Maddow vs. PolitiFact

Published: February 28, 2011

By Jim Lichtman
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Amid all the protests in Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker calling for cuts in both benefits and bargaining rights for state employees, MSNBCs Rachel Maddow weighed in by declaring “Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, the state is on track to have a budget surplus this year,” she said. “I am not kidding.”

According to Politifact, the fact-checking group from the St. Petersburg Times premised “to help you find the truth in American politics,” Maddow and others cited a January 31, 2011 memo by Robert Lang, the director of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

“Our analysis,” Lang writes, “indicates a general fund gross balance of $121.4 million and a net balance of $56.4 million.”

Further, Maddow claims that “…Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature this year gave away $140 million in business tax breaks — so if there is a deficit projected of $137 million, they created it.”

So what’s the truth?

Politifact re-read the memo, and examined the issue in detail.  “Our conclusion: Maddow and the others are wrong. The confusion,” Politifact writes, “stems from a section in Lang’s memo that — read on its own — does project a $121 million surplus in the state’s general fund as of June 30, 2011. But the remainder of the routine memo — consider it the fine print — outlines $258 million in unpaid bills or expected shortfalls in programs such as Medicaid services for the needy ($174 million alone), the public defender’s office and corrections. Additionally, the state owes Minnesota $58.7 million under a discontinued tax reciprocity deal.

“The result, by our math and Lang’s, is the $137 million shortfall…

“Meanwhile, what about Maddow’s claim… that Walker’s tax-cut bills approved in January are responsible for the $137 million deficit?”

Politifact concluded that Lang’s fiscal bureau report says that “The tax cuts will cost the state a projected $140 million in tax revenue — but not until the next two-year budget, from July 2011 to June 2013. The cuts are not even in effect yet, so they cannot be part of the current problem.”

But, that’s not the end of the flap.

On her February 24 show, Maddow takes Politifact to the woodshed because she, in fact, DID say that Wisconsin would have a $137 million shortfall.

I went to the Maddow site, reviewed the tape of her Feb. 24th show in which she goes through a list of factual offenses taken by others to things the liberal host has said on her show. Regarding Politifact’s pronouncement declaring Maddow’s statement as “False,” Maddow rolls the tape of the show in which she very clearly states the $137 million shortfall.  She then asks the fact-checker to make their own correction.

“Politifact you are wrong here on the facts and bluntly, and you ought to correct it. Putting the word fact in your name does not grant you automatic mastery of the facts.”

Politifact’s response: “Maddow’s criticism in Thursday’s (Feb. 24, 2011) show used artful editing and told an incomplete story. At issue is whether we checked the right factual claim. We examined her statement that Wisconsin ‘is on track to have a budget surplus this year.’ But she maintains that in the same segment, she made clear that she knew the state had a shortfall.

“We chose to examine her surplus claim because we had requests from many readers and it was the main focus at the beginning of her segment. It went on for nearly a minute. Her later statement about the shortfall was very brief and her main point seemed to be that the shortfall was created by $140 million in tax breaks for businesses. Still, we acknowledged in our article that she made that point.

“In her criticism of PolitiFact Thursday night, Maddow misled viewers by repeatedly playing just a nine-word snippet of her saying that ‘There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall.’ She neglected to include her full quote in context: ‘There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office. Hey, wait. That’s about exactly the size of the shortfall.’

“That artful editing — plus the fact that she didn’t mention the more lengthy quote that we checked — deprived viewers of the full context for her remarks and our reasoning for checking the claim we checked. We not only examined that claim, we also debunked the suggestion from Maddow and others that the tax breaks were the cause of the $137 million shortfall.”

It’s interesting to note that the title of Maddow’s segment in which she calls out Politifact is Department of Corrections, and she takes great pains at the beginning to declare her allegiance to giving the facts to viewers and that if she is wrong, she makes corrections. The assumption, therefore, is that Maddow is about to correct herself. However, in the February 24th show, Maddow’s not making corrections to her statements; rather, she’s explaining how others misinterpreted her statements based on other differences, not the facts.

Regardless, her declarative statement at the beginning of her (Feb. 17th) show is clearly what captures most people’s attention, mine included.

“I am here to report that there is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin,” she declares at the top of the show. “Wisconsin is Fine. Wisconsin is Great!”

That’s the headline of the show.

Farther along in that segment, Maddow does state that “There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall.” However, she quickly adds that “Republican Gov. Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office. Hey, wait. That’s about exactly the size of the shortfall.”

While Maddow is technically correct, her lead-in for that show clearly focuses on a very forceful opening declaration. It’s misleading. Wisconsin’s budget is neither “fine” nor “great,” and she should have made it very clear as to the true facts at the top of that segment instead of teasing the opposite. Further, it was misleading to begin a segment in which she seems to be correcting her own facts and then proceeds to itemize everyone else’s errors. That’s disingenuous.

“People do get stuff wrong and it should be pointed out,” Maddow says at the end of the segment and she’s right! However, people should also frame their arguments in a straightforward manner without misleading opening statements.

“Calling somebody a liar when they are not lying is not the same as fact-checking,” Maddow tells her audience about Politifact.

Politifact did not call Maddow a liar. They said that her opening statement was “False.” Those are two different distinctions. I liar is one who repeatedly and knowingly lies. In 11 statements made by Maddow and checked, Politifact found 1 to be “True,” 2 “Mostly True,” 3 “Half True,” 1 “Barely True,” and 4 “False.” It’s interesting to note that I have not found any reports where Maddow challenged the other 3 “False” statements Politifact found.

In 1991, ethicist Michael Josephson of The Josephson Institute of Ethics translated his Six Pillars of Character – trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship – into actionable principles for journalists.

“Journalists,” Josephson writes, “should be honest, truthful, sincere, forthright, straightforward and, unless professional duties otherwise require, be frank and candid. They do not lie, deceive, act deviously, cheat, steal, plagiarize, stage news or photos, alter or invent quotations or characters, or knowingly mislead by omission or other means.”

While opinion-media does not necessarily have to follow the same rules of fairness regarding their take on the issues, if they are to have credibility with their audience they ought not to mislead. While I like Maddow’s passionate defense of important issues on many of her shows, I found these two shows in particular to be disingenuous.

Newsman Edward R. Murrow famously said, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”

If Maddow is sincerely interested in being truthful, she should refrain from opening statements that clearly mislead and just stick to the facts.



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