You Were Expecting Olbermann?

Article excerpt

Byline: Howard Kurtz

Rachel Maddow seizes her moment as the face of MSNBC at an uncomfortable crossroads.

The woman at the whiteboard, in a brown hoodie, white T shirt, and jeans, scribbles away as the debate careens from John Boehner to abortion rights to Silvio Berlusconi's teenage gal pal.

It is part graduate seminar, part stand-up comedy, as Rachel Maddow challenges the 17 mostly female staffers on every suggestion for that night's show. While Maddow strafes such favorite conservative targets as the billionaire Koch brothers ("They're doing a good job of marginalizing all criticism of them as hysterical"), her sharp tongue doesn't spare Democrats. She says that Hillary Clinton, during the Egyptian protests, "pulled a full Baghdad Bob: 'Pay no attention to that burning barricade behind me.'?"

The newsroom falls silent as Maddow uses a marker to render her decision on the six surviving subjects. But no one can decipher her scrawl. "There's usually a direct relationship between the legibility of my penmanship and my level of confidence in the segments," she explains to laughter.

What's unusual here--beyond a host who is, in no particular order, a Rhodes scholar, a former prison activist, a full-throated liberal, a lesbian, and a pickup-truck driver--is the way she interrogates the staff on the tiniest details, down to the amendments in a South Dakota bill that she has already reviewed. And Maddow will need that brainpower as she is thrust into the biggest challenge of her brief broadcasting career. With the abrupt departure of Keith Olbermann, the combative anchor who helped bring her to MSNBC before flaming out, the 37-year-old Maddow has become the new face of a network at an uncertain crossroads.

Women may fill two of the three network anchor chairs, but they are scarce in the boys' club of prime-time cable news. Fox News has Greta Van Susteren; CNN (where I host a weekly program) dropped Kathleen Parker as Eliot Spitzer's cohost last week. And that's it.

Losing a dominant figure like Olbermann once "would have been a fatal blow to MSNBC," says NBC News chief Steve Capus, "but that's no longer the case." He calls Maddow a trailblazer who "doesn't spend her day trying to get everyone to believe what she does." Olbermann, who branded

foes the "Worst Persons in the World," constantly clashed with management, which threatened to fire him when he warned he might publicly challenge his suspension for donating money to Democrats.

"She's our biggest show," says MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who describes Maddow as "so friggin' smart--?Very few people can be so honest with a remark, a giggle, a serious look. There's no performance art. That performance is Rachel."

Adding to the pressure is the recent takeover of NBC by Comcast, a famously buttoned-down corporation that could demand changes (though Capus dismissed as "crazy" speculation that Griffin might be squeezed out). Olbermann, now with Al Gore's Current TV, might start sniping at his old network once a nondisparagement agreement expires. But his shadow remains: Olbermann so thoroughly defined MSNBC as the voice of liberal outrage that Maddow, a self-described policy geek, must help forge a new identity. Maddow says she misses Olbermann but dismisses "suspicions" that the channel is toning things down, saying the ugly breakup "really wasn't about the rest of us."

At her best, Maddow debates ideological opponents with civility and persistence, as she did by pressing then-GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul about his criticism of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. (He later said Maddow had "tortured" him and vowed never to return.) But for all her eloquence, she can get so wound up ripping Republicans that she sounds like another smug cable partisan. Baltimore Sun critic David Zurawik has accused Maddow of acting like "a lockstep party member."

Yet Maddow periodically criticizes President Obama--from the left, whacking him over Afghanistan, Gitmo, and torture prosecutions. …