Rachel Maddow's Quiet War

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Maddow says that it has become so hard to book conservative guests she worries that if she even calls a Republican senator to try to get him on the show it will become a news story – Maddow is taking Senator so-and-so on! "As time goes on and it gets worse and worse, I think about it less and less because it's not really a possibility," Maddow says.

I am with Wolff in the control room when Wednesday's show falls apart. The problem is a guest – a doctor from Mississippi who had been ousted from a state post because he'd worked with an abortion clinic. It's a perfect narrative for Maddow, an outsider battered by partisan politics, but on-air the doctor just deteriorates in front of her – struggling to tell his own story, his owlish face blinking in the lights, his point becoming more and more obscure. "Come on, girl, cut him off," Wolff murmurs at Maddow, looking at the monitor. "She won't cut him off. She's too nice." In the control room there is an audible deflation; you can almost hear viewers changing the channel.

On the Monday after the Meet the Press imbroglio, I sit in the studio as Maddow broadcasts her show. She races onto the set a minute or two before airtime; in between segments she is still editing scripts; under the desk you can see the sneakers and jeans she wears out of the camera's view. Maddow has, she says, the same relationship with her own body as a puppeteer does with a faulty marionette: "It's like I'm trying to operate a remote-control car with my left hand." Up close you see the straining physicality – with each word she is meant to emphasize, her upper body clenches and moves toward the camera, in a rigid plank. Her joy is ever-present on-air, but it is in part a performance, and you can see the exertion it requires.

It has been obvious, throughout the day, that she is still irritated by the previous day's run-in with Alex Castellanos. Now, on-air, she spends her opening essay exhaustively explaining to the audience why she was right. Out come the charts and graphs. "In 264 out of 265 major occupations, men are getting paid more," she points out. "Republicans, it turns out, do not believe this – and figuring that out makes a bunch of stuff make sense." She talks about the Republican opposition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a new law that makes it easier to sue over gender discrimination in pay. Before the confrontation with Castellanos, she says, she had assumed that Republicans opposed the measure because they wanted to deny President Obama a victory. Now, she realizes, "Republicans literally do not believe this problem exists." Then she plays the tape of her exchange on Meet the Press.

Watching this, a few feet away, I begin to get a sense of what Maddow is trying to achieve, not just in this segment, but with her entire show. The reason for all the graphs and charts and evidence she presents is that these are the terms in which she understands politics. The show's real aim isn't to present the news, or even to explain it. It is in many ways an internally directed effort, pained and complicated, to answer a question whose particular subject shifts each day, but whose plaintive immediacy remains the same: What is it about this country that is making me angry? There are moments like this where you can see, just about, a sketch of an alternate, Maddow-ized model for television news – one in which the voices of outsiders and activists are given pride of place, in which explication trumps conflict, in which the media are invested in the idea of America but remain deeply skeptical of American power. And then, just as quickly as it takes shape, this vision recedes from view, and the anger turns inward once more.

"I see my job as making a TV show," Maddow says. "I fail at it – constantly. And that's all I can think about."

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