Rachel Maddow is the Charles Darwin of Cable News.
Darwin’s most important unsung contribution to science (even more important than his monograph on earthworms) was to figure out how to most effectively put together multiple sources into a single argument — combining description, explanation, and theory — of a complex phenomenon in nature. His first major work, on coral reefs, brought together historical and anecdotal information, prior observation and theory from earlier researchers, his own direct observations of many kinds of reefs, quasi experimental work in the field, and a good measure of deductive thinking. It took a while for this standard to emerge, but eventually it did, and this approach was to become the normal way to write a PhD thesis or major monograph in science.
Take any major modern news theme. Deutsche Bank. Trump-Nato-Putin. Election tampering. Go to the standard news sources and you’ll find Chuck Todd following the path of “both sides have a point.” Fox News will be mixing conspiracy theory and right wing talking points. The most respected mainstream news anchors, Lester Holt, Christiane Amanpour, or Brian Williams perhaps, will be giving a fair airing of the facts but moving quickly from story to story. Dig deeper, and find Chris Hayes with sharp analysis, Joy Reid contextualizing stories with social justice, and Lawrence O’Donnell applying his well earned in the trenches biker wisdom.
But if you really want to Darwin the news, and sink your natural teeth and claws into a story, go to Maddow.
I’ve heard Rachel does not like being called “Doctor” (most of us PhD’s don’t) but she is an Oxford trained Doctor of politics. She also has a degree in public policy from Stanford, and is a Rhodes Scholar, having turned down the Marshall to accept it. In other words, she is both very well educated, and very smart.
In the Early Oughties, Maddow’s career evolved through a series of radio shows, panelist roles, substitute-roles, to eventually become the Rachel Maddow Show, in 2008. RMS (which also stands for root-mean-square, a mathematical concept that is not about roots and is more about curves than squares) almost instantly moved into state of great success, almost single handily pulling MSNBC materially upward as a high ratings cable network.
The point being this: If you want to really get a story, find out if the story is covered by Rachel Maddow where it got the RMS treatment, and sit down and absorb that. It might take several episodes, or there might be that one RMS segment that nails it once and for all. Depends on the story.
I consider Maddow to be the number one modern historian of modern news. If she had gotten her graduate training in history rather than politics and policy, the major living historians would have had a brilliant addition to their ranks. But everyone else, or at least, the thinking liberal left side of the spectrum of people, would have lost a regular supply of information and inspiration that, frankly, keeps a lot of us going these days.
You know that an elixir works magic when certain forces ban it. About a year and a half ago, I decided to alter my exercise routine at the gym so I could be on the tread mill during the Rachel Maddow Show, which I do not get at home since I don’t have that kind of cable (I watch the show next day on line, streaming). I was shocked to find out that MSNBC had been replaced with some dumb thing up on the monitor. I went to the “help desk” at the gym and asked about it.
“We took off all the news sites because it was driving people crazy, they were getting less rather than more healthy,” they said.
“Ok, but I see ABC and some business version of CBS is showing. You seem to have only gotten rid of MSNBC, is this some kind of right wing conspiracy?” I accused.
“Ah, well, we got rid of both MSNBC and FOX. It was a corporate decision. I know nothing about it. Would you like to sign up to have a trainer, we have a special this week…”
Anyway, I conjecture, and what I’m about to say is either deeply insightful or terribly offensive, but I’ll revise it as needed on receipt of further information, that Darwin and Maddow are also similar in another way.
Darwin first developed his amazing craft of explanation out of fear. See, it went like this. While out on the Voyage of the Beagle, and generally out of contact, he had corresponded about an early version of his theory of coral reef formation, growth, and maintenance. An outline of this theory had been read to the Royal Society without his knowing it. It is said that when he heard about this in a letter from his sister, he became very worried that his hero, Charles Lyell, would now lose respect for him and abandon him as a colleague. Or worse, whatever worse might be in Victorian England among the nerds of the day. You see, Lyell’s version of how reefs work was the standing science at the time, and Darwin’s view was heretically different. The fear this struck in the young, and in his own mind unqualified, researcher led, I think, to the nearly obsessive care he took in constructing his final arguments about reefs,and everything else he did after that, including taking decades to publish the Origin.
So, to be blunt, I’m suggesting that Charles Darwin suffered from a sort of impostor syndrome that led him to become excellent, as a means of protecting himself and his science. And maybe something happened along these lines with the young, up and coming, Rachel Maddow who was almost certainly, as a female, a young scholar, a Liberal, and a lesbian, required to dance backward and in high heeled Birkenstocks in the early phases of her career, and likely, through much of her graduate education before that.
The result: The frequent generation of richly evolved narratives of current news, embedded in history, linked to parallel stories, details well sorted out and beautifully integrated. And that is what we get from, and love about, Rachel.
But then, every now and then, instead of a 25 minute segment about something on the Rachel Maddow Show, we get a book! Earlier, Drift. Now, Blowout.
Blowout is the Rachel Maddow treatment of the petroleum industry. That sentence right there should make you want to read this book. In ways I will not here enumerate, Blowout is both prescient and uncannily relevant to this week’s news (and by this week I mean last week, and probably next week.) Russia, the Ukraine, Rex Tillerson, Exxon, ExxonMobil, Chevron, nuclear bombs in civilian hands, freakin’ fracking, Putin, power, crude, crude politicians, corruption, regulation syphilatic African dictator, technology, power, Texas, Siberia, corruption, brilliant business people and, did I mention power? These are the things that make every chapter sing.
This is a book about how Big Petrol was subsidized into a state of power great enough to eat the very democracies (and other forms of government) that created it. This is the Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein story of our times.
In modern geopolitical terms, Blowout seems to explain everything. But it doesn’t, that will require two or three more books by Rachel Maddow. But for now, Blowout is the treatise that gives rich detail and extreme documentation to a theme with which you are already familiar, and already know is important. You will not be shocked to find that Big Oil is up to something. But every chapter, at several points in each said chapter, will shock you nonetheless, because the story is so rich that you can not possibly have grasped it before. Blowout, the book, will bury you.
Get it. Read it. Report back: Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth
Also by Rachel Maddow: Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power
If you are interested in following up on Darwin and coral reefs: Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral by David Dobbs.
And, of course, now in paperback, unrelated to the rest of this post but a must read: In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden