Exclusive: Rachel Maddow Gives Her First Interview as She Steps Back From the Nightly Grind and Revs Up for Her Next Act (2023)

“The only reason you’ll ever need this is if you fall through the ice,” said Rachel Maddow, standing beside her pickup truck at an empty boat launch on a cloudy winter’s day. She tossed me something that looked like a cross between a bike lock and a telephone cord and told me to put it around my neck: safety picks. In a worst-case scenario, you’re supposed to pull apart the orange handle things, stab the ice in front of you, and claw your way back onto solid ground. “There’s 20 inches of ice out here, you’re not gonna fall through,” Maddow promised. “But just in case.”

It was a Monday in early February, on Maddow’s home turf of Western Massachusetts. We met up in the parking lot of a frozen lake rimmed by low-slung mountains, Maddow in buffalo plaid, a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo for YUM fishing baits, and tortoiseshell Coke-bottle glasses that the folks at home don’t get to see when she’s all made up for the cameras. The temperature had plunged to something like 12 degrees over the weekend, but now it was in the mid-30s, ideal for our piscatorial excursion: more than enough ice to minimize your risk of a frosty death, warm enough to keep your hands from falling off. Maddow lives for this stuff, even as someone who grew up in sunny Castro Valley, California. Before we set off, she showed me the cozy lakefront fixer-upper she’d purchased weeks earlier with her longtime partner, the photographer Susan Mikula, about 30 minutes from the couple’s 164-year-old farmhouse. We dropped by her go-to bait shop, in the garage of a home boasting tattered Trump flags, where Maddow stocked up on rosy red minnows and medium shiners. Then we squeezed into our snow pants, strapped medieval-looking spikes over our boots, and trekked out onto the lake with a sled full of gear. “It may be a little slushy,” she said, “but I promise it’s fine.”

One week earlier, Maddow had knocked the wind out of her 2.4 million viewers. “I am going to go on hiatus for a little bit,” she said, broadcasting on a laptop from home as opposed to her nearby studio because she’d just had a COVID-19 exposure. (It was to Mikula, who’d already had a frightening run-in with the disease in the fall of 2020.) Maddow said she had several projects in the pipeline outside of her nightly duties—including a Ben Stiller– and Lorne Michaels–helmed adaptation of her 2018 podcast series, Bag Man, about Spiro Agnew’s Nixon-era bribery scandal—and that she needed time and space to work on them. She said she’d pop back in with special coverage as warranted, like for the State of the Union or “other big news events.” (The largest European ground war since World War II, which would briefly disrupt Maddow’s hiatus, wasn’t what she had in mind.)

A few days later, on a Thursday, Maddow signed off from The Rachel Maddow Show for the last time until her planned return in mid-April. That Friday, she called me with an invitation to go ice fishing. And on Monday, out on the lake, as we drilled small holes and fiddled with our tip-up traps and Vexilar transducers—it’s a more high-tech sport than you’d think—it occurred to Maddow that this was the first Monday in 13 years that she wasn’t about to be live on air five nights a week, with no end in sight. “Today’s day one,” she said.

Maddow was embarking on a new chapter in her career, a foray into the wilds of our multiplatform media future, in which her success and influence would no longer be so neatly quantifiable. Over the next few months, we would talk a lot about what was at stake—for her health and well-being and career trajectory, for her continued cultural relevance, and for the network that has long depended on her massive nightly audience. But right now, there were fish to catch. We reeled in the first one before too long. “This,” said Maddow, holding up our trophy, “is a pickerel. This is, like, a typical-size, perfect pickerel.” She released it back into the hole. “Bye! See you! Ahh. That was great. God and country, thank you very much.”

Maddow’s highly rated 9 p.m. show—long the crown jewel of MSNBC prime time, if not the entire network—debuted on September 8, 2008, with a handoff from then superstar Keith Olbermann, whose subsequent defenestration elevated Maddow to queen bee status. The program, known as much for its historical wonkery and sweeping monologues as its lefty bona fides, was immediately successful. But it also proved to be a massive slog. Maddow is exceptionally hands-on, and the opening of each show—the “A-block,” in cable news parlance—requires an intensive level of preparation on a tight deadline. (Someone described it to me as being like “a bunch of people holed up studying for finals every night, like in a library, panic researching.”) Throughout the years, Maddow has usually written the A-block monologue herself, on the heels of a full day’s worth of research. In October 2010, after a particularly rollicking broadcast from a historic Delaware tavern, where the Maddow Show was covering a Senate showdown between Chris Coons and Christine O’Donnell (remember her?), an exhausted Maddow remarked to a colleague, “A person could only do this job for five years.”

