The Media Today

The Maddow-Wagner transition

August 17, 2022
Alex Wagner. Screenshot via MSNBC

“Do you remember the name Brandon Van Grack?” On Monday night, at 9pm Eastern, Rachel Maddow opened her show on MSNBC as she often does, by casting back in time for a relatively obscure name—on this occasion, a top espionage prosecutor at the Justice Department who first came to Maddow’s attention in 2017 when it was reported that he was investigating the foreign-lobbying activities of Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser. Maddow tied that probe to the much more recent news that federal law enforcement is investigating possible violations of the Espionage Act related to Trump’s mishandling of sensitive documents, then invited Van Grack, now a former top espionage prosecutor, on air to discuss it. It was his first US TV interview. Maddow gave him near-rockstar billing.

Last night, at the same time, Alex Wagner opened her show on MSNBC with the news that the FBI search warrant in the Trump-documents case had been unsealed. This, too, was a blast from the past, albeit not an intentional one—the warrant was unsealed last week, and Wagner, seemingly, was reading off a teleprompter that hadn’t been updated. (CNN’s Brian Stelter reckons someone loaded up a rehearsal script by mistake.) After an awkward pause, Wagner pivoted to yesterday’s actual top story: Liz Cheney’s House primary in Wyoming. Later, Wagner blamed the snafu on “technical gremlins.” “This is the first one,” she added, “so we’ll work it out.”

ICYMI: Democracy and the Liz Cheney narrative

Wagner was referring to the fact that, while she has filled in for Maddow in the latter’s 9pm time slot before, the slot is newly her own: last night was the debut of her new show, Alex Wagner Tonight. She “has been diligently preparing for this moment her entire career,” Karen K. Ho (formerly of CJR) wrote in a profile of Wagner for New York’s The Cut. “For two decades, she has bounced along a nontraditional career path, adapting from scene-y culture magazines to a genocide-fighting nonprofit to cable news.” Specifically, Wagner started her career at music and culture journals in LA and Tokyo, then worked as “minister of culture” at the liberal Center for American Progress, then edited the music magazine The Fader, then worked for the nonprofit Not on Our Watch, which was cofounded by George Clooney. Later, she had an initial stint at MSNBC, rising to host a daytime show, and also worked at CBS, The Atlantic, and HuffPost, before landing at The Circus, Showtime’s political documentary series. Now back at MSNBC, she has become the only Asian American with a prime-time cable news show. Wagner “knows what it’s like to be the daughter of an immigrant and worry about her safety on the train,” Ho writes, “and when she talks about it on the air, that’s going to feel radically different.”

Wagner plans to chart a different journalistic approach from Maddow’s in the 9pm slot. (“There is no one else like Rachel Maddow,” she told Deadline. “Woe be to those who try to mimic her style.”) As Ho notes, Wagner plans to make field reporting a “core component” of her show, building on her challenging yet deft interviews with Trump fans and others on The Circus; she also plans to build on her background in cultural journalism to bring artistic voices into the political conversation, while covering climate change, race, and immigration, and trying to eschew horserace-style journalism. As she told the Washington Post, however, “there’s only so much reinvention you can do of this particular wheel.” Wagner acknowledged that her show will evince some continuity with Maddow’s, drawing on the latter’s context-rich philosophy, in particular. At least for now, she will work with Maddow’s executive producer and much of Maddow’s staff.

Gremlins aside, Wagner’s debut show was, as CNN’s Stelter put it, “mostly standard prime time fare.” The guests—a staff writer at The Atlantic, a former federal prosecutor turned cable talking head, the West Wing–central-casting-Republican Adam Kinzinger—were exquisitely MSNBC-ish; Steve Kornacki, the network’s elections maven, came on to talk about the night’s primaries and did not eschew horserace-style journalism. Still, there were flashes of Maddow continuity: up top, Wagner played a clip of Cheney decrying “the most radical man who’s ever inhabited the Oval Office,” setting up the expectation that she was talking about Trump then subverting it by revealing that the clip was from 2013 and Cheney was talking about Barack Obama, inviting viewers to think a little more deeply about Cheney’s past than much recent coverage of her has encouraged. And there were flashes of something new, too. Interviewing Cheney’s fellow GOP apostate Kinzinger, Wagner channeled that challenging yet deft interview style, pushing him on his past support for Trump and his enablers, but in the gentle way an acquaintance might.

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Ultimately, of course, it’s far too early to judge Wagner’s show; it’ll take her time to hone its sensibility. How much time she’ll be given to do so is more of an open question. Rashida Jones, MSNBC’s president, has insisted that Wagner will get ample time, and that how her show rates in terms of viewers will not be its be-all and end-all; before Wagner was named to the slot, Jones told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo that “our metric isn’t Rachel’s numbers or bust.” Still, cable executives tend to care a lot about ratings, and, as Ho notes, Wagner is walking into “a situation that could be seen as setting her up for failure.” Maddow, in many ways, has become synonymous with MSNBC, and is appointment viewing for millions of people. When Wagner and other guest hosts filled in for her earlier this year, the ratings for the hour nosedived.

