Rachel 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. She begins the hour on a note of quietly seething moral outrage, opening her monologue with a breakdown of the Comey firing, before moving through all the players in the Trump saga: Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Russian oligarchs, New York’s former U.S. 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. He’s already fired Preet Bharara and the other U.S. 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. “This is how I’m going to die one day – crushed under a pile of paper,” she says, giving me a quickie tour of her various tchotchkes: the Trout of North America wall calendar that she quickly flips to May (it was still on March); her Vladimir Putin nesting dolls; a G.I. 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. “But we haven’t talked about the fact that he was [also] one of the first individuals sanctioned by the U.S. 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, 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.”