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Thomas Larson: Rachel Maddow, Isocrates, and the Power of Speech

May 22, 2014

The changing nature of authorship in the age of mass media as illustrated by the MSNBC host.

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Image from Flickr via Robert Gray

By Thomas Larson

Strange as it seems, writers and their work used to be welcome on TV. Via YouTube we can find, from 1959, the very cool, Boston-inflected Jack Kerouac, reading from On the Road to a jazz trio improv on The Steve Allen Show, and, from 1968, a very inebriated, belligerent Jack on Firing Line with William F. Buckley. There’s Jerzy Kosinski, William Saroyan, and Gore Vidal on Johnny Carson, as well as (my favorite non-author) the foresty-eyebrowed Ed Begley Sr., reciting Robert Service’s “The Face on the Barroom Floor.” Mike Wallace probing Aldous Huxley. Edward R. Murrow person-to-person with John Steinbeck.

In its infancy, TV was subservient to book culture. The idea was to legitimize itself by letting writers extemporize: the long-tongued Truman Capote, whether dishing about murderers or Jackie Kennedy, was enthralling; millions knew the fiction and nonfiction of Norman Mailer and tuned in to see who the whiskey-soaked gladiator mauled on Dick Cavett. The popularity of J.D. Salinger and Harper Lee grew, in part, because they conspicuously refused to appear on the boob tube.

Chris Matthews, Megyn Kelly, and Al Sharpton [are all] aflutter with bloviation. Maddow, however, has something they don’t: an actor’s sensibility.

These days, TV neither showcases nor ignores the writer. Instead, TV elevates personalities into authors. Mass media activates in its most voluble and personable live hosts and frequent guests their book potential, usually with a memoir or a political analysis. An outsized TV presence turns talking talent (and visual appeal) into commodities, among them, books, often to an embarrassing degree. (See my essay, “Awash in Celebrity Authors,” in which I discuss and lament why nearly everyone with a TV show gets a book deal.)

Rachel Maddow is the epitome of the social or public author as live-TV construction. The Rhodes Scholar, PhD, and former Air America radio host has been, during the five years of her MSNBC show, contagiously reconfigured—wonk became anchor, anchor became performer, performer became writer, writer became documentarian (her film about the Iraq war, “Why We Did It,” premiered March 6.).

Where is Maddow the author in all this? Primarily in her multidisciplinary ability to deliver language via voice and body, not unlike the dynamic professor or the country preacher. On TV she sits, but she’s in a pulpit, and we are her congregation. The degree to which she writes her soliloquies prior, or extemporizes them on-air, matters less than her rhetorical skill.

To contextualize Maddow’s unprecedented turn, think of the 50-year male mold wrought by the CBS Evening News’ anchors, among them, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Scott Pelley. Yes there’s Connie Chung and Katie Couric, but their addition merely confirmed that they could read the teleprompter just as men did. What did these middle-age broadcasters have in common? Inanimation. I’m reminded of Maurice Ravel’s line about his beloved Bolero: “a piece for orchestra without music.” It’s predictably dramatic sameness is key: the long-arced pattern of slow additive sonorities, brightening and getting louder with each repetition of the melody.

In the same way, from Cronkite to Pelley, we get no music. No gesture, no lip, no look; the hands stay stationary; they are folded or hold the script. Authority comes from the drone-tone seriousness. It’s uncouth to enlist the body in the presentation (see all local anchors). Only the facts. The one time Pelley emotes is when his 22 minutes are nearly over and he issues a faintly jocular comment at the end of a feel-good story. All that for $5 million a year.

A much harder worker, Maddow is also a true rogue, and a bargain at $7 million a year. What’s so special about her? After all, in cable-news land, nearly every anchor—such evening stalwarts as Chris Matthews, Megyn Kelly, and Al Sharpton—are aflutter with bloviation. Maddow, however, has something they don’t: an actor’s sensibility. Her primetime competition is politically strident and loquacious, and so is she—but she’s also theatrically extra-dimensional.

The traditional news anchor, examples of which occupy most of the airtime, mimes the newspeak of CEOs and other shills. Maddow is the new news anchor, pushing out of or playing with the persona.

I’ve heard Maddow read/improvise summary-filled relative clauses—and and and and and (one recent example, a string of common-folk hurt caused by the George Washington Bridge lane closures), daubed with raised eyebrows and arms-in-the-air and rolled eyes and pen taps and mock-shock—who pauses to let the hook sink in (Really?) before she nails the main clause with smart-bomb accuracy. Maddow pumps the on-air space full of you-can’t-make-this-shit-up incredulity, her tessitura rising with exclamatory swathes of feigned outrage. Where does this act come from? Who knows? Still, she leans into the camera with a kind of innate pleasure at being watched at the same time that in every segment she ditches the drollery to end on a morally serious note.

Maddow may develop her lead story for 15 to 18 minutes, at times, with evangelical ardor. Among her many expressive attributes:

  • her dark eyebrows, lifting to signal a judicious, hold-that-thought pause, her face aglow with saucer-eyed surprise;
  • her sportscaster Italianate hand gestures (she’s right-handed but flails with her left);
  • her often over-stimulating questions to interviewees, longer and more complex than the guest can answer (Dan Rather wilts at her probing and repeats himself; Bob Herbert buzzes around the same wordy flower);
  • her smile, upper-teeth-revealing, an open-mouthed, open-faced Midwestern-ness that says she knows most viewers (we’re viewers, not listeners) agree with her, but how in hell’s half-acre do others manage not to?

