Home > Politics > My take on Maddow versus PolitiFact

My take on Maddow versus PolitiFact

As those who follow this sort of thing already know, Rachel Maddow (and her producers) are currently feuding with PolitiFact over the first story of Maddow’s show last Thursday, February 17. At first, the feud caused me to consider removing PolitiFact from my list of trusted sources, but subsequent events have caused me to realize that they’re both right, and they’re both wrong! Read on for details…

16 AUG 2012 – minor update correcting the identity of the cruise where I met Rachel

This isn’t an easy one to explain, so I’m going to try to provide a brief synopsis, with links:

February 17:

Maddow leads her program with a report whose overall theme is that the Wisconsin Budget Fix bill is a Wolf in Sheep’s clothing. The Wolf is the Republican party going after Unions and other Progressive groups (like ACORN) because they all do a fantastic job of voter registration. The basic point – which I think is well demonstrated – is that the Republicans are doing anything they can defund the ONLY organizations that stand a chance of counteracting the influx of corporate money on the Republican side that has been building for many years and has recently exploded due to the SCOTUS Citizen’s United ruling. Breaking unions – including public unions – is just part of this effort. Other parts include demonizing ACORN (because they did so well registering voters from their core constituency which is overwhelmingly Democratic) and pushing Voter ID bills (because the poorer you are, the more likely you are to vote Democratic and the LESS likely you are to be able to afford the cost and time of getting an approved ID)

The dispute is over the first (roughly) 1 minute of her segment, and even more closely over the final clause of the opening paragraph:

…Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.

And, as it turns out, I think the dispute is best explained by a single word that I bolded in the above quote: “is”. But I’ll have more on that later! In the meantime, here are your first links:

Video of the segment in dispute

Transcript of the segment in dispute.

Watch the video – it’s worth it. But don’t watch while you’re likely to be distracted. You should see the first 5-6 minutes – and try to grok the point Maddow is making – to fully understand the argument I’ll be making. After that, rather than sit through it multiple times, the transcript becomes the more useful reference.

February 16th through sometime February 18:

2 things happen off camera in this time period. The right wing echo chamber seizes on the line I quoted above and reports on it – alone and out of context – bloviating about how the left wing media lies.  Beginning 2/16, after the Madison Capital Times editorialized on the same subject, PolitiFact started receiving inquiries on the truth of the Times editorial, and after Maddow’s broadcast, PolitiFact was bombarded by even more inquiries. PolitiFact Wisconsin chose to respond to these requests with

February 18th at 5:56 PM (I assume the time is Central – as I assume they reside in Central – but they don’t say so explicitly):

PolitiFact Wisconsin rates Rachel as False

I first saw this on Twitter, and not wanting to believe it, I quickly looked at the full post – which to my eyes was (at the time) VERY convincing. Woe is me! Rachel -you’ve double crossed us! My faith in your reporting is destroyed! I had seen Rachel’s report live. I yelled, I cheered, I danced. I was elated that someone was actually shouting the truth! Now all that ecstasy, all that joy, all that adrenaline rush was revealed as a lie, a pipe dream. It’s a good thing I’m not clinically depressed, otherwise I’d have been in crisis all weekend!

Fast Forward to Rachel’s Thursday, 2/24 show, where her final segment rips PolitFact a new bodily orifice by convincingly proving that their 2/18 False conclusion is itself, totally bunk. It also details attempts made by her producers to contact PolitiFact soliciting a correction, which it publishes on the web here. Unfortunately (because I’d love to see it), the published emails refer to, but don’t show, the reply the producers received from PolitiFact to their first email. Now I’m on an emotional roller coaster (not really, more an intellectual roller coaster). I’m now convinced that it’s PolitiFact that’s completely in the wrong, not Rachel. But I’d trusted PolitiFact almost as much as I previously Rachel – who I now trust again. Lamentations!

But wait! The missing email was revealed by PolitiFact National (not PolitiFact Wisconsin) at 2:55 PM today, Friday, 2/25/2011. Click here for their full posting. I was alerted to the reply by PolitiFact’s Tweet announcing the post.

At this point I was very conflicted. Both sides were making important – and valid points, yet they seem to be 180 degrees apart. What gives? Then it hit me: TRMS is fundamentally different than the usual targets of PolitiFact investigations. And in that difference lies the explanation.

Imagine for a moment that Rachel had said:

Wisconsin was on track to have a budget surplus this year.

Notice I’ve only changed one word. Instead of “is”, I used “was”. What happens to the entire dispute? PolitiFact would likely still have investigated due to the probable distortion of the quote that would have echoed through the Right Wing Echo Chamber, with many within that chamber (or their audience) bombarding PolitiFact with requests to rate it, but after investigating it, PolitiFact would have rated it True, or perhaps Mostly True (they may well have quibbled with the numbers, but I don’t want to make this post about the numbers.) Had they returned a verdict of True the dispute ends (except within the Right Wing Echo Chamber – who would have ignored the verdict.) Had they gone with Mostly True, TRMS might have been a bit perturbed, but nowhere near enough to rise to the level of devoting a segment to debunking it, and the (now minor) dispute would never have erupted in public. <<on reviewing this before posting, I realize that, had Rachel used “was”, she would also have had to change other bits of the first 2 paragraphs>>

So now I’m left with wondering why Rachel chose “is” instead of “was”? It may well have been accidental, but I doubt that. Despite the seeming casualness of her show, she is reading from a script. And she is someone who chooses her words with great care. And I’ve eaten dinner with her (Hey Rachel! Steve the Electrical Distributor from the Salon Air America Cruise here!). This sort of mistake is not in her nature, nor in the nature of her producers and other staff. Thus her word choice was intentional, and thus viewed through a certain lens, demonstrably false. So why did she do it?

I’m venturing into even more speculation here, but I think her word choice, indeed the first two paragraphs following the hand off from Lawrence were, in essence, a tease. TRMS intentionally said what they did in order to convince viewers to keep watching! Whichever word is chosen, the first two paragraphs set up a straw man (Wisconsin is fine) which she proceeds to both debunk and use to transition to the real point of the segment.

Folks, were looking at a fundamental clash between “long form” journalism and “sound bite” journalism! Rachel is the only practitioner of long form journalism appearing daily in prime time on ANY network (ok, any US network with significant, national distribution). PolitiFact is used to investigating sound bite journalism.  While PolitiFact often looks at the close context of a sound bite they’re researching, in this case, the close context wasn’t enough.

Rachel’s introduction was an attempt to get the attention of people who haven’t been exposed to long form journalism for years – perhaps even in their entire lifetime! She stubbornly clings to her belief that we need to look at all the nuances of a story, and fully explore them (a belief I share). But she feels forced to tease with things she wouldn’t otherwise say in order to grab the attention of the people who most need to hear what she has to say – the people weaned on sound bite journalism.

So to Rachel I say this:

  • You Go Girl!
  • Would it have been that much different had you used “was” instead of “is”?
  • PolitiFact isn’t a monster, they just responded in a completely different context than yours

And to PolitiFact I say:

  • Keep up the good work! But…
  • Realize that you’re so used to investigating sound bite journalism that you will occasionally have to step back and look at far more context than you normally do. And finally:
  • I recommend that you add one more reading to your Truth Meter: Cloudy!

The Cloudy reading would mean that the truth in this case is so dependent on the life experiences and point of view  of the people reacting it that the simple Truth – if there is one – can’t be seen objectively.

That’s all! Thanks for your patience, and I’m eagerly awaiting your comments.


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  1. 26 Feb 2011 at 03:15

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