executive Office. This is similar to the other ways they have resisted calls for oversight by outside groups. Period. Next, you say, let's bring in an expert to talk about the White House's continuing insistence on insulating itself from oversight. And then you get an expert who says, yes, they're really trying to resist outside oversight. Okay, back to you.
That's the entire way the arc of the story is told, and it never ever looks into the merits of anybody's claim on either side. You never assess the merits of the FOIA regulations in the first place. You never assess the comparative merits even of the different claims that the White House is using to resist that.
You never, ever, ever assess the merits. You describe them. You compare them to other things. And then you bring in an expert. And every single story has that same formula.
That's why they all read the same, and that's why nobody distinguishes between news sources anymore when they talk about whatever it is that they're reporting on. It used to be that it mattered whether you were reading Reuters or the AP, or The New York Times or the Washington Post, if we were talking about a specific issue in Washington. Now they're all baking the same cookies every single day. It's up to citizen journalism and populist journalism, like we're doing online and in progressive radio, to do basic, basic, basic reporting. It's embarrassing.
BuzzFlash: I used to appear on the media quite a bit for an advocacy issue, and there were several times when I would be interviewed by a television reporter and they'd say: I'm sorry. That's not what I wanted.
Rachel Maddow: Yes.
BuzzFlash: And I'd say, "Well, what did you want?" And they would tell me specifically the answer they wanted. They had planned a story in their head, and it was a point-counterpoint story. They wanted a specific quote, and they would say, "Do you know anyone who would give me that quote?"
Rachel Maddow: Exactly. That's happened to me once or twice. What we're looking for here is somebody to say this -- is that your view?
BuzzFlash: And the story is written, and it's kind of like Bush's political narrative. Despite the reality, the story is written in advance. And it's kind of like the old saying, the old joke, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Rachel Maddow: We already have in mind the way this story goes. And we're just looking for people to fit in to play those roles.
BuzzFlash: We're not looking for someone to actually give us the facts here. We've got the story, and we've got a deadline, and we can't change it now.
Rachel Maddow: My favorite thing, when that system breaks down, is to watch the panic ensue. I remember one time a network wanted to book me on something about beauty pageants. And they assumed that I'd be anti-beauty pageants. And, you know, I think beauty pageants are hilarious. I have no problem with them at all. Sure, I could come up with a feminist argument against them, but it's not what I'm focused on. So they booked me under the assumption that I would be railing against the ethics of beauty pageants. And they put me on against somebody who was a participant's mom at a beauty pageant or something. When I didn't say what I was supposed to say, it was like there had been an electrical short in the studio. Go to commercial, go to commercial. It was spectacular.
BuzzFlash: Here's my Barbara Walters question. What would you be doing if you weren't a progressive radio talk show host?
Rachel Maddow: I don't know. I'd probably be doing what I was doing before, which is I was an activist. I was working for the ACLU and the National Minority AIDS Council, working on public policy issues around AIDS and prison reform. I was just kind of in the trenches, a policy activist on issues that I cared about. So I'd probably still be doing that, although hopefully I'd be better at it than I was before.
BuzzFlash: Where do you see progressive radio going? Obviously Air America has been through some turbulent weather. I personally think that progressive radio is critical to the future of democracy and our Constitution. Is it a question now of just hoping that there's enough time to build a financial model that will make it profitable in order to build the market of listeners?
Rachel Maddow: When we can get on the air, and our shows are actually advertised and promoted, and network is working as it should, and the local station is working as it should, we do great. If you match us head to head with the conservative talkers who are on in the same markets, if we've got a good competing signal, we do well in terms of those match ups. And people like Randi have done a really good job of highlighting the fact that when she's on a good signal, in a good market, she'll beat whoever she's opposite on the right.
I feel like we've got the raw material. We've got the creative material to win. Air America has been, as a business, kind of crawling along for a long time. It's like, if you were trying to start a new car company, there's the big three. They'll always be bigger than you. It's always been Ford, GM and Chrysler.
We're trying to do something that's wicked hard to do, from a business perspective. But in terms of the talent and in terms of the shows that we're putting out there, I'd put us up against anybody. If we can get stabilized from a business perpective, I think the big-wigs on the left -- people who have money on the left -- ought to invest in us as a way of investing in liberal infrastructure. If we can get on good stations with good marketing, and a good business plan behind us, I think we can kick butt. It's just a matter of the suits falling in line behind the people at the mike. But we're not going bankrupt again, it doesn't seem. It does seem to have a good owner at this point. The enthusiasm is there, and so I'm pretty hopeful.
BuzzFlash: Well, I am, too, and I would finish by just encouraging people that if they are at home, to listen on the Internet. It's a very clear signal.
Rachel Maddow: Yes.
BuzzFlash: In Chicago, we have a very low-wattage station, but I can hear it clearly in my office on the Internet. And while the Internet won't necessarily be brought into a car, there's a lot of down time people have while they're working on other things, and it's a wonderful thing to listen to.
Rachel Maddow: If you listen to the local station, and you know who's advertising on that station, go into those businesses and thank them for supporting Air America. Tell them you're supporting their business because you heard them on Air America. That makes a big difference. The more money local stations are able to make from local advertisers, the more likely it is we're able to get on better signals.
BuzzFlash: Absolutely. And BuzzFlash has advertised on a few progressive radio stations, and received e-mail from people thanking us. And it does have an impact.
Rachel Maddow: It totally has an impact. That's a big part of it.
BuzzFlash: Rachel, best of luck. You've got a great program. I encourage people to listen, and thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Rachel Maddow: It's been a lot of fun. Thank you, and thanks for all you do at BuzzFlash.
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BuzzFlash interview conducted by Mark Karlin.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW