The Feministing Five: Rachel Maddow

The subject of this week’s Feministing Five interview needs no introduction. But I’m going to give her one anyway.

Rachel Maddow is the host of The Rachel Maddow Show, a blend of news, opinion and unabashed geekiness that airs weeknights at 9pm on MSNBC. Since the show’s premiere just over two years ago, Maddow has developed the reputation as one of the most reasonable and intelligent pundits around, and she was a particularly welcome addition to the world of cable news, where reason and intelligence can sometimes seem thin on the ground. Maddow might not be your typically loud, blustery cable news show host, but she is nonetheless a (pleasantly) ruthless interviewer. Guests on her show, and conservative guests in particular, should prepare themselves for vigorous debate and scrupulous fact-checking. For those of you unfamiliar with Maddow’s debating abilities, I encourage you to watch her interview with Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul, or this interview, with a man who claims to know how to “cure” homosexuality (you’ll want to watch them in their entirety, trust me).

Maddow is a liberal, and an openly gay feminist, and in addition to covering the day’s political news, she tends to cover the kinds of issues that matter to liberals, feminists and the LGBTQ community – issues that mainstream outlets often overlook. For example, on Monday MSNBC will air a documentary that Maddow narrated, “The Assassination of Dr. Tiller.” The documentary examines the tactics of the radical anti-abortion movement in America, arguing that the murder of Tiller could never have occurred had anti-abortion forces not cultivated an atmosphere of hatred, extremism and violence in their efforts to prevent women from accessing abortion and doctors from providing them. It chronicles the radicalization of Scott Roeder, the man who was convicted of shooting Tiller, and demonstrates the need for Roeder’s actions to be viewed in the context in which they occurred: one in which violence and threats of violence against abortion providers and their colleagues is, accepted or even encouraged.

The documentary airs on Monday at 9pm on MSNBC, and you can watch a clip of it here.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five (ok, I asked more than five questions, because come on, it’s Rachel Maddow – why on earth would you stop at five?), with Rachel Freaking Maddow.

Chloe Angyal: Why did you decide to make a documentary about the assassination of Dr. Tiller, and why did you feel so strongly about doing a larger-scale production about the anti-abortion movement?

Rachel Maddow: When we covered the Tiller murder when it happened, two things became clear. As soon as you heard last May that a doctor had been killed in Kansas, if you knew anything about the fight over reproductive rights and the radical anti-abortion movement, it was instantly clear that it was George Tiller who was killed, even before you heard the name. I had heard that a doctor was killed in Kansas that Sunday, and knew it was Tiller before I saw in the news that it was Tiller. There are not that many things in America, where you know who’s going to get killed, because there’s a campaign against them that includes people who think that violence up to murder is justified against people with whom they disagree or who they’ve vilified. It’s an unusual thing in America – there aren’t a lot of things like that, so that in itself was shocking enough.

But there was also some smaller scale stuff about our covering it in day-to-day news way. We do daily production, we have to do a show five nights a week, and turn around things in a short time frame, and the Tiller murder and the Roeder conviction were things that we covered intensively, but on this day-to-day production schedule. And one of the things that we didn’t report on, or didn’t really follow up on because it wasn’t appropriate to report on in that day-to-day schedule was the fact that there was a ton of celebration online when Tiller was killed. And you don’t blame people for their blog comments, and you don’t make a news story out of anonymous commenters on the internet machine. If you did, you’d constantly be foretelling the end of the world. It’s not really appropriate to cover that as news, that anecdotal reaction. But reading that reaction online, on Twitter and in blog comments, not just in the dark anti-abortion extremist corners of the internet, but actually in relatively mainstream places, I found very unsettling. It stuck with me and it made me want to do something longer form, more investigative and more in-depth about the murder.

The fight over reproductive rights and the tactics of the radical anti-abortion movement are subjects that are a bummer. It’s something that we think of as almost unendurable, I think, to dwell on, to think about, because it seems like it never gets better, and like the other side never pays a price. And one of the things that I don’t think people have really grasps, which is in this documentary, is the story of George Tiller, who was resolute, cheerful, clever, holistically cognizant of what was going on as he was being attacked in this way.

At Tiller’s funeral, they made giant flower arrangement that said “Trust Women,” because that was his motto. You have to understand the other side, the radicals and their tactics, in order to understand what’s going on in the fight over reproductive rights. But in order to understand the way that people survive this, and the way that people can even hope to win these battles in the long run, understanding the way George Tiller did it is underappreciated.  We’ve got these interviews of him that have never before run on television, and you see him, coming back to his clinic the day after he was shot and the day after his clinic was bombed, saying, “What we’re doing is legal. What these people are doing, these terroristic tactics and this anarchy, is illegal,” and putting up the sign outside his clinic: “Women need abortions and I’m going to do them.” And the devotion that his staff had to him, because of that resolution and that resilience that he had, that is a story worth telling about how to live in the face of threat, and how to live in the face of people who are coming at you in ways that are sometimes are very painful to think about. This is a painful story, but this is also an instructive story and a cathartic story for people who support reproductive rights.

CA: There’s been an increase lately in the amount of coverage you’ve given to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and to abortion, both of which are feminist issues. What motivated you to do that?

