WaPo Touts Rachel Maddow's Left-Wing Activist 'Military Mission'

On Monday, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz touted how Rachel Maddow is making history happen on gays in the military – which might not seem very tough with Obama and the liberal Democrats in Congress in charge of the government. Maddow tries to present herself as an advocacy journalist, not an activist, like there’s a huge difference:

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."

This raises the obvious question: who needs the streets when you’re granted an hour each weeknight on NBC’s cable "news" channel? Kurtz can only use the word "liberal" when Maddow describes herself that way (but isn’t that a little mild?):

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."

Maddow's not a "Democratic Party hack"? Has she watched her own show? Kurtz did ask about it, and Maddow then listed all the times she’s landed to the left of Obama:

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."

Unlike the usual pattern on MSNBC, Kurtz did feature Matt Lewis for conservative counterpoint, but Kurtz then strangely insisted Maddow wasn’t on a soap box:

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.

"Humanizing the issue" is precisely what any savvy operative standing on a soapbox would do. Using that language also suggests that conservatives think people who "happen to be gay" aren’t human.

The story continued to confuse advocacy and activism:

In conducting the interviews with [gay activists] 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 spokesman says, "These feelings that she experienced about Fox News didn't stop her from applying for a job here."

The Post headline for this story: "Maddow, on a military mission."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis