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MSNBC's Rachel Maddow sharpens focus on 'don't ask, don't tell'

The advocate: Maddow, right, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand after a hearing on gays in the military.
The advocate: Maddow, right, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand after a hearing on gays in the military. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/associated Press)

Maddow usually rips Republicans and backs Barack Obama, but she is happy to list the issues on which she has challenged the president, including the Afghanistan surge, the delay in closing Guantanamo Bay, torture prosecutions, nuclear power and a proposed federal spending freeze. And while she occasionally debates conservatives, her guests on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy have all been in favor of repealing it.

"I prefer having dissenting voices speak to Rachel on an issue," Wolff says. "We have a difficult time sometimes booking folks who don't agree with Rachel."

'It's not activism'

As a longtime student of policy toward gay soldiers -- she did a 1992 term paper at Stanford on the supposed impact on combat readiness -- Maddow was primed when Obama vowed in his State of the Union address to abolish the current approach. After the Choi interview, she booked Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a decorated Air Force pilot who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, who was battling a discharge after being identified as gay. "You coming out has galvanized a lot of people," she told him.

One sign of the changing climate: Choi, whose discharge had dragged on, was recalled to drill duty last week by the unit from which he had been separated. Choi has obvious value to the military because he speaks Arabic.

In conducting the interviews with Choi and Fehrenbach, Maddow says: "I feel a real responsibility, that they've entrusted me in telling their story, in introducing them to a media audience. They trusted that we would do justice to their stories, to show that they are being screwed over by the country."

But she rejects the notion that she's explicitly pushing for change: "I think of it more in the tradition of muckraking. A lot of the best reporting since time immemorial has been driven by outrage about things not being the way they should be, by the shock at shameless, lying hypocrisy."

She adds: "For me it's a question of whether you're doing advocacy journalism or not. It's not activism -- you see a lot of that at Fox, using news coverage to inspire political participation."

Asked for comment, a Fox spokesperson says, "These feelings that she experienced about Fox News didn't stop her from applying for a job here."

While Maddow's approach to the issue once might have been seen as out of step with public opinion, a Washington Post-ABC poll last week found that 75 percent of those surveyed support gays openly serving in the military.

Having spoken out about Obama's slow approach to keeping his campaign promise on gay service members, Maddow felt she had to be at the Senate hearing where Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opposed the current policy for forcing soldiers to lie about who they are. "I'm like a ninth-grade civics dork about this stuff," she says.

Maddow accepts the fact that some critics believe she must be biased on the subject. But she offers a simple response:

"I can't do the show as a non-gay person. I don't have that option."

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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