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Reitman writes: “Launched nearly a decade ago, The Rachel Maddow Show is now the number one prime time news program on cable television. It’s a significant though not totally improbable achievement for a show whose mantra, ‘Increase the amount of useful information in the world,’ has taken on new resonance in the Trump era, when a single presidential tweet can receive breathless coverage by the mainstream press, and journalism itself is denounced as ‘fake news.'”

Rachel Maddow in her office in 30 Rockefeller Center. Her show is now number one in cable news. (photo: Mark Seliger/Rolling Stone)

achel Maddow sprints onto the set of The Rachel Maddow Show, brain on fire, and slides into her chair. It’s two minutes before airtime at MSNBC’s cavernous New York studio in Rockefeller Center and Maddow, dressed in her standard on air black blazer and black tank top, Levi’s and blue suede Adidas Gazelles stealthily hidden by her giant desk, hunches over her keyboard, pounding out last minute revisions to her script with the speed of a court reporter. On the agenda this Friday evening in May: the ever evolving Trump Russia scandal and the controversial termination of FBI director James Comey, a story that might as well have been concocted to suit Maddow’s brand of scathing, methodical deconstruction. attorney Preet Bharara and ending with a note about a series of investigations taking place in various inspectors general offices regarding the Trump Russia matter. They could have a devastating impact on the administration provided the president lets them continue, Maddow notes: “He’s already fired the FBI director. attorneys. He fired the deputy attorney general. Who do you think he’s going to fire next?”

Launched nearly a decade ago, The Rachel Maddow Show, hosted by an openly gay Rhodes scholar who came to TV news by way of progressive Air America Radio, is now the number one prime time news program on cable television. It’s a significant though not totally improbable achievement for a show whose mantra, “Increase the amount of useful information in the world,” has taken on new resonance in the Trump era, when a single presidential tweet can receive breathless coverage by the mainstream press, and journalism itself is denounced as “fake news.” Though Trump’s so far chaotic presidency has helped boost cable ratings across the board, no program has benefited as much as Maddow’s, whose audience has almost tripled, from 849,000 nightly viewers in 2014 to more than 2.3 million today, and growing. In mid May, The Rachel Maddow Show was second only to the NBA playoffs as the most watched program on cable, period.

In person, Maddow is taller than she appears on TV a lanky five feet eleven and also less feminine, her contact lenses replaced by chunky black glasses, mascara wiped off. Maddow’s one concession to the female norms of TV news is agreeing to wear makeup, which she does for precisely one hour and 15 minutes per day. Off camera, she dresses in grungy attire, which on an afternoon before Memorial Day means Levi’s, a beige T shirt, a hole ridden thrift shop denim shirt, and camouflage Adidas Shell Toes. “They’re invisible,” she says about her sneakers, though she could be talking about herself. At 44, Maddow is naturally, neutrally pretty, which is a positive if one’s aim is to let the words, not the image, make the point. “I have no visual presentation goals for myself,” she says in her office at 30 Rock. A long rack of near identical dark suit jackets hangs on one wall. “It’s on purpose. You line me up with Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes and Brian Williams, and we’ve all got a very similar shade of the same haircut.”

As is true for many journalists, Maddow’s office is sort of a mess, with manila file folders stacked on the floor, and printouts of various stories she’s keeping track of piled on her desk and along the windowsill. Joe, still in its box; a metal Tabasco tub housing her Emmy, which is lying sideways, a tiny bit of gold orb emerging from the top. On the whiteboard behind Maddow’s desk is a running, if haphazardly diagrammed, list of the stories she’s thinking about, with the most important circled in blue marker. Perpetual favorites like Flynn and Trump’s ex campaign manager Paul Manafort hold a prominent place. Another name floating in its own blue circle: Viktor Medvedchuk, “a superclose to Putin oligarch” whose name recently turned up in intercepts for having had contact with the Trump campaign. government after the Crimea thing,” says Maddow. “And so what is that guy doing talking to the Trump campaign during the campaign when he is one of the sanctioned individuals?”

Maddow goes on like this, describing the other stories she finds fascinating, or more specifically, pinpointing the most under reported, yet possibly important, facet of the stories that interest her, and then drilling down, which can be riveting, as well as exhausting. But that’s just how Maddow’s brain works. “What’s remarkable about Rachel is that she actually is that brilliant,” says her senior producer Laura Conaway, who has worked for Maddow since 2009. “The thing about this show is it starts with digesting an enormous amount of information every day, and then basically throwing it all out and saying, ‘OK, that’s what everybody already knows.’ It requires attention, and Rachel is supremely gifted at paying attention.”

Maddow’s friend and fellow MSNBC host Chris Hayes,
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who considers her a mentor, compares her to LeBron James. “No one can do what she does,” he says. “She is a master of the medium in a way that is just unparalleled she can figure out how to tell a story and do things she cares about in ways that grab people’s attention, without just going to where the attention is. And she does that every night. To produce what she produces every day is kind of incomprehensible to me, actually.”

