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Thursday, July 17, 2008

MSNBC has become a sad enterprise.

I once had hope for the network as a haven for the intellectual perspective on the news world, and not simply another pundit war ground. While the network has grown during this election season - with the wind beneath its sails largely coming from their 8pm flagship Countdown with Keith Olbermann - the entire network has become a disappointing photo negative of Fox News. Its attempt to position itself as a liberal alternative to Roger Ailes' GOP mouthpiece died the moment they allowed self-indulgent game-show hosts who want to make themselves the stars (Dan Abrams) and the occasional right-wing racist (Pat Buchanan) to infect its airwaves. I mean, how many times can we hear the same operatives spew the same talking points?

So many voices that are so influential to the outstanding NBC News operation are either silenced (Andrea Mitchell, who's reduced to a talking head) or soiled (David Gregory, who's out of his element on Race for the White House.) Now that they've lost the inimitable Tim Russert, where can MSNBC turn?

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel...that isn't a train.

Rachel Maddow is easily the smartest person in American television journalism. (Fareed Zakaria's perhaps tied, but you never see him having to wade in the pundit cesspool in which Maddow often finds herself.) A frequent talking head and occasional Countdown guest host, Maddow is truly water in a dry land: unafraid to espouse her liberal opinions on-air to counteract the windbags the network keeps serving up as her opposition.

But what makes the Rhodes Scholar so appealing on air is that she isn't really a TV person. An Air America radio host by trade, Maddow is a bit uncomfortable with the pretension of the job, having remarked several times that she hates the makeup, outfits and hairdressing that come with the gig. She is noticeably more assured in her role as pundit, though her anchoring has improved drastically from her first substitution on Countdown a few weeks back. (Part of the reason for that is that she'd never used a teleprompter before. But she mastered it a lot faster than some we've seen.)

Perhaps that's why MSNBC has her first in line for her own show.

They'd better hurry. While I understand that the shows are probably locked into their current schedule at least through the elections, MSNBC is in real need of change. They've found success with the increasingly unbearable Morning Joe, but Race for the White House and its annoying guitar theme just stink, and Verdict, Abrams' vanity project, is unwatchable. I didn't even mention Hardball. Hosts like Chris Matthews (who think they're journalists) are the apotheosis of the attitude that is killing television journalism: he who yells the loudest shall triumph.

Maddow has shown she can compete - and win - on that playing field. Whenever she's being bullied by the likes of Scarborough and Buchanan, she holds her own. But it's the way she presents the topics of discussion - as though we Americans don't need to be yelled at on TV to get the point - is a refreshing change, and I look forward to every time she's on the air. What I will really look forward to are the days in which Maddow's AC 360-like show follows Olbermann's at 9pm, and I don't have to weed through other mediocre programs to gain her insight on issues that matter to us all.


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