“We’re in the Zone”: Alex Wagner Isn’t Living in Rachel Maddow’s Shadow

Pop Culture

It was that Thursday afternoon in mid-April when the temperature in New York freakishly crept up toward 90, and Alex Wagner was in the mood for a piping cup of green tea. “I’ll just go with the Asian wisdom of drinking hot things in hot climates,” she said as we ordered beverages from our waiter, who attended to us in one of those open-air dining sheds outside a French joint on West 70th Street. (Iced tea for me.) “I went to Chinese camp when I was 12, which was, like, an immersion language camp, and it was like literally living in China. We’d wake up every morning at 6:00 and sing Chinese communist songs, and raise a flag and do tai chi and eat Chinese food. It was summer in northern Minnesota, and they were like, you need to drink hot things in the summer because it helps cool your body down. Which is what I told myself as I was walking around the Upper West Side with a hot thermos of coffee, sweating.” 

We debated ordering fries before getting into some of the meatier parts of our discussion. The previous night, on her MSNBC prime-time show, Wagner had broken news about the legal showdown between Fox and Dominion Voting Systems. Her team had gotten its hands on damaging audio that Fox News didn’t make available during discovery. (The Dominion trial ended up fizzling out with a massive settlement last week, but Fox still faces another billion-plus-dollar defamation suit. Fox announced it was parting ways with top star Tucker Carlson right as we were putting the finishing touches on this story.) “It’s not just, they knew ‘the big lie’ was a lie,” Wagner explained. “It’s, Fox was being told by the Trump campaign that the voting machines were fine.” 

She thought she’d seen it all, right? 

“I mean, if you had told me a year ago,” Wagner continued, “that, in April, we’d be sitting in New York talking about Rupert Murdoch going on trial; explosive correspondence being revealed between the top of the Fox News pyramid, admitting that basically what they were doing on air was all lies in a bid to gain audience approval; that Donald Trump would be in New York testifying in a massive fraud trial and potentially on the hook in multiple other trials—it feels like a watershed moment for people who have lived, you know, underneath what until this point seemed like a very dark shadow cast during the Trump years, in terms of politicians’ ability to lie with impunity—and media outlets’ ability to spin those lies and perpetuate them—and really poison the well of American democracy.” 

To borrow Wagner’s turn of phrase, if you had told me a year ago that Wagner was going to get Rachel Maddow’s crucial 9 p.m. time slot Tuesdays through Fridays, I might have looked at you funny. I was in the middle of profiling Maddow at the time, and Wagner’s name wasn’t among those being bandied about in the breathless speculation over Maddow’s successor. But alas, there she was in Variety and The New York Times on June 27 when the news leaked. She’d rejoined MSNBC as a political analyst only a few months earlier—or, depending on how you look at it, almost seven years after the brass canceled Wagner’s nearly four-year-old weekday afternoon show. Now she’d been handed the keys to the network’s most valuable piece of real estate, making Wagner, who is half Burmese on her mother’s side, “the only Asian American to host a prime-time cable news program,” as MSNBC put it in its press release.

The stakes are high. Maddow, who now anchors 9 p.m. only on Monday nights (while pursuing a range of big-ticket narrative projects), had established herself over the years as a singular talent and MSNBC’s perennial ratings champ. You can’t follow that act without a whole world of pressure and expectations, even if your bosses swear it’s not about the numbers and that they don’t expect you to “come in and mimic Rachel’s performance or success.” And let’s not forget that Maddow is still very much performing one night a week before Wagner jumps in. 

In any case, now that Wagner has logged more than half a year as the host of Alex Wagner Tonight, I wanted to know what it’s been like stepping into Maddow’s shoes. 

“I am very aware of the mantle,” she said as the waiter politely interrupted to take our food order. (Ice cream sundae with butterscotch for Wagner and sugar doughnut holes for the table, where we were joined by a friendly MSNBC publicist who pretended like she wasn’t there.) “I remember getting the New York Times push alert” that Maddow was stepping away from daily hosting “and thinking, Wow that’s gonna be a really tough job for whoever has to fill it. And then it turned out to be me, which was crazy! You know, I gotta say, everyone tasked with filling this role, and everyone tasked with making the show that has gone in the place of where her show was, has really not focused too much on what came before.”

Was there any part of her that thought, Maybe I don’t wanna do this? “It’s ongoing, the feeling of, like, this is really hard,” said Wagner. “But the opportunity, the responsibility, the sense of urgency to be given that platform at this time—I mean, it was not really much of a question.”

Wagner’s August 16 debut had a very solid 2 million viewers, not so distant from the 2.5 million or so who might tune in to Maddow on a typical night. Since then, the totals have fallen a bit farther from Maddow’s reliable heights. But let’s be honest—of course that was going to happen. No one expected otherwise, especially not at the very beginning. I asked if it got under Wagner’s skin when she saw news reports noting that she hadn’t lived up to Maddow’s audience after just a few months on the job, or highlighting that her ratings were tracking about 30% lower than Maddow’s in the first quarter of 2023. (Overall cable news audiences were reportedly down across the board during that time.)

“Honestly, I feel great about where we’re at. I mean, I set my bar low!” she said with a laugh. “I gotta say, Joe, not for nothing, we’ve been on the air a little over six months, and I feel like we’re doing good work. Last night”—i.e., the Fox-Dominion scoop—“it was like a family affair getting that show on the air. We were breaking news. We’re like—we’re in the zone, you know?”

Four nights a week on TV, Wagner does a handoff to Lawrence O’Donnell, who anchors MSNBC’s 10 p.m. hour. As a kid growing up in Washington, DC’s Tenleytown neighborhood in the ’80s and early ’90s, she knew him as Larry. He was a budding Democratic political aide back then, and Wagner’s father, Carl Wagner, who died in 2017, was a prominent Democratic strategist. 

“My dad had this story he used to tell,” said Wagner. “In ’80—so I was three—I would pick up the kitchen phone and I’d say, ‘Gimme the numbers!’, because my dad would call for polling numbers every night. I would answer the phone all the time because of course my dad was always on the road or in meetings or whatever. I remember picking up the phone once, and it was like, ‘Is Brother Carl there?’ And I was like, ‘Uh, Brother Carl’s not here. Who’s this?’ He said, ‘This is Brother Jesse Jackson.’ So I’d be like, ‘Dad, Brother Jesse Jackson called. Dad, call Ralph Nader. Dad, Larry O’Donnell called.’ Harold Ickes. John Podesta.” (Podesta was their next-door neighbor.) 

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