On MSNBC’s Sirius XM promos, Rachel Maddow tells the listener that the network—and by extension, herself as well—presents the news without “fear or favor.”
But a review of the month of March by Paste suggests that fear sells. With a single exception, Maddow led off every episode of her show in March with an extended, conspiratorial update for her viewers on the alleged connections between Russia and the Trump administration. Maddow’s monologues focused on the Russian oligarchic state and the authoritarian rule of President Vladimir Putin.
This obsession with Russia has had a palpable effect on the national conversation. Maddow is one of the most influential and popular voices for American liberals, and her theorizing on the Russia/Trump connection is part of a larger theory connecting the alleged collusion between the two to every world and national event.
As Aaron Mate points out in The Intercept, Maddow’s concentration on Trump is predicated on the idea that the President is a Russian pawn. It’s hardly a sure thing, and the focus may be more damaging than constructive for the “resistance.”
Maddow and likeminded influential liberals will have led their audience on a fruitless quest, all the while helping foment anti-Russia sentiment, channeling Democratic Party energy away from productive self-critique, and diverting focus from the White House’s actual policies. Trump would be handed a further gift via the damaged credibility of his “enemy”: the media responsible for holding him to account.
Look no further than the reactions to Trump’s bombing of a Syrian government airfield on April 6 for proof of that—despite the fact that Bashar al-Assad is openly backed by Russia, some liberal commentators refuse to see the missile strike as at all possibly opposed to Russian interests. “Donald Trump, Who’s Totally Not Vladimir Putin’s Puppet, Warned Russia Before Airstrikes on Syria,” was Salon’s sarcastic headline.
This is in large part because Maddow presents Russia as an outlier on the world stage, involved in activity and behavior that is incompatible with the American way of life. Yet her examples from the last month are hardly convincing.
In Russia, Maddow says, there is a “corrupt, elite class of connected thieves at the top who have been siphoning money out of that country.” Though she acknowledges that the US has massive income inequality and corruption, in Russia it’s different, because
the politically connected class at the top that is stealing is much smaller… and is much more traceable now, in the short amount of time, in terms of the way they have yanked money out of that country, and the way they have spread it all over the world to hide it and to disguise its origins.
Let’s hope nobody shatters Maddow’s image of America by pointing out that 400 Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 61 percent of the population. Or that, according to the World Bank, the United States and Russia have almost exactly the same GINI index—the standard measure of inequality.
Not only is Russia a unique kleptocracy, Maddow says, but it (along with China and North Korea) is also an abnormally bellicose nation, consumed by the need to show off its military prowess and power. This kind of behavior, Maddow argues, is antithetical to the American way of life (emphasis added).
There’s no law against parading your military, whether or not it’s an important anniversary. But through American eyes, this is a little weird, right? If this gives you the willies to look at, it`s because it`s supposed to. This is an unabashed, uncomplicated, undisguised display of military threat, military prowess or national insecurity, depending on how you look at it. I mean, this is not something that we do here in the United States.
It’s hard to know how Maddow would describe the constant flyovers by Air Force jets at football games, the honoring of fully dressed Marines at baseball games, or the numerous holidays the United States has that involve the strutting of US military machines, personnel and paraphernalia. One way to describe it, of course, would be as an unabashed, uncomplicated, undisguised display of military threat, military prowess or national insecurity—depending on how you look at it.
Instead of policy discussions, analysis of domestic issues or digging into the backgrounds of administration personnel, Maddow’s program spent March with a spotlight aimed at the new administration’s as-yet-unsubstantiated ties with Russian government intelligence services and the allegedly Russian-led hack of the DNC emails.
It paid off. Maddow’s program is the only non-Fox News program in the ten top-rated cable news programs for the first quarter of 2017, and the highest-ranked non-Fox program in the lucrative 25-54 demographic, according to AdWeek. Yet this success came with an obsession with Russia twinned with overblown dot-connecting, speculative reasoning stated as fact and an emphasis on a wide ranging, insidious conspiracy.
