There’s a lot of talk these days about how FoxNews and MSNBC are two sides of the same coin in US politics. Fox is a tool of the Republican Party, and MSNBC is a tool of the Democratic Party. Everything’s just spin and partisan rhetoric on both sides, and there’s never any real honest exploration of the facts. (CNN would like us to believe that it provides the much-needed third way, but as John Stewart explained to Larry King, they miss the mark terribly.)
Without question, MSNBC often plays into this. Ed Shultz does more bellowing than explaining, Chris Matthews is an annoying jerk, and I get bored quickly with the nonstop right-bashing that takes place on that network. More to the point, every event and issue is constantly presented in terms of party politics: What will this mean for Obama’s re-election chances? What does the Romney campaign need to do in order to change peoples’ minds about that?
But Rachel Maddow is a powerful exception to the rule. Her show is a superb place for intellectually honest discourse, and I love her commitment to rising above the simplistic “right said / left said” binary bollocks. She is the reason why MSNBC > FoxNews. There is no one on Fox — not Bill O’Rectum, not Sean Hammity, not even Greta Van Susteren — who comes close. She digs into the truth without abandoning her principles or losing her mental footing, and it is exactly the sort of conscious awesomeness our country needs.
For example: When former US Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge visited her show in 2009, she did not pull any punches. She asked difficult, probing questions, and followed up to demand real answers. He was clearly uncomfortable at times, unaccustomed (I expect) to being interviewed with such vigor.
And yet, at the end of the interview, he said:
I really appreciate the civil way we’ve had the discussion. Frankly, I think we would advance our interests as a country a lot further and a lot faster if we could have the discussions such as this. And I thank you.
Can you imagine anyone saying this sort of thing after an interview with O’Reilly?
Cash Rules Everything Around Misogyny
Recently I was listening to an episode of the superb podcast Best of the Left, and heard yet another magnificent segment from Ms. Maddow, this time about the pay gap between men and women. So I went digging, and I found another bushel of awesome. (I try to limit my use of that word, but nothing else fits here.)
In April, Maddow appeared on Meet the Press to discuss women and the presidential campaign. During this appearance she clashed with a Republican “strategist” (which apparently is a term applied to anyone who wants to say something on TV to support a political party, and the Democrats use it just as frivolously as the Republicans) named Alex Castellanos. There’s a summary on HuffPo, or you can watch the whole segment on NBC.
The most telling thing about this whole incident is the astonishing panorama of facial expressions on Castellanos’ face while Rachel is talking. His face is like a blur suit in A Scanner Darkly. One second he’s frowning with concern, then he’s guffawing like he just heard a silly knock-knock joke, then he’s rolling his eyes with contempt, then he’s smiling like Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel. In fact, I’m going to make a collage right now:
Remember: These shots are not from when he’s talking! This is all during Maddow’s turn. It’s like he doesn’t know what face he’s supposed to make when someone else is talking (and he’s obviously not listening carefully so as to respond to what the other person is saying) so he just cycles through some different expressions as they pop into his big stupid head.
So what were they actually debating? Here’s the issue: Do women make less money than men? Well, most pundits would do the appearance on Meet the Press and the headline would be “Big Disagreement” and we’d never get any real answers. We’d all just agree with the person from our political party, and that would be the end of it.
Fortunately, that’s not how Rachel rolls.
The next day, she confronted this asinine notion that reality is whatever we’d like it to be, and examined what the research actually shows. Her guest was Heidi Hartmann, President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. You can watch the whole segment on MSNBC or just the interview on YouTube. In fact, the interview is so superb I’m going to embed it here:
Maddow and Hartmann sort through statistics from the Government Accountability Office, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and US Census Bureau. As they explain, the numbers show, without question, that women make less money than men as a rule, and that a good part of that disparity cannot be explained (as conservatives, usually men, often try to dismiss the issue) by things like hours worked, career paths, or family choices.
This segment wasn’t perfect, of course. The one thing Castellanos said on Meet the Press that caught my ear was the bit about how single women tend to make more money than single men in the 45-65 age range. I would like to hear Ms. Hartmann respond to this statement, verify or challenge it, and provide meaningful context.
I also recognize that Hartmann comes from a particular ideological point of view, and I would be willing to entertain a response from an opposing point of view (so long as it actually discussed facts and reality, not rhetoric and dogma).
But this segment really bashes apart the myth — sadly dominant these days — that the issues we face as a nation are just too complex for most people to understand, and that we just have to take the word of whichever partisan hack shows up on the TV. No. Numbers and statistics can be spun, but they exist, and we can — we must — look at them honestly. As Maddow points out, we must start with a factual understanding of reality, and then we can proceed to the ideological disagreements and bickering about how to deal with that reality.
This concept is why I love the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, And What Parents Can Do. (I praise this book all the time, so I apologize if this is repetition for anyone.) It resists the trend of just skimming the research to babble out a string of talking points or vague generalizations, like most reporting about video games.
Instead, the authors dig deeply into what the research actually tells us, how it was done, and what misinformation we’ve absorbed through the years. A quick example: We often hear about how violent video games make kids “more aggressive”. Well, the authors ask, how is that measured? Turns out that in a number of experiments, after the kids are allowed to play video games (some violent, some non-violent), they are invited to press a buzzer that makes noise. Kids who press the buzzer more or for a longer period of time are classified as “aggressive”.
I used to participate in the online message board PoliticalForum, since its user base is diverse along the political spectrum, and forbids one-line messages. Unfortunately, that space is deeply polluted with ideological rigidity and a refusal to discuss the facts as they are. (Most users prefer to observe reality as they would like it to be, just as Bertrand Russell warned us about.)
Some areas of Reddit are better, but there’s still a woeful refusal to actually dialogue with give and take. Most people want to debate, and they want to win the debate. So I usually dip in, make a point, post a link or two, and duck out. I wish I could find a place where we could all meet and talk the way Rachel Maddow and Tom Ridge talked.
Why I Don’t Watch TRMS Every Day
It’s not possible to be totally awesome all day every day. For whatever reasons (and I expect they include pressure from the Democratic Party, advertising concerns, time constraints, logistic impediments, and stuff that I would have no idea about, since I’ve never worked in television), Maddow’s guests are often “usual suspect” talking heads and Democratic “strategists”. She doesn’t have the variety of people that Amy Goodman features, nor the almost flawless signal-to-noise ratio we get from Bill Moyers. (Make sure you watch his conversation with Chris Hedges! Or you can listen to the audio, if you prefer.)
Still, I’m rarely disappointed when she does a show that inspires someone to share the link. Rachel Maddow is easily one of the five best journalists working in the US today. (Now I have to consider how I’d fill the other four spots. Let’s see. Goodman and Moyers, of course. Jon Stewart and Tavis Smiley. Yeah, let’s go with them.)
Thank you, Ms. Maddow! You rock.