Rachel Maddow: The Fresh Air Interview
Bill Phelps/Courtesy of the author Rachel Maddow hosts the nightly news talk show The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC
March 27, 2012
For much of the past decade, journalist Rachel Maddow has hosted her own radio and TV shows. And for much of that time, the popular MSNBC host has been thinking about how the United States uses military force — and how it starts and end wars.
Maddow's new book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power traces how U.S. national intelligence agencies have taken over duties that were once assigned to the military, and how this shift has increased the public disconnect from the consequences of war.
"Politically, secrecy is a great excuse," Maddow tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "If something is being done on a secret basis in national security, that's a great reason for elected officials to not talk about it. And that's a great way to shirk accountability for it with the public."
That lack of accountability, says Maddow, lets America's national defense operate without public oversight or knowledge.
"When things are done in secret in our name, we can be held accountable for them, even if we can't hold accountable our government for directing it," she says. "And that feels very un-American to me."
Using intelligence agencies and private contractors has also increasingly disconnected the American public from the consequences of war, says Maddow.
"I don't think anybody set out to make us so divorced from the wars that we wage," she says. "But all of these little tweaks — all of these little changes that we made — had the effect of letting a president wage war without political restraint and letting us wage war in a way where we didn't necessarily notice or know the names of all of those who were deployed in our name. Because a lot of them were working for companies that didn't have any obligation to report to us when their people were killed. We ended up doing stuff in a way that insulated the American public from what our military was doing to the point where we don't feel much friction when Americans go downrange."
Maddow says she grew up in a household where public service and military service were both respected. Her father served in Vietnam and left the service a year before she was born.
"A lot of members of my family have served, a lot of people I grew up with served," she says. "I think had it been legal for openly gay people to serve in the military in the time I might have been considering signing up. I think service is honorable, and that was always inculcated in me."
Breaking Into Media
Maddow broke into the broadcasting business after graduate school, while she was living in western Massachusetts and taking on odd jobs while finishing up her doctoral dissertation. One day, her friends told her that the local morning radio show was looking for a person to read wire copy on air. She called the station, passed a test and was asked to come in for an audition.
"They asked me to come in and just rip and read some AP news wire stuff, and I did it and I remember the host said to me, 'What have you been doing as your job?' And I said, 'Unloading trucks.' And he said, 'From what?' And I said, 'Bigger trucks.' And they said, 'You're hired,' " she says. "I got the joke, and I could read. So I got the job and I started the next day, and that was my first job in radio."
But Maddow didn't have plans to stay in the media. She had been working as an AIDS activist for a decade and assumed she would return to activism after her dissertation was finished.
"I did [radio] for exactly one year, and I needed to get my dissertation done," she says. "And I did my grad school in England, and I traveled to England to defend my dissertation and it went successfully, and that was a few weeks before 9/11. I came back, 9/11 happened and I found myself, surprisingly ... really wanting to get back on the radio."
Maddow started calling local radio stations and asking if she could pick up a shift here and there. She then moved to Air America, where she hosted Unfiltered and The Rachel Maddow Show, a two-hour daily radio program.
Related NPR Stories
'The Rachel Maddow Show'
In 2008, Maddow started hosting The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. The nightly news show features an opening essay on a news topic, commentators discussing important news events, interviews related to news and culture, and segments highlighting stories that otherwise might go unnoticed. Maddow also often challenges guests who offer themselves as experts without having the facts to back their statements up.
"People who disagree on important issues don't agree on the facts," she says. "It used to be that we disagreed over the basic facts we were fighting over, and we had different opinions about them. Now I think we accept different sources of authority. ... And people can establish credibility on their own say-so as long as nobody follows the trail and calls them out on it."
But even when Maddow disagrees with a guest, she says, she makes a point to thank them and wish them good luck at the end of each segment.
"If I brought somebody into the discussion, it's because I believe they are worth hearing," she says. "Not necessarily because they always agree with me, but because they are going to say something that's going to advance our understanding of this [topic] that I've been trying to explain on TV. And so I am thankful for anybody who agrees to come onto the show. I'm thankful for their time, and I don't think personal animosity ever enters into it, even when I vehemently disagree with somebody. And particularly for people who disagree with me, I want them to feel like they've been treated fairly — they weren't ambushed, they weren't interrupted, they had a chance to say their piece. ... I don't want them to feel like it was an uncivil experience."