Not that Maddow is going away entirely. She’ll continue to host her show every Monday night in the same time slot, a scheduling arrangement that already started earlier this year; this past Monday’s tour through the world of Flynn, Van Grack, and espionage intrigue may have felt like a valedictory capstone to Maddow’s recent preoccupations, but it was only a transitional episode in the sense that Wagner, rather than a rotating cast of hosts, would pick up from Tuesday through Friday. Maddow will now also pursue projects for NBCUniversal, MSNBC’s parent company, across a range of media, including documentaries, books, and podcasts; Bag Man, her recent audio series about Spiro Agnew, is being adapted into a movie by Ben Stiller and Lorne Michaels. Having space to pursue such projects was a key reason Maddow decided to step back from the nightly grind, as was exhaustion; her show’s historical-minded monologues, in particular, take intense preparation. Bosses at NBCUniversal, Vanity Fair’s Pompeo reported recently, “had two options: give Maddow the freedom she craved or risk losing one of the company’s most important talents.”

Since news of Maddow’s prime-time step back landed earlier this year, much has been made of the idea that she would be irreplaceable on the nights she’s taking off. It’s true that she’s a huge character and that there’s no one else with quite her sensibility, at MSNBC or in the wider world of cable news. Maddow herself, however, downplayed such notions to Pompeo, arguing that natural fits in cable news usually look natural only in hindsight. She offered what might seem, for her, a strange example: Tucker Carlson; stranger still, she spoke somewhat warmly of Carlson, having worked, a million years ago, on a show that he himself hosted on MSNBC. The warmth, Pompeo noted, is apparently mutual; indeed, other far-right figures have been quoted admiring Maddow’s sharp polemical style, if not her ideas. “Rather than engaging on Carlson’s politics” in their interview, Pompeo wrote, Maddow spoke of him as a “fellow practitioner” of TV news.

If this sounds clubby and trivial to you given the danger posed by Carlson’s ideas, you wouldn’t be the only one. The most important thing about any host with a big platform is how they engage factually with the world, on which score Wagner’s stated priorities for her show seem promising. Still, there is a valid point here about form mattering, too, that also applies to Wagner. Maddow’s defining contribution to the cable format, in my view, is the historical context she brings to her opening monologues—history that, often, adds a cooling depth of perspective to the day’s news even when Maddow gets overheated about the details of the latter. Wagner, as I see it, has every chance of bringing similar perspective to bear in a cable landscape that’s too often overheated by cheap punditry. She won’t do it in the same way as Maddow, of course. But she doesn’t need to mimic Maddow’s show to retain what’s valuable about it. She’ll work it out.

On her show Monday, after she was done with Van Grack, Maddow brought on Wagner to discuss the latter’s new show, which Wagner said she hoped would continue “the deep thought that you have established in this hour.” Maddow responded by describing prime-time cable news as akin to a “reading-comprehension exercise,” with the host showing that they have understood the day’s news and picked out what’s important about it. Wagner said she hoped to marry that sensibility to as much on-the-ground reporting as possible. “You understand issues in a really powerful, visceral way when you’re talking to the people themselves,” she said.

Below, more on Alex Wagner and NBCUniversal:

  • Futureface: Wagner—whose mother is from Myanmar and whose father was Luxembourger Irish—reflected on identity and belonging in a book called Futureface, a title that was inspired by a 1993 Time magazine cover of a computer-generated composite face that stood in for America’s multicultural future. The cover “changed everything” for Wagner, the Post’s Jonathan Capehart wrote in 2018, when Wagner’s book came out. Wagner “liked the idea that I was the avatar of the future,” she told Capehart. “But that kind of made-up identity, which is inherently one of privilege, especially given how deeply and distressingly grounded race still is in America, it’s not sustaining. And as I got older, I felt like I wanna know where I belong.”
  • Another transition: Yesterday, CNBC announced that Mark Hoffman, its long-serving leader, will step down next month; KC Sullivan, a top advertising executive at the network, will succeed him. Per CNBC’s Alex Sherman, Hoffman is leaving of his own volition. Since taking the reins in 2020, Cesar Conde, the head of NBCUniversal’s news group, “has announced a spate of appointments” across its networks, Benjamin Mullin reports for the Times, including hiring Jones as president of MSNBC.
  • Hud-hunting? Politico’s Max Tani and Alex Thompson took a spin through the revolving door between NBCUniversal and the Biden administration: Jen Psaki and Symone Sanders took up shows on MSNBC after leaving the White House, and there’s been movement in the other direction, too. Michael LaRosa, Jill Biden’s former press secretary, used to work at MSNBC and could be replaced in the White House by Richard Hudock, a communications executive for NBC and MSNBC. (Tani and Thompson also note that the Biden administration “is not in the same universe as its predecessor when it comes to plucking employees of a friendly TV network to fill its ranks.”)
  • Weekend reads: In 2020, Adam Piore took a deep dive into MSNBC for our magazine. “It’s only natural that ratings would be important to cable executives,” Piore wrote. “But in the halls of 30 Rock, where MSNBC has undergone multiple reinventions over the years, those spreadsheets have been a compass, guiding a seemingly dissonant ensemble of on-air talent.” Then, last year, I wrote, also for our magazine, about the rising star of Mehdi Hasan, an MSNBC host who would be tapped to stand in as a guest host for Maddow earlier this year. Laura Conaway, who formerly worked on Maddow’s show, told me that Hasan could “absolutely” one day match Maddow’s immense popularity.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.