MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Rachel Maddow is something new, a female cable TV anchor who leans distinctly to the left. The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC began airing just after the political conventions. Since then, the show has doubled the network's viewers in the nine P.M. hour, sometimes even beating the numbers for Larry King. NPR's Margot Adler has this profile.
MARGOT ADLER: Phil Griffin, the new president of MSNBC, expresses amazement when he describes Rachel Maddow.
Mr. PHIL GRIFFIN (President, MSNBC): She's Willie Mays out there. She's so graceful. She was a natural. It wasn't that hard. Let's give her a show. But it wasn't until Maddow filled in for Keith Olbermann and, unlike all other fill-ins, managed to keep his audience, that MSNBC decided to give her a show. It's now bookended between two hours of Olbermann's countdown, which means three hours of primetime left-of-center news and commentary five days a week. Here she is with her frequent sparing partner, conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan. The subject, McCain's drop in the polls.
Ms. RACHEL MADDOW (Host, The Rachel Maddow Show): The biggest single explanatory factor for that is how much independents dislike Sarah Palin.
Mr. PAT BUCHANAN (Co-host, The Rachel Maddow Show): Before this crash occurred, McCain-Palin were leading. And suddenly, you've got a 15-17 point slip. That's not because of an interview with Katie Couric.
Ms. MADDOW: It's not because of an interview with Katie Couric. It's because of the entirety of her candidacy.
ADLER: Maddow and Buchanan are modeling something different for cable TV, a kind of feisty, respectful, even friendly debate, that's what it sounds like, but when I asked her if that was what she and Buchanan were trying to do...
Ms. MADDOW: I hope so. I wonder if he thinks that legitimizes me in a way that's bad for the country.
ADLER: And she wonders if it makes her sound more extreme than she is. She can sometimes surprise you. As a pundit, she has expressed concerns about national security that are not typical of some liberals, and she's sassy. Here's how she dealt with John McCain accusing the community group ACORN of voter fraud.
Ms. MADDOW: Forget that voter registration fraud is very different from actual voter fraud and voter suppression. Just for a moment focus instead on this picture. This is a picture of Senator McCain in 2006 at a rally co-sponsored by - say it with me now - ACORN.
(Soundbite of applause)
Ms. MADDOW: John McCain was the keynote speaker at the ACORN event. I'm not kidding. Listen.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee): What makes America special is what's in this room tonight. That's what makes America special.
ADLER: Maddow has her critics. Here's John Gibson on Fox News.
Mr. JOHN GIBSON (Host, Fox News): Can they get any farther to the left over there at MSNBC than Rachel Maddow?
Unidentified Man: Not possible. If they exhumed Che Guevara from his grave and put him on.
Mr. GIBSON: Chairman Mao, maybe?
Unidentified Man: Perhaps.
ADLER: And when David Frum, journalist and former speechwriter for President Bush, came on her show to discuss the tone of the McCain campaign, Frum turned on Maddow, attacking her show.
Mr. DAVID FRUM (Journalist; Former Speechwriter for President Bush): I mean, the show, unfortunately, is an example of that problem. I believe its heavy sarcasm and sneering and its disregard for a lot of the substantive issues that really are important.
Ms. MADDOW: Do you think that my tone on this show is equivalent to people calling Barack Obama somebody who pals around with terrorists, people yelling from the audience at McCain-Palin rallies, bomb Obama. Are you accusing me of an equivalence in tone?
Mr. FRUM: I think the question is, given the small plate of responsibility that you personally have, how do you manage that responsibility?
ADLER: Maddow says she is giving real information but in a funny and acerbic way.
Mr. REM RIDER (Editor, American Journalism Review): She's funny. She's thoughtful and smart and doesn't seem to be following a script.
ADLER: Rem Rider is the editor of the American Journalism Review, a bi-monthly magazine that critics the performance of the news media. He says, as a nation, we seem to want more and more to have our views reinforced.
Mr. RIDER: If there's going to be a very successful cable outlet on one side, there's nothing wrong with having one on the other side. What's unfortunate, though, is that - you know, it's not in a vacuum. This kind of reflects and reinforces the, you know, increasingly partisan nature of our politics.
ADLER: Rachel Maddow says, for her, the issue is not left or right. She says MSNBC has promoted hosts that are characters, whether it be Joe Scarborough or Keith Olbermann or Chris Matthews. Here is what it feels like, she says, from inside the network.
Ms. MADDOW: Feel free to broadcast from somewhere beyond the middle of the bell curve. Don't try to seem like every man. Try to be a real person. And so for me, yeah, part of that is that I'm liberal. But there's so many other ways that I'm in a very specific place on that curve. I'm young. I'm female. You know, I've got a background as an AIDs activist.
ADLER: You're a lesbian?
Ms. MADDOW: There's that gay thing, indeed, and I'm out about it. There are so many ways that you can be not trying to represent some mythical mainstream.
ADLER: But opinionated personalities are a cable mainstay, even if her collection of attributes is unique. Rachel Maddow says she's just learning to do this thing called television. The day I interviewed her, she said she'd had two hours of sleep. She's trying to pace herself.
Ms. MADDOW: Who knows how long this is going to last. I won the job lottery. I got my own TV show in an election year on a network that knows exactly who I am. And I have no idea like when I am going to wake up from this dream, but while I am in it, I want to try to do something I am really proud of.
ADLER: As for sleep, Maddow says she'll get some November 5th. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.