As if. Maddow, at 49, has been behind the desk for almost a decade and a half. She’s been doing the job long enough that it supremely messed up her back, which now has seven herniated or bulging discs that she manages with physical therapy. Long enough that when she had a melanoma scare within months of Mikula ending up on death’s door with COVID, it sunk in that she didn’t want to be working 60 hours a week until she retires. Long enough that she had begun to worry, as she explained to me between nips from the pickerel down below, that she was “losing the ability to be able to sort of have the energy and the intellectual bandwidth to do other kinds of work.”

And so Maddow decided it was time for a change. Last fall, she negotiated a megadeal that left jaws on the floor—a reported $30 million annually not to be on the air five nights a week. Starting at some point in 2022, she’d get to do a lot less gabbing about the news cycle and a lot more premium long-form projects: podcasts, specials, documentaries, film adaptations, etc.

Such is the might of Rachel Maddow that it was better for the company to lose her four nights a week than not to have her at all. The industry chatter is that NBCUniversal gave Maddow an enormous raise only to cede her in the key prime-time block that remains incredibly vital to ratings, advertisers, and cable subscriptions. Words thrown around in my conversations with industry hotshots—most of whom think Maddow’s great, by the way—include “ridiculousness,” “so nuts,” and “stupidest deal ever.” NBCUniversal News Group chairman Cesar Conde strongly disputes those characterizations, telling me in a phone interview, “We only do things that make sense for us strategically or financially. The primary focus for us was, how do we come up with a structure of what we need and want from Rachel, and also what she needs going forward.” Phil Griffin, the former longtime president of MSNBC, who remains one of Maddow’s closest advisers, acknowledged it was hard to lose her every night but said, “The way she works is so demanding, we were lucky to get 14 years out of her.”

After Maddow’s nine-week sabbatical, she returned to The Rachel Maddow Show on April 11 and made it official for her viewers: They’d have her four nights a week through the end of the month, and then, starting in May, “I’m going to be here weekly. I’m going to be here on Monday nights.” Thus began the next act of Rachel Maddow, whose power was undeniable even to her naysayers—of whom there are many. As Maddow critic Erik Wemple observed on his Washington Post blog, “Rachel Maddow can do whatever she pleases.”

It’s hard to overstate Maddow’s value to MSNBC over the past 14 years. In the wake of Olbermann’s firing, she became the face of the network’s prime-time roster, “the touchstone of everything we do,” as her colleague Joy Reid puts it. MSNBC’s other crown jewel, Morning Joe, is the network’s power center, commanding influence within the establishment corridors of New York and Washington. Maddow, you might say, sets the network’s ideological agenda, a signifier for the entire MSNBC brand. Her broad progressive appeal and singular approach to anchoring—story-driven monologues that run as long as 30 minutes, connecting dots you never knew existed and dragging viewers down any number of rabbit holes—have made her MSNBC’s number one celebrity and perennial ratings champ, the only figure in non-Murdochian cable news who can play in the same sandbox as the fire-breathers at Fox. She has at times eked out wins over rival Sean Hannity while keeping CNN’s rotating cast of 9 p.m. hosts in third place—often distantly—ever since The Rachel Maddow Show started to regularly trounce Larry King Live more than a decade ago. During the first week of her hiatus this past February, the 9 p.m. audience plummeted 26 percent and stayed down for weeks before soaring back above 2 million upon her April 11 return. According to data from MoffettNathanson, Maddow’s ratings share in 2021—11 percent of MSNBC’s total ratings—was higher than that of any other solo host in all of cable.

