Early in Trump’s presidency, Maddow bumped into Carlson at a gala for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which supports outdoor recreation. Maddow and Carlson are about the same age — she’s 46, he’s 50 — and they each go fly-fishing to wipe the news from their brains. “It turned out we had both thrown our backs out within one week of each other, with neither of us having ever had a back problem ever before in our entire lives,” she said. “I had the gift of a very human-to-human, eye-contact moment with him, like: ‘We’re both doing this thing that’s killing us, and killing us at the same pace.’ ”
But also, I said, it’s almost as if she and Carlson are parallel-universe versions of each other, so that if he strains his back, her’s hurts, too. She laughed and said, “Exactly.”
Cable news in 2019 feels a little like the Hieronymus Bosch painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” On one channel, Trump presides over a landscape of harmonious abundance. On the other, he is leading American democracy into a miserable hellscape. (Betwixt them is a scene of sordid copulation: No matter where you stand in the cable-news wars, Trump is a lucrative story.)
Even as Maddow was unspooling the Ukraine story on her show, Hannity was just a remote click away, weaving his own narrative about “sleepy, creepy, crazy Uncle Joe” and his son Hunter Biden. “We are going to go chapter and verse very slowly,” Hannity said. “You will understand it. It gets a little complicated, but we’ve got the timeline down perfectly. The story they won’t tell you in the media.” As Maddow’s ratings rose, his did too.
The worlds of Fox News and MSNBC don’t operate under the same logic, or even speak the same language. Hannity has mounted the president’s podium at a rally, and he has the president’s ear. Last week, Trump tweeted out a Hannity clip as self-defense that featured a scrolling list of “PRESIDENT TRUMP’S ACCOMPLISHMENTS.” But Maddow is uninterested in cultivating such power relationships. She does not see herself as a leader of the left or an adversary of Trump in any way.
If Fox News anchors style themselves as generals in the culture wars, Maddow views herself as an observer peering in on the action. And while Fox News enlists its audience to join the fight, she moves her viewers to see themselves as storytellers, too. “I hope that if you watch my show,” she told me, you’ll acquire a set of “good, true stories about what’s going on and why it matters.”
After Rebecca Kee bought her Maddow cardboard cutout, she got a Robert Mueller one, too. For a time she would sit him in her front window, posing him near speech bubbles that she wrote herself. But after the real Mueller filed his report and failed to step into the role she had imagined for him, she tucked him away in the closet with Maddow. Now her car is decorated with Elizabeth Warren bumper stickers.
This summer, in the calm before the storm, I sat with Maddow in her office, and we discussed the perception, from both her fans and her critics, that she is a player in all this drama. “If anyone’s counting on me to make anything happen in the world,” she told me, “I am a bad thing to count on.”