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

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010; C01

It was a dramatic moment for Lt. Dan Choi -- revealing his sexual orientation on national television -- but he couldn't resist paying tribute to the host.

"I love your show, Rachel," Choi said. And then, last March, he told Rachel Maddow why he was there: "By saying three words to you today -- 'I am gay' -- those three words are a violation of Title 10 of the U.S. Code. . . . Basically, they want us to lie about our identity."

Seconds later the satellite feed went down, and the glitch forced the Army lieutenant to come back to the MSNBC program the following night. But it was the start of a sustained effort that reached a milestone this month when the nation's top military officer said he wanted to abolish the hotly debated policy of "don't ask, don't tell" -- at a hearing attended by Maddow.

As one of the few openly gay television anchors, Maddow has kept the spotlight trained on the contentious issue of whether service members known to be homosexual should face discharge proceedings, as Choi did after that interview. But she doesn't view herself as mounting a crusade.

"I was an activist before I went into the media," Maddow says. "It is useful for me to tell my opinion on some things I cover. But I'm not trying to get people to march in the streets or call their congressmen. I don't believe that's my role."

Her executive producer, Bill Wolff, says Maddow gets just as exercised about wasteful weapons systems. "I don't think it's personal so much because she is gay and it's an issue of gay rights, but because it's an issue of military efficiency," he says.

Air America to MSNBC

Maddow has brought a distinctive style to the cable program she launched in the fall of 2008. A self-described "liberal" but "not a Democratic Party hack," she fuses passionate argument with a fact-laden approach reflecting her doctorate from Oxford. Rather than speaking out as a lesbian, Maddow frames the battle by stressing that 12,500 gay service members have been kicked out of the military under the 1993 compromise that allows them to serve if they keep their sexuality hidden.

"We don't really treat gay issues differently than other issues," Maddow says. The controversy, she says, is just "a great story."

Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist for AOL's Politics Daily, says the mainstream media are largely biased in favor of repeal. "Anybody who's paying attention knows that Rachel Maddow is a liberal," he says. "She's basically preaching to the choir. She's not going to have on a gay soldier who did create a morale problem."

If Maddow has an affinity for military issues, it may be because she is the daughter of an Air Force captain. She is writing a book on the military and politics. The key to her approach has not been standing on her soapbox, which would be predictable, but humanizing the issue by featuring men who want to serve their country -- and happen to be gay.

Maddow, who has a house in western Massachusetts with her partner, artist Susan Mikula, backed into broadcasting, moving from a local radio show to the liberal network Air America, which recently folded. "Air America gave me a shot and brought me to a national media audience from profound obscurity," she says.

An overnight sensation at MSNBC, Maddow has seen her ratings decline since the height of the presidential campaign. She averaged 892,000 viewers in the fourth quarter of last year, a 43 percent drop from the previous year, putting her slightly behind CNN's Larry King and far behind Sean Hannity, who drew 2.6 million on Fox News.

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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