Maddow referenced Russia repeatedly in March. The highest number of mentions we found was 105 on March 9, the lowest was days earlier on March 6, when it came up only eight times. On average, the country was mentioned around 53 times a show—or over once a minute, once you subtract commercials from the airtime—and Maddow did not let a single opening segment go by for the entire month without at least a mention of Russia’s alleged ties to Trump.
The entire list is below, but here are three telling examples of Maddow’s obsessive attention to Russia at the expense of anything else going on in the news.
March 7, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 71 times. Maddow acknowledged news about ACA and immigration, but chose to lead instead with a study of the Russian embassy, promising to cover the breaking domestic news later.
March 14, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 19 times. The show led with the infamous tax return document that Maddow introduced with a winding 20-minute monologue that touched on a number of conspiracy theories for which she provided no proof.
March 17, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 51 times. The show led with Tom Price, then moves to the Gorsuch hearings as a pretext for a long discussion on hypothetical discoveries about Russia in House hearings.
It was on the latter date that Maddow laid out the justification for her unrelenting focus—a thesis grounded on flimsy evidence, hyperbolic rhetoric and unsubstantiated allegations:
The Russian attack on our election last year, the unexplained connections between the Trump campaign and Russia during that time, during the time of the attack, the strangeness, particularly, the strangeness of the FBI in its treatment of this matter, it’s unsettling. It’s unsettling not just because this is one scandal among so many scandals for this young administration. So many scandals that some are being ignored because they’re not big enough to warrant attention amid other scandals, right?
This is unsettling not just because it’s one scandal among many. This is unsettling because if the worst is true, if the presidency is effectively a Russian op, right, if the American presidency right now is the product of collusion between the Russian intelligence services and an American campaign—I mean, that is so profoundly big. We not only need to stay focused on figuring it out, we need to start preparing for what the consequences are going to be if it proves to be true. We need to start thinking about how we’re going to deal with the worst revelations if they do come to light, if they are proved true.
Maddow could have just looked over reporting from the last four months to see that the allegations that Russia “attacked” the presidential election are questionable. But instead, she spent the entire month of March pushing an ever-escalating conspiracy theory to explain the Trump presidency, based on speculative hyperbole describing a mass web of collusion between the president, the Russian government and other actors.
“WikiLeaks got all inextricably bound up in our new national nightmare about Russia hacking our presidential election,” Maddow said (3/6/17), and “Russian intelligence was mounting an operation against us, against our election to try to affect the outcome” (3/9/17). Yet despite the fact that the MSNBC host had “been following this [with] pretty intense attention” (3/2/17), she conceded she didn’t “know what`s going on in terms of the law enforcement and intelligence investigations” (3/3/17).
That didn’t stop Maddow from speculating about what those investigations could find out about possible Trump/Russia collusion.
“We’ve had it confirmed today that what they are also investigating is whether, once again, the Russians had help from inside the United States when it came time to humble America and show our country what they are capable of,” Maddow said (3/20/17), elaborating remarkably on the testimony of FBI Director James Comey, who had said only that the agency was investigating potential ties between the campaign and the Russian government.
Maddow’s viewers wouldn’t have known that from her. Instead, they would have been treated to more accusations of an intelligence operation that used the internet and Bernie Sanders supporters to defeat Hillary Clinton.
“Russian forces were operating inside something very high-profile,” Maddow said (3/31/17). “They were operating inside the U.S. presidential election.”
“This is not part of American politics,” she said earlier in the month (3/21/17). “This is not, you know, partisan warfare between Republicans and Democrats. This is international warfare against our country and it did not end on election day. We are still in it.”
Trump’s finances came in for scrutiny as well—understandable, given that the president has refused to release his tax returns. But even a major scoop in mid-March fell prey to a rambling monologue that tried to hit all the marks of the Russian conspiracy theory before landing on a rather deflated two-page nothingburger.
