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Rachel Maddow on Her Massive Ratings Surge and the Backlash to Her Trump’s-Tax-Return Show

March Madness has taken on a whole new meaning for the host and staff of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. There was, of course, the mid-month burst of global attention surrounding the program’s unveiling of President Trump’s 2005 tax return, a scoop that yielded a series-best audience of just over 4 million viewers — as well as a mini-backlash among critics who accused Maddow of overhyping the discovery. But even if the March 14 exclusive had never happened, Maddow this week would be wrapping up the most remarkable month yet in the eight-and-a-half-year history of her nightly news program, at least from a ratings perspective. While interest in the Trump administration (and its many scandals) has inflated Nielsen numbers for every cable news network, as well as many late-night comedy shows, Maddow’s March momentum has been massive and unmatched in prime time.

Topping the long list of statistical superlatives for Maddow is the size of her show’s audience. On average, 2.7 million watched The Rachel Maddow Show at 9 p.m. this month, a jaw-dropping 107 percent gain compared to March 2016 that resulted in the most-watched month ever for Maddow, and the most-watched month for any 9 p.m. MSNBC show ever. Add in the slightly more than 1 million West Coasters (or East Coast night owls) who caught the midnight EDT replay of the show and Maddow (with 3.8 million) is now drawing a bigger crowd than Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon. Fox News newbie Tucker Carlson did draw a slightly bigger overall audience at 9 p.m. — no shocker given his network’s decades-long dominance in cable news — but what’s telling is how Maddow has narrowed the gap.

When Maddow was matched against former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, Kelly would win the 9 o’clock hour by nearly 1.4 million viewers. Last month, with Carlson in the anchor chair, Fox’s total viewer lead was just 163,000 viewers — the smallest difference between Fox News and MSNBC in the 9 p.m. hour since December 2000. What’s more, among adults aged 25 to 54 — the demo group targeted by cable-news networks — Maddow in March actually finished in first place, even if you exclude the big Trump-tax-return show. MSNBC had never previously won the 9 p.m. hour in the key news demo, and until Maddow’s victory, it hadn’t won any hour against Fox News since 2012. And while March was a milestone month for Maddow, her show has been building momentum all year long. During the first three months of 2017, The Rachel Maddow Show grew 92 percent versus the first quarter of 2016, nearly tripling the percentage gains made by Fox News (+29 percent) and almost doubling the growth of CNN (+49 percent). In other words, March was not a fluke.

While Maddow has long been MSNBC’s biggest star, her recent Nielsen surge arguably puts her in a new league. A bigger audience means a wider platform for her progressive take on the news — along with increased scrutiny, as happened with the Trump tax show. And since MSNBC is a business venture owned by the very much for-profit NBCUniversal, there’ll no doubt be intense internal pressure on Maddow and her team to maintain these numbers, or at least try to minimize the likely inevitable declines once things cool down in Washington (assuming they ever do). But if Maddow is feeling the weight of her even larger profile, it wasn’t evident when Vulture caught up with her recently via phone as she made her way to 30 Rockefeller Center to start work on that evening’s telecast. Maddow was very much, well, Maddow: There was no boasting about her ratings victory or shade-throwing toward her rivals. She offered praise for the Establishment D.C. media, a frequent target of her skepticism in the past, while expressing genuine fear for its ability to withstand President Trump’s attacks on it. And when the topic turned to the small chorus of critics who attacked her handling of Trump’s tax returns, her defense was both spirited (“I have no regrets”) and nonplussed (“Whatever”). What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our 15-minute chat.

We’re doing this interview on the occasion of a really great March and a really great first quarter for your show. Everything in cable news these days is up, thanks to President Trump. But your show is up a lot, and what’s interesting to me is you really haven’t changed a thing. You haven’t added panels of eight talking heads, or started doing gotcha interviews with Republicans for sport. You are still the same wonky Maddow you’ve always been, but you’re now reaching twice as many viewers every night. Do you have any insights as to why your gains have been so enormous?
You know, I will say I don’t pretend to understand what brings people to the show. I don’t think I have more insight than anybody else into why more people are watching. But it is super gratifying to me, and everybody who works on the show, that we are just doing what we’ve always done. We’re continuing the work we’ve built the capacity to do and that we really believe is the best approach for what I bring to looking at the news of the day. And it’s, for whatever reason, a rewarding thing for more people. I don’t get it, necessarily, in terms of where it’s coming from.

