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Daily Deadline: Rachel Maddow, Not Overrated

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[with contributions from Matthew O'Brien and Darius Tahir]

In late 2009, the parliament in Uganda began formally debating a law that would have sentenced gays and lesbians to life in prison – or, in some cases, to death. Homosexuality was already illegal in Uganda, but the lawmakers hoped the new law could improve enforcement. And very few people outside of the human rights advocacy community noticed.

But Rachel Maddow did. And over the next few weeks, she did everything she could to make sure millions of Americans noticed, too. She ran a series of lengthy segments on the law – what it would do, who was supporting it and why. She pointed out the ways it drew on anti-gray pseudo-science, some of it from the U.S., and asked what officials here intended to do about it.

A few months later she got her answer. At the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama condemned the measure explicitly, calling it “odious.” The administration also applied diplomatic pressure privately, according to several sources and reports. Uganda’s parliament, worried about international pressure, eventually shelved the proposal, although it’s not completely dead yet.

Did Maddow play a role in that shift? People who work directly on these issues think so. Here, via e-mail, is Michael Guest, a senior advisor to the Council for Global Equality:

Rachel Maddow's coverage was critical in mobilizing outrage over Uganda's anti-gay law. She instantly reached a range of progressives outside the LGBT community that hadn't really had the bill within their scope. And those of us working the issue in Washington immediately saw positive resonance among Administration officials and Congressional staff.

Chris Collins, vice president and director of public policy for AmFAR, has a similar take:

It was very significant. … I think her coverage changed the national dialogue on this issue. She really shone a light on what was happening in Uganda and when she did that it got a lot more people engaged.

Maddow’s coverage was typical of the way she covers political issues. It was detailed and relentlessly substantive, hard-hitting but never emotional. I’ve seen her give the same treatment to countless domestic policy issues, not least among them health care. In early August 2009, when the “death panel” charge was finally getting traction and the Tea Party protests were starting, she was one of the first to take on the critics’ deceptions – and to highlight the big money behind them.

Am I fan? You bet, which is why I was a bit surprised to find her on TNR’s list of “most over-rated thinkers." The brief – er, our brief – against Maddow is that she’s simplistic and predictable:

The truth about everything is completely obvious to her. She seems utterly incapable of doubt or complication. Her show is a great tribute to Fox, because it copies the Fox style exactly.

Um, no. Maddow’s segments may not constitute doctoral level philosophical treatises. But it’s television, for heaven’s sake. Have you ever tried to convey nuance in a four-minute segment? Maddow, to her great credit, frequently runs segments twice that long – or more. (See the clips above.) And I've never known her to distort the facts, even if that means passing up an opportunity for a cheap shot.

Is that like Fox? It seems to me that's pretty much the opposite. And while I can’t imagine it’s good for her ratings, it's good for intelligent debate. Note, too, that Maddow is far from a reliable Democratic partisan. She routinely criticizes “her” party, including its leader in the White House, when she thinks its members are weak or insufficiently liberal. (I don't watch much Fox, so maybe they're more willing to criticize Republicans than I realize.)

Now, it's true Maddow doesn’t see much complication in today's political debates. But perhaps that’s because today's political debates don't have much complication. One side believes in mainstream economic theory. One side does not. One side wants to give everybody health insurance. One side does not. One side wants to stop climate change. One side does not. Should Maddow pretend to see ambiguity where it does not exist?

Look, Maddow isn't perfect. Who among us is? But her show is smarter and deeper than most. I can think of a lot of people who belong on a list of Washington's most over-rated. She's not one of them.


What you missed last night: As usual, Michael Scherer’s writeup of the Republican debate is more entertaining and frequently more enlightening than the debate itself. 

Slackers! Did the audience cheer a suggestion that people without jobs were responsible for their own plight? Why, yes they did. Via Greg Sargent

You want overrated? Try Anderson Cooper. Jonathan Bernstein explains.

Joe Lieberman is acting like Joe Lieberman again. And it’s driving Steve Benen insane.

Darn: Could a mass refinancing of mortgages help the economy, by dramatically reducing homeowner debt? Ezra Klein checked and, well, the answer is maybe not. “There have been estimates suggesting it would be equivalent to an $80 billion tax cut. But Macroeconomic Advisers is out with a detailed assessment of the policy, and their predictions aren’t very impressive: ‘At most, such a plan might boost GDP growth by 0.1 to 0.2 percentage points,’ they write.” What’s the problem? Refinancing would shift money from lenders to borrowers and it’s not clear borrowers would spend that much more money – although it might still be worth doing for its own sake. [Update: Ezra interviewed another economist who thinks Macroeconomic Advisers is too pessimistic.]

Graph of the day, part I: Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. Via Derek Thompson

Graph of the day, Part II. Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, the extended play version. Via Jared Bernstein

Where monetary policy meets Chuck Norris. You'll have to read it to understand it. 

For sale ... er, for rent. Housing starts were better than expected due to an increase in multifamily homes being built – in other words, those for rent. The Economist explains.

Reader Comment of the Day: "Rayward" pulls Strunk and White on me:

"But the demonstrators as a group have no formal way to repudiate or reject the fringe. As a result, the extremists keep getting media attention, threatening to tarnish the entire movement." The media gives attention to what sells, which in this case is the fringe. Extremists don't just get attention, and mistakes don't just happen. Strunk and White would not be pleased.

Right you are. And Mr. Jaswinski (eighth grade English) would not be pleased, either. For the record, these extremists get attention because reporters and pundits provide it.

Dedication of the Day: For Rachel Maddow, an old favorite from Elvis Costello:


Update: I revised the last passage of the Maddow item, just to emphasize that she's not perfect. Like I say, who among us is? Also, thanks to my former colleague, and frequent Maddow guest, Spencer Ackerman. He's the one who suggested I look at the Uganda story.