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October 23, 2008 | Comments ()


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Kill the Messenger


A Look at Politics and TV / Sarah Carlson

TV Reviews | October 23, 2008 | Comments ()


In the spirit of the “kitchen sink” strategy in which the GOP is throwing everything and anything it can at Democrats to scrape out a win, an interesting game of “Kill the Messenger” is popping up all over TV.

A negative backlash against the RNC’s and the McCain-Palin campaign’s tactics of calling Sen. Barack Obama someone who pals around with terrorists hasn’t exactly helped Sen. John McCain in his polling numbers. So what to do? Claim that those on the left are making just-as-bad comments about the right. Some are even trying to now equate MSNBC as the liberal Fox News — it’s the socialist and terrorist-loving yin to Fox’s righteous and God-fearing yang. Even McCain made a dig at the cable news network and one of its mainstays, Keith Olbermann, at Oct. 14’s Alfred E. Smith dinner.

No matter the context or manner or tone in which a partisan view is expressed, a partisan view is a partisan view. You don’t like McCain and voice your reasons why that is so? Then that’s the same as those who voice their disliking of Obama, or the other way around. Both acts are partisan and evil and partisan. It doesn’t matter that the messages may be different; it matters that you try to smear the messenger.

The pundit who best defies this weak grasp at political straws is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” and the newest media darling, and an interaction with The National Review columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum on her show Oct. 13 best illustrates the fallacy of this strategy.

Mixing sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek humor and occasionally outright silliness, Maddow brings a much-needed fresh approach to cable news. Her intelligence and thoughtfulness back up her playfulness, she’s warm and gracious toward every guest, and her innate likeability should not cause one to underestimate her political know-how and intellect. In the “Who would you rather have a beer with?” contest (or down shots of Crown Royal whisky, Hillary) that all the presidential candidates pandered to, Maddow is the real winner. Simply put, she’s charming.

Maddow invited Frum on to discuss his publicly stated reservations and criticisms of the way McCain’s campaign has been run, this coming not long after the revelations that various (if few and deranged) Joe the Plumbers were yelling out “terrorist!” and “kill him!” at McCain-Palin rallies.


Maddow: You have publicly stated some reservations about John McCain and some criticisms of the way his campaign has run, and even though you’ve also said you will vote for him. One quote I wanted to ask about, you said that those who press this Ayers — William Ayers line of attack are ripping Republicans and conservatives into a fury that’s going to be very hard to calm after November. What do you mean by that and that word “fury?”

Frum: Well, I think you were talking through much of the show about the matter of tone in our politics. And yet, I think, we are seeing an intensification of some of the ugliness of tone that has been a feature in American politics in the last eight years. And this show, unfortunately, is itself an example of that problem, its heavy sarcasm and smearing and its disregard for a lot of the substantive issues that really are important.

And I would hate to see Republicans go probably into opposition sustaining this terrible cycle of un-seriousness about politics, turning it into a spectator sport. The party is going to have some important rebuilding to do. It’s going to do that in an intelligent way and we’re all going to have to do better than we’ve been doing, including in the past 40 minutes.

Maddow: Do you think that my tone on this show is equivalent to people calling Barack Obama somebody who pals around with terrorists, people yelling from the audience at McCain-Palin rallies, “Bomb Obama. Kill him. Off with his head. Traitor.” Are you accusing me of an equivalence in tone?

Frum: I don’t think that’s an important question. I think the question is, given the small plate of responsibility that you personally have, how do you manage that responsibility? The fact that other people fail in other ways is not an excuse for you failing in your way.


Maddow and Frum were talking past each other, with the former talking about hate speech overheard at political rallies and the latter talking about TV pundits poking fun at candidates. Those are two separate issues — and Frum has a valid point about TV pundits, most of whom I despise — but it was, first, childish of him to try and drag Maddow down into the mud instead of discuss his own criticisms of his own party and, second, wrong of him to equate Maddow’s style with the negativity overheard at recent political events. Conservatives calling liberals “Communists” (looking at you, McCain’s brother) is not the same as Maddow cracking up at and pointing out the ridiculousness of the return of the “Communist” attack.

Frum pleaded for more thoughtfulness in political debate, and Maddow agreed that everyone — left, right, and center — bemoans the tone of modern politics. “But I sense also that there’s a devotion to coming up with a sort of false equivalence,” she said, “the idea that bringing up John McCain’s experience in the Keating Five, for example, is somehow equivalent to calling Barack Obama somebody who pals around with terrorists.”

Frum went on to quote Mahatma Gandhi on how one should be the change they want to see, which is true, but again, a different argument all together. He’d only be correct if in fact Maddow were yelling whatever the anti-conservative equivalent to “terrorist” would be. She’s not — and she’s actually one of the few broadcasters to call a spade a spade and label the outbursts as blatant and ugly racism. Her moving reaction to a Georgia woman’s “Bomb Obama!” rant was to ask that woman just what kind of bombing she was referring to, and went on to list the numerous and deplorable crimes against blacks in the South, from church bombings to murders. As a gay woman and former AIDS activist, she isn’t indifferent to bigotry.

Maddow is, in fact, the change she likely wants to see on TV — a strong, witty woman whose show is skyrocketing in the ratings because it’s one of the smartest things on the air. On Monday, the New York Times reported that “The Rachel Maddow Show” had averaged a higher rating among 25-54-year-olds than CNN’s “Larry King Live” for 13 of the then-25 nights she had been host — making MSNBC competitive in the 9 p.m. time slot for the first time in a decade by doubling the channel’s viewers.

Of course, no cable news show should be taken as the be-all, end-all authority in news. Maddow’s show is an analysis, as are most other shows, and yes, hers is based on her liberal views — and that’s OK. People flock to things that reflect their worldview, that remind them they aren’t alone in their beliefs. It’s a matter of knowing where the balance is — knowing that you’re watching commentary, not the stately nightly news report — and people on both sides of issues mistake partisan programs as being the gospel truth. Whether certain networks on certain sides cater to that ignorance more profoundly than others is another topic.

Maddow’s style is akin to Jon Stewart’s, minus the crudeness, only she doesn’t have the luxury of being able to insist hers is just a comedy show. Humor is a great bridge-builder, delivering a way for viewers to handle heavy topics without wanting to slit one’s wrists. When Frum said he wanted a more intelligent and grown-up discussion of issues, Maddow had a response: “I agree with you on intelligent. I don’t necessarily agree with you on grown up. I think there’s room for all sorts of different kinds of discourse including satire, including teasing, including humor. There’s a lot of different ways to talk about stuff, and Americans absorb things in a lot of different ways.”

If Frum or others don’t like her, that’s fine — but they shouldn’t for a second think she’s just another hack who memorizes DNC or RNC talking points, and they shouldn’t equate her playful style as being just as damaging as hate-filled speech. Her message is different, and if opponents want to attack her, they may just have to stick to grown-up and intelligent arguments about policy issues — tackling the message, not the messenger. What a change of pace.

Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.


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