RM: One of the really nice things about my job is that MSNBC has given me editorial freedom. I need to stay within the news standards of this as a news-gathering and broadcast organization, but other than that, in terms of the editorial content of the show, I can do whatever I want. So I don’t feel like I need to clear anything with anybody, and I don’t particularly feel I have anything to prove or disprove about being a liberal and an openly gay person and a feminist on television. I’m sort of over that. I don’t feel any constraints in that regard.

I think the reason there’s been an uptick in the coverage on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and abortion is just because these have turned out to be big issues in the news. I don’t think that anybody would have foretold that the culture war issues of the early nineties would have come roaring back into this election cycle to the extent that they have. So we’re seeing abortion come roaring back as an issue not because pro-choice politicians have made it an issue but because the conservative resurgence has meant the nomination of these unbelievably extreme anti-abortion candidates for very high offices. There are five US Senate candidates on the Republican ticket this year want criminalization of abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest. If you’re going to nominate candidates that extreme, you’re bringing that issue back. And Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is back because now is the time when it’s in flux and in debate and, it looks like, on its way out the door.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

RM: Nobody’s ever asked me that before. I reserve the right for this answer to change over time. But right now, my favorite fictional heroine is Tara Chace, the super-spy heroine of the Queen and Country series of graphic novels by Greg Rucka. She’s a British spy, who’s really awesome, and his most recent Tara Chace spy novel just came out, and I’m totally in love.

I’m not actually much or a hero person in real life. There are certainly people who I admire, who I think do good work. In politics, I’ve never been a candidate person and in ambition, I’ve never been a mentor person. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have admiration for what people have accomplished.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

RM: We did a story Wednesday night that I should not have been shocked by, but I was shocked by. I hope it actually gets picked up. It was an exclusive that we had, and I’m hoping that it gets more attention both online and on TV. The pattern of anti-abortion extremists targeting abortion doctors in the early nineties, one of the hallmarks of that was the “Wanted” posters. The pattern is terrifying: “Wanted” poster, shooting. “Wanted” poster, murder. “Wanted” poster, shooting. “Wanted” poster, murder. It’s just awful. It’s one of the reasons that the FACE act passed, it’s one of the reasons that the Justice Department started treating abortion protest crimes as something where local law enforcement by default gets the assistance of federal law enforcement. Because of a pattern: it wasn’t just one-off crime, it wasn’t just random stuff, it was organized criminal activity to stop people from doing what they’re legally allowed to do. And to see those wanted posters. They’ve been gone since FACE, as far as I know. And to see them back now in North Carolina, and to hear from the people in North Carolina who made them available that they surfaced immediately after Tiller was killed, is so upsetting and shocking to me that it was hard to describe it out loud on TV.  I was sort of gripping the desk. At the end of that segment, I had white knuckles. It was very upsetting.

CA: Do you worry that your coverage of these kinds of issues exposes you to danger?

RM: Other people have expressed to me concern about my safety in covering this stuff. I think it is unsettling to talk about politically motivated American violence, and so when people see me as the messenger reporting on those things, they worry about me as the messenger being in danger. I don’t particularly worry about my own safety, and if I am in danger because of my job, I’m not sure that it’s more likely to be because of my coverage of reproductive rights issues than because of any other topic that might set people off. I don’t worry about it. I definitely get a lot of expressions of concern from people who do worry, though. When you do this kind of work, even when I was on the radio, there’s this constant threat level. You get kooky death threats. It’s one of those things that’s been happening since I started doing local radio a very long time ago. And the funny thing is that the only noticeable uptick that I get in kooky, I’m-gonna-get-you threats is when I do things that are about conservative media personalities. Not when I’m talking about killers, political movements, terrorists, radicals or extremists; it’s when I’m talking about someone’s favorite talk-show host, and that makes them want to kill me. I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason or predictability about it.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

RM: Feminism is itself a challenge. Feminism is a challenge to the way things are in the world. It is by definition an oppositional movement, because it’s trying to accomplish something. I’ve never felt like feminism was a consciousness raising effort in isolation. Everything about feminism is about getting something in the world to get better for women, and to get the world to be less stupid on gender bifurcation terms. I think that feminism over time gets better, or it gets better and worse and better and worse at achieving the goals that it’s trying to achieve, but the overall mission stays the same. I guess I don’t think of it as feminism versus anti-feminism; I sort of think of it as feminism versus the world. I don’t think of it as a competition; there’s no winning. In feminism, you’re always trying to make stuff better. It’s opposition to which you cannot attribute a tally.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. I should let you know that many people who I’ve interviewed have said that they would take you to the desert island. What would you pick?

RM: The feminist is easy: I’d take my girlfriend. I would be useless on a desert island. If bringing me is because you would like to survive on the island, I am a bad choice, because I am useless. Susan, however, my partner, is great. She’s totally MacGuyver. She can make a nuclear bomb out of a match and a palm frond. I would bring some sort of mezze platter, because I would love to have a lot of different things so I would not get bored. And for drink, I would bring scotch, but that wouldn’t be fair because Susan doesn’t like scotch. So I’d bring Cuban rum – we both like that.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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