Maddow came to journalism almost by accident. Raised east of San Francisco in suburban Castro Valley, she learned to read using the newspaper her parents, an attorney and a school administrator, have said she was reading before kindergarten but grew up in the Bay Area as more of a participant than an observer, playing high school sports and, by her teens, becoming heavily involved in AIDS activism. At Stanford, where Maddow enrolled in 1990, she studied public policy, and then went on to earn her doctorate in politics at the University of Oxford in England. After returning from England in 1998, Maddow moved to western Massachusetts to work on her dissertation, crashing with friends and working any odd job she could find: bucket washer at a local coffee roasting factory, delivery girl, yard worker, minimum wage news reader at the local Holyoke radio station. The station held a contest to find a new sidekick for the host of its morning show. Maddow, who’d never worked in media, entered and won. “I stumbled into that job, but it just really clicked,” Maddow says. “I liked being in charge of the news. I found I really liked explaining things.”

TRMS is nothing if not a lengthy explanation of the news that Maddow is most interested in, particularly the opening segment, or “A Block,” which she usually writes herself, sometimes with help from Conaway or other producers. The show’s format of deep dive analysis and investigative reporting is not easy to produce, and a typical day can last anywhere from 12 to 14 hours. Maddow, who lives with her longtime partner, photographer Susan Mikula, in western Massachusetts, maintains an apartment in Manhattan where she lives during the week, making the three hour plus drive back and forth to Massachusetts every weekend. might be sidelined by six.

One afternoon, I sit in on a production meeting with Maddow and about 20 staffers. The news of the day pertains to the president’s latest pre dawn tweet storm, in which Trump mused about canceling White House press briefings, and later hinted that he “might” have secretly recorded his meetings with Comey. Maddow, wearing a brown hoodie, stands in front of a large whiteboard, marker in hand, studying a long list of potential story ideas. She considers the taping issue, which White House spokesman Sean Spicer refuses to comment on: “If Trump says there are tapes and there actually is a taping system, then it’s relevant that Spicer has no comment.” She looks at her staff. “Who thinks he has a taping system?” Everyone raises a hand.

Why Trump would admit to this is puzzling. Quite possibly, he’s just being Trump; on the other hand, as Maddow points out, with the potential obstruction of justice issues that secretly taping your FBI director might raise, his comments are worrisome. “But it’s not our business.”

“When is it our business?” asks Maddow’s executive producer, Cory Gnazzo.

“When they invoke the 25th Amendment,” says Conaway.

A short debate ensues over when, if ever, the show could broach the president’s mental fitness. Maddow quickly dis misses it. “Trump has mastered the political media by causing you to lose focus and then re center on whatever it is he’s just said,” she tells me later. “But I’m not interested in what the president has to say.”

What’s your rule about how to cover this administration?

We have a mantra when it comes to this administration: “Don’t pay attention to what they say, focus on what they do.” And that is very helpful, because it’s easier to cover a fast moving story when you’re not distracted by whatever the White House denials are. McMaster and Dina Powell and Rex Tillerson, these very impressive people, all came out and denied that the president gave the Russians secret intelligence in the Oval Office. What it means is there is a whole area of information coming from “White House sources” that has no meaningful impact on what I understand to be true about the world. For me, that’s helpful in an organizational way.

How do you decide what to cover?

First, you need to be able to synthesize a lot of information, and then exclude from your field of consideration the stuff that isn’t important so you can find the salient, new thing. And that is very rarely something overt.

Let’s talk about the Russia story. You got on that very early, and stuck with it.

Well, I mean, I’m not keeping it alive for its own sake. There’s a lot of scandal associated with this new administration. Some of it is like normal political scandal like Tom Price trading health stocks while he was in a public position to regulate those stocks. That’s a bad scandal, but it’s kind of normal political corruption. It’s almost quaint. Then, there are Trump specific scandals, like we now have a ruling family where there’s a crowned prince who’s an adviser without remit, and we’ve got unqualified nepotistic appointments and conflicts of interest and Trump not disclosing his taxes. And then there is this third scandal, which is about the existence of this presidency. That’s an existential scandal. If this presidency is knowingly the product of a foreign intelligence operation, that’s not Tom Price trading stocks that he was also affecting the price of as a public official, you know? That is a full stop national crisis. Does that mean Russia makes the air every day, even if nothing appears new? No. But when there is something to say about it, I’m going to report it insistently. And I’m willing to do that even if it bothers people.

Do you care if you have haters? Sean Hannity called you one of the “worst examples” of the “propaganda press.”

Sean Hannity said that? That’s nice. I don’t play requests. I get to decide what we cover. From the very beginning, I’ve had a deal with MSNBC that they don’t tell me what to cover,
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what not to cover or how to cover what I cover. I’m not trying to make people happy. I’m trying to do an excellent job telling the stories that I think are important. That’s all I can do.