With Roots in HIV Activism, Rachel Maddow Has Wise Words for Today's Resistance Movements

Rachel Maddow
Rachel Maddow
Paul Schultz [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The #NotNormalcy of Donald Trump's presidency has created a surge of direct action and active protest in the United States, two approaches the HIV community understands well. Rachel Maddow, host of The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC and one of more effective television journalists investigating and commenting on the trials and tribulations of this era, also has strong roots in the HIV community.

Her show drew high ratings recently for an exclusive reveal of a portion of Donald Trump's 2005 federal taxes. It could have been just a tiny glimpse into Trump's finances, but Maddow did what she has done expertly throughout the nascent presidency: paint a sweeping yet detailed picture of possible Russian ties to Trump and his cohorts, as well as open up for discussion the very fact that the taxes were leaked to the press and what that might mean.

For Maddow's audience, it was just the latest example of the detailed, deep dive journalism that separates her and her team from many of their prime-time news competitors. Throughout her television career, Maddow has been a singular voice of a style of media commentary that is at once radical and old school. Recently, she made the effective decision to go against the pack by not covering Trump's tweets and instead telling the stories those tweets are meant to obfuscate.

Her show has covered HIV in notable ways. She eulogized treatment activist Martin Delaney on air (segment starts at 1:53), devoted one segment to the 25th anniversary of ACT UP, and recently drew attention to then-vice presidential candidate Mike Pence's diversion of funds meant for HIV/AIDS while he was governor of Indiana.

Maddow's background in HIV/AIDS activism also informs her overall approach to creating news programming that connects vast and disparate information into a cohesive, complete sum of parts.

"Maddow's efforts for HIV justice revealed her passion for details, her knack for sharp analysis that gets to the heart of issues and exposes the best strategies to making change happen, and a willingness to put in the hard work it takes to go from problems to solutions," explained JD Davids, TheBody.com's managing editor, who has known Maddow personally and in movement work since 1993.

"Activism is figuring out that there is something that you want to be changed in the world," Maddow told POZ magazine in 2009. She elaborated:

A policy that you want to be changed, a person that you want to be freed from prison, even someone whom you want to be elected to office. Whatever it is. And then you figure out what would need to happen in the world so that change would occur. And then you figure out the connection between yourself and that trigger. And so, it's whatever leverage, whatever powers, whatever things you can conjure from your own life and the other people who want this change to happen in order to pull the trigger to make that change happen. You know, it's a very cause-and-effect sort of thing. It's math! Sometimes it's a Rube Goldberg machine, and sometimes it's A + B = C. But depending on what you're trying to get done, it's, "I want this thing to change, how can I get it changed, let's change it, has it been changed, or has it not?"

In the mid-90s, after completing her undergraduate degree at Stanford, Maddow joined ACT UP San Francisco, where she became part of the prison issues group. At that time, ACT UP San Francisco had a strong social issues agenda and a membership including many seasoned activists who had worked previously on various aspects of social inequality.

In 1995, Maddow won an international Rhodes Scholarship (the first openly gay or lesbian American to do so) and attended the University of Oxford. Her research thesis in 2001, HIV/AIDS and Health Care Reform in British and American Prisons, continued the work she'd begun at ACT UP SF. In 2002, she wrote a position paper entitled, Pushing for Progress: HIV/AIDS In Prisons, for the National Minority AIDS Council (NMAC).

In the paper's introduction, Maddow cuts through the complex societal problems that must be addressed on this topic in a way that prefigures her approach to dissecting and connecting the ills of our political landscape today:

The issue of HIV/AIDS in prisons is too often thought of by advocates and activists as a quagmire, because of the complex, overlapping problems faced by prisoners living with or at risk for HIV/AIDS. The aim of this position paper is to show that not only is there substantial consensus on what is to be done to address HIV/AIDS in prisons, there is also now significant evaluative and experiential evidence showing what kind of interventions are effective. There is a solid foundation of evidence on which to build a comprehensive national response to HIV/AIDS in prisons. With continued innovation, evaluative research and political will, such a response is within our grasp.

Maddow admirably demonstrates that thoughtful, in-depth journalism not only still has a place in our society but encompasses necessary tactics that can be applied throughout our resistance. Understanding cause and effect, following threads, doing research and diligently working to put the pieces together are not anathema to activism, but an effective and necessary part of it.

Jennifer Johnson Avril is a communications professional and HIV/AIDS activist based in New York City. She is a master's candidate in media studies for social change.