“Has [Trump] received money from foreign sources? Has he received loans from foreign sources?” Maddow asked, before revealing two pages of a 2005 tax return that indicated nothing of the sort.
She added the next day that there were questions on why Trump would make public statements on the benefits of investing in Russia in 2006, trying to tie in the widely panned exposé from the night before:
Why did he think so? Were there financial ties with Russia that would give him such confidence about that pronouncement which he made very shortly after he signed this tax return?
There are no negative consequences for the liberal commentator for trafficking in these sorts of conspiracy theories, as long as they’re aimed at the “right” target—look no further than Fairness and Accuracy’s recent reporting on Louise Mensch to see how the most discredited, illogical ideas can gain credence on the centrist liberal media circuit as long as they are aimed at Russia. And in Maddow’s case, these theories have an added bonus: higher ratings and corresponding higher ad revenue.
Maddow presents herself as a fair but tough liberal commentator. Her show is based on her presentation of the news that her audience wants and needs to hear. For her to spend so much time on a Cold War enemy at the expense of real domestic policies, and for her to do so with such speculative reasoning and logical leaps and bounds makes it clear that it’s ratings, not truth, that she’s really after.
You can follow Eoin Higgins on Twitter and find him at Patreon.
Maddow on Russia: March, 2017
Findings on the pundit’s preoccupation
March 2, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 24 times. Show leads with Attorney Jeff Sessions’ conversations with Kislyak.
March 3, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 68 times. Show leads with profile of Russian opposition to Putin.
March 6, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 8 times. Show leads with Trump family ties to central Asian nation Azerbijain.
March 7, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 71 times. Maddow acknowledges news about ACA and immigration but chooses to lead instead with a study of the Russian embassy, promising to cover the domestic breaking news later.
March 8, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 103 times. Show leads with the GOP platform on Russia and Ukraine.
March 9, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 105 times. Show leads with sanctions and mentions the unsubstantiated dossier on Trump written by retired British intelligence officer Christopher Steele Buzzfeed published, acknowledges its content has not been verified, and then quotes from it at length.
March 10, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 47 times. Show leads with Mike Flynn’s ties to the country and his dinner with RT.
March 13, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 50 times. Show leads with Russian money laundering after Maddow lets the audience know the GOP healthcare bill has problems, but she’ll get to them later.
March 14, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 19 times. Show leads with the infamous tax return document that Maddow introduced with a winding 20-minute monologue touching on a number of conspiracy theories for which she had zero proof.
March 15, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 31 times. Show leads with Geert Wilders and the Russian investigation in Congress; Maddow tries to tie an FSB agent’s prosecution in Russia to Trump.
March 16, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 65 times. Show leads with the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
March 17, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 51 times. Show leads with Tom Price, then moves to the Gorsuch hearings as a pretext for a long discussion on hypothetical discoveries about Russia in House hearings.
March 20, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 86 times. Show leads with Russian nuclear capabilities.
March 21, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 52 times. Show leads with Bernie Sanders’ online supporters were Russian agents.
March 22, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 54 times. Show leads with Paul Manafort’s connections to an unnamed Russian billionaire.
March 23, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 57 times. Show leads with health care repeal (Russia and Ukraine are a segment later on).
March 24, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 33 times. Show leads with the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russian involvement in the election.
March 27, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 50 times. Show leads with the FSB and Russian banks conspiring to get Trump elected.
March 28, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 39 times. Show leads with Maddow declaring that Russia and China’s displays of military power during national holidays are unique to those countries.
March 29, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 50 times. Show leads with alleged Russian involvement in the upcoming French elections.
March 30, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 33 times. Show leads with Mike Flynn’s request for immunity, which Maddow ties to Russia.
March 31, 2017: “Russia” or “Russians” mentioned 80 times. Show leads with the House investigation.