But for me, it’s heartening, and it’s a confirmation that we’ve been approaching things the right way. I don’t expect other people in cable news to do things the way that I do. I know that I have sort of a different approach, and I know it’s not for everybody. But apparently it’s for more people than it used to be for. And I’m just trying to keep my head down and keep the quality of our work up.

So our president is someone who cares very much about ratings, either from Nielsen or Gallup. What about you and your team? Are you, like most people in cable news, running to check the overnights every afternoon? Or are you of the mind, “Hey, as long as I get to do this show and my team is employed, ratings schmatings”?
We all look at the ratings, definitely. The whole staff gets them, and we all get them at the same time every day. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t pay attention. But I do find, psychologically, it’s not helpful to mix our news decisions and our focus on the content with our appreciation of whatever is happening in the ratings. You have to keep them as separate things in your mind. If you try to program your show or adjust your news judgment to chase ratings numbers, it never works, and it pollutes the process of putting together the best show every day.

So, yeah, we pay attention. I mean, we’re in a business. We’re not working at a charity. And our job security, all of us on the show, depends to a certain extent on how well we are doing in the marketplace. So I won’t say we don’t pay attention, but I try really hard to compartmentalize that and focus on what we’re going to do that night on the show.

Let’s talk about the now-infamous show in which you landed the white whale that is President Trump’s tax returns — or at least two pages of them. I expected those on the right to attack that hour, but I was taken a bit aback by the number of journalists on Twitter, and even a few on the left, who criticized it. It seemed to me you did the most un-cable-news thing of all: You did not change your format, or the kind of show you do, because of a scoop. Yet you were accused of hyping and drawing it out for ratings. Are you actually more critical about that hour than I am? Have you thought, “You know what, maybe I’d change this?” Or are you feeling feisty about the negative reaction from some quarters — you know, “Screw the people at the New York Times and others who want to attack me?”
I definitely wouldn’t put myself on either extreme that you just proposed there. [Laughs.] I have no regrets about how we broke that story. I’m super psyched that we got the information. The question about whether or not to take it to air was whether or not we could authenticate that it was real information. And when we got the confirmation from the White House that it was true, that it was a real document? For me, that was go time. That was the green light that we were definitely going to do it. Once we knew we were going to do it, I felt like — and I still feel like — the right thing to do was to present that information in a way that explained it well. That’s why I do a long opening segment every night. As you mentioned, that’s the structure of my show, that I try to explain the news, which means delivering information, sometimes new information that’s a scoop — but I always try to put it in context so you know if it’s important, why it’s important; what’s important about it; what else it might lead to; and where it comes from.

For me, one of the most interesting parts of that discussion, which I think has had a little more focus since the initial show, is what was the origin of that tax return? The first conversation that I had with it on the air, with David Cay Johnston, who actually obtained the document, was, “Is it possible that this came from Trump himself?” I remain totally open to the idea that it came from him, in which case that itself is a fascinating part of this. And there’s been a lot of interesting reporting since we initially published the document in terms of what it means for the president’s financial entanglements [and] what else would be most helpful to see from his tax documents in terms of figuring out whether he has conflicts of interests that might be affecting his behavior as president.

So, I mean, people can like me or not like me, and they can like the way I do cable news or not like it — whatever. It’s hopeless to try to keep everybody happy all the time, and I’ve never tried. But I have no regrets about how we broke that story, and I remain very proud of the fact that we got the document, that the reporter who obtained it in the first place trusted us to do it, and that we presented it in a way that I think holds up. So, people can complain, but I don’t really care.

I’d imagine you’re proud of the job your show is doing covering the new administration. What’s your take on how the rest of the D.C. press has been handling President Trump? You’ve not been shy in the past about criticizing the Beltway media Establishment.
We’re in a moment in American journalism where it makes sense to be both very proud and very protective of our press. If you are of the mind that this president, in his first 100 days in office, is facing one of the most serious potential national security scandals ever, with the Russia story, then support your local investigative journalists. We’ve got these investigations going on at the FBI and the congressional committees, more or less. But the other part of what’s going on in terms of figuring this out as a country is what’s happening in the fourth estate. And I feel like actually the press is doing a pretty good job. In some ways, it has given us, by far, the biggest piece of what we know.

