FINALIST: RACHEL MADDOW
The enduring success of Rachel Maddow is easy to calculate from a numbers perspective. Her eponymous news show is more of a ratings juggernaut than ever before, helping catapult MSNBC to the second-most popular cable network this year, doubling CNN’s ratings and nipping at the heels of Fox News. The audience of The Rachel Maddow Show contrasts wildly with Fox’s greying audience; Maddow was number 1 in cable news viewers aged 25-54 during November.
Her influence in shaping political opinion and discourse may be less tangible than her ratings, but it’s rarely in doubt. As the only out lesbian to front a cable news show, Maddow could be given credit solely for bringing diversity to mainstream journalism. But her work — especially this year — transcends visibility. Unlike her contemporaries, Maddow doesn't just regurgitate the day’s headlines and offer talking heads a place to mouth off; she uses her time to analyze and provide context for the sands shifting under our collective feet.
Maddow began exploring the Russian role in the 2016 election before Trump won the Electoral College and, after November, offered extensive detail about how the Trumps were financially connected to Russian interests. Heard rumors about Trump’s dealings with shady Deutsche Bank? Maddow had the details. Wondering why Trump owns a mostly empty tower in Panama City? Tune in. How about intel on the players involved in the infamous Trump Tower meeting this summer, where Trump Jr., Mike Flynn, and Jared Kushner sought out dirt on Hillary Clinton? Rachel had you covered.
No one in broadcast journalism is doing the kind of in-depth reporting into the 2016 election and its disastrous aftermath than Maddow is — and viewers simply cannot get enough. Maddow remains the model of smart resistance; no gnashing teeth or pounding desks, just a measured, deliberate, dogged pursuit of the truth.
FINALIST: DON LEMON
Wonder if Don Lemon, as a little boy in Louisiana, imagined he would grow up to be a thorn in the side of a president? It may sound like an unenviable position, unless that president is Donald Trump, of course.
As the host of CNN Tonight, Lemon is one of the frankest personalities on the network. Often speaking about personal subjects like police brutality and unabashedly showing his playful side when hosting CNN's New Year's Eve broadcast, Lemon is a counterpoint to the network's other gay superstar, suited-up Anderson Cooper. Is his "realness" what challenges Trump so much? Probably not.
The president's attacks on Lemon seem personal, like most of his bullying of prominent African-Americans (e.g., President Obama, Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Frederica Wilson). Trump has repeatedly called Lemon "the dumbest man on television" and, according to a New York Times report, "hate- watches" Lemon to get riled up. Trump disputed the report in a tweet, which, of course, included another mean-spirited dig at the award-winning journalist.
Like the professional he is, Lemon doesn't directly respond to Trump's bullying (though his employer does). Lemon just keeps doing his job in the face of racism and homophobia that comes his way from the world's most powerful person. Lemon put it succinctly as he accepted the Davidson/Valentini Award at the GLAAD San Francisco gala in September: "I've been a gay black man my whole life. So I ain't scared of nobody."