Rachel Maddow can trace the mood of her audience by looking at the ratings.
Her MSNBC show’s viewership sank like a stone in the weeks following Donald Trump’s election, as depressed liberals avoided politics, and bottomed out over the holidays. Slowly, they re-emerged, becoming active and interested again. Maddow’s audience has grown to the point where February was her show’s most-watched month since its 2008 launch.
Maddow has emerged as the favorite cable news host for presidential resistors in the opening days of the Trump administration, just as Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity is one for supporters or Keith Olbermann was the go-to television host for liberals in George W. Bush’s second term. Trump fascination has helped cable news programs across the political spectrum defy the traditional post-presidential election slump, few as dramatically as Maddow’s.
Her show’s average audience of 2.3 million in February doubled its viewership over February 2016, in the midst of the presidential primaries, the Nielsen company said.
“I’m grateful for it,” Maddow said one recent afternoon. “It is nice for me that it is happening at a time when I feel we are doing some of our best work.”
Those two things — ratings success and Maddow’s pride in the work — don’t always intersect.
“We’re making aggressive editorial decisions in terms of how far we’re willing to get off of everyone else’s news cycle,” she said, “but it’s paying off because the news cycle more often than not is catching up with us after we do something.”
Maddow has decided to cover the Trump administration like a silent movie, so the show could pay more attention to what is being done rather than what is being said. The central focus is on connect-the-dots reporting about Trump’s business interests and dealings with Russia.
Her show is a news cousin to HBO host John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” in its willingness to dive into complex subjects that don’t seem television-friendly, and follow the stories down different alleys. Maddow sounds long-winded when it doesn’t work. When it does, it’s like an absorbing novel stuffed with characters.
“It’s not like I am a teacher who is trying to extend the attention span of the American news viewer,” said Maddow, a Rhodes scholar. “I have no goal of trying to privilege complexity. It just so happens that I tend to think in 17-minute bursts.”
Maddow said she and her staff try to break news, like reporting on a Department of Homeland Security report on Trump’s immigration policy, and she was aggressive in bringing the Flint, Michigan, water crisis to a national audience. More often than not, she sees her role as explaining how things work. The program spent considerable time last week on a New Yorker magazine piece about foreign investments by Trump’s real estate company.
She’s determined not to get lost in the noise, particularly since she believes Trump is skillful at distracting the media with a new story — even an unflattering one — when he doesn’t like the attention being paid to another.
“I pray for the day when the most important thing about the Trump administration is that the president said something inappropriate on Twitter,” she said. “There are bigger and more valuable stories to be chasing than that.”
When some news organizations were upset at being barred from an informal press briefing held by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer two weeks ago, Maddow understood why. But the story didn’t really interest her. Since she doesn’t trust much of what the administration says, Maddow wondered what these reporters were really missing by not being there.
“Her approach to reality and the president’s couldn’t be further apart,” said Jeff Cohen, an Ithaca University professor and liberal activist.
During busy news periods, “certain voices cut through,” said NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack. “And her work is so consistently strong. She doesn’t disappoint, and she’s got a work ethic that is consistently off the charts. … She is a very original and unique voice.”
While Maddow delivers opinion pieces instead of straight news, they are well-informed, he said. Lack doesn’t see Maddow as a voice of the resistance.
Neither does she.
“People want to draft me as an activist all the time, ascribe that role to me,” she said. “I’m not. The reason I know I’m not is that I stopped doing that in order to be the person who explained the news and delivered the news instead. It’s a very clear line to me.”