This popularity has, naturally, made her a target. On the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s the hate mail and death threats, which she says haven’t abated even though she’s no longer on TV as much. Then there are the requisite recriminations from the right, which regards her with the same contempt that liberals harbor for personalities like Hannity and Tucker Carlson. But even among non–enemy combatants, it’s not as if Maddow is universally beloved. Typical criticisms are that she can be snarky, obnoxious, pedantic. On a practical level, her thoroughly complex monologues simply aren’t for everyone, and the payoff doesn’t always justify the windup. In March 2017, Maddow took blowback for hyping what seemed like a holy grail–level scoop about Trump’s taxes, which she teased out in a suspenseful 20-minute opener. She finally revealed a single federal payment from two pages of Trump’s 2005 return, obtained by her guest that evening, the journalist David Cay Johnston. (The much-maligned segment, to be fair, was the spark that ignited a landmark New York Times investigation that did manage to unearth the mother lode of Trump’s tax returns, as Times reporter Susanne Craig explained during an appearance on Maddow’s show the following year.)

Whatever her detractors think, Maddow remains a sui generis star in the media firmament, which explains the breathless interest in her career machinations. Intrigue began swirling last summer with leaks that Maddow was thinking about leaving the network for new opportunities. Before long, news broke that Maddow, after months of discussions quarterbacked by her superagents at Endeavor, would be sticking with NBCUniversal after all. She’d secured a new multiyear contract to pursue projects in a wide range of formats, from documentaries and streaming specials to movies and books, all under the banner of her newly minted independent production company whose name I can now reveal: Surprise Inside. Maddow would conceive the projects and NBC would get first right of refusal. The Rachel Maddow Show would eventually go weekly and she would continue to do specials for the network, but she would have a lot more flexibility. It was the Daily Beast that pegged her annual compensation at $30 million.

Maddow wouldn’t comment on any of this (“I’m legally restrained from discussing the terms of my contract”), other than to dispute the reported $30 million. (Someone else with direct knowledge of the matter told me Maddow’s full package is worth more when you add a separate overhead and development deal.) She also specified that she hadn’t yet signed the new contract when news outlets reported on it. Through my own reporting, I was able to piece together how it all went down. The story begins about two years prior, when Endeavor CEO Ari Emanuel and president Mark Shapiro began actively pursuing her. They’d wanted to sign her for a while, and they were even more motivated to do so after Bag Man became a hit. Maddow was willing to hear them out because her beloved longtime agent, Jean Sage of the much smaller Napoli Management Group, had signaled her intention to retire. Emanuel and Shapiro first met with her in November 2019 at an apartment on the West Side of Manhattan, where they gave Maddow the hard sell on working with them to grow her career across the media spectrum. She wasn’t ready to make any moves just yet—super loyal to Sage—but Endeavor kept in touch, kept talking, and eventually, as the expiration of Maddow’s contract began to poke out over the horizon, the stars aligned. Sage was ready to take a bow, and Endeavor promised to do the right thing by cutting Napoli in on any deal they struck.

A few months later, I asked Maddow what she thought of the Times’ recent series that unpacked how Fox News Channel’s number one host “weaponizes his viewers’ fears and grievances to create what may be the most racist show in the history of cable news.” What Maddow found “most interesting” about the series, she told me, was an interactive analyzing Carlson’s rhetoric from 1,150 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight. “For me,” she said, “more than the issue of, you know, how dangerous are Tucker’s ideas, and how do they interact with the growth of the authoritarian right in the Republican Party, more so than that question, which is obviously what the central thrust of the reporting was about, I was interested in how they deconstructed why it works.”

“Do you remember what the Dan Rather scandal was about?” she said, referring to a 2004 controversy in which the legendary newsman’s career came to a screeching halt over a 60 Minutes segment based on allegedly forged documents that CBS News failed to authenticate. “There was a document that was involved. He was reporting on, like, how did George W. Bush avoid going to Vietnam? How was his National Guard service arranged? Why did he get this coveted spot in this group that wasn’t gonna be fighting? The story of George W. Bush getting a sweet gig in the National Guard so he didn’t have to go fight in Vietnam was true. Somebody giving Dan Rather a forged document, so he had a screwed-up news story about it, is fascinating, and it’s an interesting thing about CBS News. But it doesn’t mean that the National Guard thing about George W. Bush was not true! It just—it neutralized it. Like it made that go away. And the whole thing became a Dan Rather scandal. That’s what’s going on with the dossier.”

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