The point? All that look and lure and long-windedness is the author. Sean Hannity rarely styles with language, gesture, subtlety. (His pen, laced-in-his-fingers, is a mere “writerly” affectation.) His audience is less comfortable with irony or conflicted thinking or donnish wit, all kegs which Maddow taps. Instead, Hannity’s engagement with his enemy, “the left,” is only unwavering disdain.

Maddow also works by design and selection. Her text is written to report on certain scandals and to comment on the havoc such reporting belabors. But, still, I find her shift away from the anchorman model unheralded and new-wave.

With TV, we have a fully wired, socializing media that reveals our sensorial selves more roundly than ever. However, in keeping the medium cool and the anchors’ careers safe, most pundits and their producers censor that participatory self. The traditional news anchor, examples of which occupy most of the airtime, mimes the newspeak of CEOs and other shills. Maddow is the new news anchor, pushing out of or playing with the persona.

So what happens when she writes? Propelled by her popularity, Maddow’s 2012 Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power shot to nonfiction number one on the perfectly timed idea that, post-9/11, with the hazards of unchecked executive power, an all-volunteer military, and the privatization of the military industry, especially companies with their own mercenary armies for hire like Blackwater, it is way too easy for America to go to war.

The prose in Drift moves slowly, in a classic analytical, info-packed way. For example, she describes where a young person, who volunteers for the military, might not want to be stationed:

Probably not in a missile silo in Minot, North Dakota. In the post-9/11 era, who’d want the job of sitting through the nuclear winter on the high plains, running maintenance on the thirty-five B-52s, guarding the “silos” that housed 150 giant and largely untested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), babysitting the hundreds of smaller nuclear warheads stored in sod-topped bunkers like canned fruit shelved in a tornado shelter?

This, obviously, is writing: strong participials, telling detail, a bracing simile, all of it crafted to include as much as the reader’s eye-mind meld can hold. Gone is the individual voice; the generic writer has replaced it. Because she’s on TV, you may hear Maddow’s vocal inflections in the prose. You may pick up her personality, gestures, and tonal modulations, and imagine that the page-text carries a heightened drama. Words on the page may be jealous of the intensity the body brings to speech. When the face and arms and eyes exploit dubiety or dead-on despair, which takes time for a reader of published text to download, why wouldn’t there be some envy?

The TV viewer cannot take in a lot of info; the medium won’t support it. The TV viewer is taken when the anchor cares about the info, personalizes it, and augments it with video: info personalized and illustrated is much less literate.

The same scene transferred to TV would maintain that trademark Maddow probity, but with simpler lines, less chockablock, more intimate. Something like this. “You don’t want to be stuck guarding a silo somewhere in North Dakota, keeping watch with others on an arsenal of B-52s, and ICBMs, and warheads, half of it buried in bunkers. No. You wouldn’t want that.” Pen-tap pause. “No, you would not.”

TV text drains the sheer volume of info out of the writing and, at least with Maddow, ramps up the emotionally charged direct address. Emotion—the key one being caring—replaces analysis. The TV viewer cannot take in a lot of info; the medium won’t support it. The TV viewer is taken when the anchor cares about the info, personalizes it, and augments it with video: info personalized and illustrated is much less literate. I think of the televangelist Joel Osteen smiling his way through a discourse on the Book of Job, simplifying it into a twenty-minute audio-enhanced lesson about Job’s goodness, stripping it of complicating narrative and masochistic psychology.

Drift is calm, reasoning, chaptered, and convincing in a different way than Maddow’s quick-to-rile TV tack. Reading her thoughts about the military feels a world apart from her televised, often wisenheimer, shtick about the Chris Christie scandal. While Drift, a five-hour read, the equivalent of one week of shows, advances the policy discussion of whither the American military in the post-9/11 world, the book has none of the urgency Maddow brings to her nightly program, where “breaking news” and exposes, often couched as civics lessons, rule. How can Drift compete with quotidian commentary as news? The answer is, it can’t.

Maddow’s performative, opinion-fired journalism (it’s so much more than reporting) returns us to the codes of Athenian democracy. Consider Isocrates, a Greek rhetorician, writing in the mid-fourth century B.C.E.: “We have come together and founded cities and made laws and invented arts; and, generally speaking, there is no institution devised by man which the power of speech has not helped us to establish.” Law, education, theater, epic, poetry, politics, augury, weddings/funerals, all established by the “power of speech.”

Rhetoric is the art; speech enacts the art most persuasively. Speech is valuable to the health of the polis because speech is dialogic, exciting one’s troops and one’s enemies; it is free (at least, temporarily) from the altercations of time and memory; and, unlike print, it brings contentious citizens physically together—chambers and classrooms and halls—where they, their bodies and their voices and their claims, debate with expressive and rhetorical glee. Indeed, it’s in the live marketplace where authors express their facts and fictions, are heard and are countered, that such exchange fosters the day-to-day livelihood of the community.

While ideas and their speakers have always butted heads in public squares and village circles, it’s disturbing nowadays how little combat there is. In an age of personalized commentary and op-ed TV, we have little of the healthy competition the Greeks had. Athenian democracy and Socratic philosophy grew out of argument, not agreement. So powerful are the production values and the bully pulpit of our hour-long opinion shows that the anchor-audience bond eschews live debate and, instead, seeks to affirm the host’s mindset endlessly. A fact Maddow may or may not revel in.

Thomas Larson is the author of three books:
The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative
, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and the forthcoming The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease.

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