But I worry about the president’s attacks on the press … a little bit more than I worried about previous president’s attacks on the press. Not just because maybe this president will be more likely to act on them in some way, but also because the press has been weak as a business. The business structure that supports particularly in-depth investigative reporting, and professionally reported and edited content of the kind that we really need right now as a country, aggressively — particularly on this scandal that we’ve been covering so closely — it’s been in trouble, business-wise. And so if the president is going to push real hard, and the administration is going to push real hard on this business right now, I’m not sure about the capacity of this business to respond, to withstand, a lot of pressure. So I worry about it. But a lot of people are starting to appreciate the press and the value of it more than they used to because of all the good work that’s been done thus far on the scandals of this new era.

2016 was just this insane year for news. Many assumed Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, and that 2017 would just be a lot more calm by comparison. That didn’t happen, obviously, and now 2017, in some ways, is making 2016 look almost boring. Are you and your team living on adrenaline right now, riding out this journalistic high? And for both you and your viewers, do you worry that with all of this insanity we’re living through, there’s a risk of us all short-circuiting? Of people starting to not care anymore, or becoming inured to the daily madness?
It’s an interesting question. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a news environment like this that felt like it had so much momentum while also being so unpredictable. I come in every day convinced that there’s no scandal story to do, and then by the time we get on the air, events have proved otherwise. And in some ways that’s frustrating, because it means you can’t really plan ahead. I’ve never been much of an advanced planner; like, I’m never somebody who books guests a long way in advance. But that dynamic, where in the morning it’s almost impossible to predict what will have broken by the end of the day, that’s an everyday dynamic now. That’s unusual. And it can wear you down because it requires being on your toes all day long, every day.

But it also gives you energy if you’re in this part of the business. My job is to explain the news, and part of the reason that our numbers are up, and honestly everybody’s numbers are up, is because there’s a lot of appetite to have the news right now explained, because a lot of it doesn’t make sense. If you don’t have time to cover every twist and new development and new announcement and new scandal, putting it all in context — or having somebody who can put it in context, who can tell you what’s important and what’s okay to ignore — I think is a valuable service right now for something that can otherwise feel like drinking out of a fire hose.

Cable news is as necessary as it’s ever been, perhaps.
Everybody is always predicting the death of our business, and the death of network news and all this stuff. Well, look at the number of people who are watching right now. When there’s a lot of news going on, when there’s stuff that needs explaining, it helps to have people who are working at that full-time and trying to do the best job they can to make sense of the world. So, I’m like a dog who needs a job. [Laughs.] I need to have something, and in order for me to have sustained energy, I need to know that what I’m doing is needed and necessary and helpful. And right now, we’ve got that in spades. So I have more energy for this job than I’ve ever had. I feel like every day the show writes itself a little bit. But again, it’s a balance between knowing that people have an appetite for what we’re doing, but also trying to not think too much about how it’s received.

With so much going on all the time, does that mean we’re not going to see the return of some former Rachel Maddow Show Friday-night staples, such as the cocktail moment or the Friday Night News Dump?
[Laughs.] We have heard from a lot of people since the election, like, “Oh, we’ve never needed the cocktail moment more than we need it now.” On the other hand, I feel like, especially right after the election, a lot of people were drinking anyway, without any help from me. [Laughs.] I don’t know that alcohol needs much of an advertisement right now — not that I was encouraging people to drink. I was encouraging people who already drink to drink better! But at this point, I feel like if we’re going to do anything, we ought to do, like, Friday-night calisthenics. Or Friday-night vitamin counting. Like, “Everybody, keep your strength up! Be healthy! Get outside!”

I personally enjoyed seeing you interact with viewers via Skype during the news-quiz segment. That doesn’t happen much in cable news.
And we may go back to that. Honestly, one of the weird things is — part of the reason we slated those things for Fridays was because, in a normal news environment, if you’re a show that’s focused mostly on politics, Friday’s often sleepy. Congress goes home; the White House only makes news in a dire situation when it wants to dump something late in the day that nobody notices. And if they don’t have that sort of a circumstance, then Friday’s the day where stuff peters out until the Sunday-morning shows. So we invented these little franchises for Fridays. Well, Fridays are no longer slow! The news is not taking a day off. I don’t feel like we have the chance to take that respite, or to take those steps back from what we’re doing, just because we’re caught up in the propulsive force of how fast the news is moving these days. It’ll come back, but not until things slow down.

Rachel Maddow on the Backlash to Her Trump-Tax-Return Show