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In J'accuse of PolitiFact, Rachel Maddow misleads about how she misleads

MSNBC talk-show host Rachel Maddow got worked up Thursday over a PolitiFact ruling that said this Feb. 17 statement of hers was false: “Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.”

The statement is in the present tense (note the verb ‘is”). Presently, everyone agrees that Wisconsin "is on track" to have a deficit. So Maddow’s statement is simply false.

Yet Maddow said PolitiFact’s ruling was false. To do so, she misled about how she misled. Her evidence: a 9-word snippet in which she also said: “there is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall.” Said Maddow on Thursday: “PolitiFact says I am false – false – because I denied there is a budget shortfall in Wisconsin.” She then played the 9-word snippet again.

She implies PolitiFact left the sentiment out. But it didn’t.

PolitFact noted in a synopsis: “She added a kicker that is also making the rounds: 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.”

On Thursday night, Maddow made no mention of this PolitFact paragraph. But she played the 9-word snippet three times as if it were some obvious disclaimer. So Maddow's viewers could easily be left with the impression that this synopsis was utterly lacking from PolitiFact. Maddow did, however, direct viewers to her website to see her show’s correspondence to PolitiFact. There, her executive producer noted the PolitiFact synopsis that was conspicuously absent from Maddow’s Thursday J’accuse. The producer wrote that the PolitiFact synopsis was “a complete fabrication. Maddow never stated -- not once-- that Governor Walker's tax breaks were the direct cause of the budget deficit this year.”

That’s technically true -- that Maddow didn’t explicitly say this. She just did everything in her considerable rhetorical power to suggest it without exactly saying it. Here’s her statement in its entirety: “The state is not bankrupt. Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus – now there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall. Republican governor 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.”

Again, the 9-word snippet is buried in there. And it followed her opening lines of the show, where she stares into the camera and says with impressive earnestness:

“I’m here to report that there is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is fine. Wisconsin is great, actually. Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year. I am not kidding. I’m quoting their own version of the Congressional Budget Office -- the state’s own non-partisan-assess -the state’s-finances agency. That agency said – the month that the new Republican governor of Wisconsin was sworn in (last month) – that the state was on track to have a $120 million budget surplus this year.” An image then appears on screen of the documents highlighting the “2010-11 General Fund Condition Statement…a general fund gross balance of $121.4 million.”

Sure sounds like deficit denialism, eh?

On Thursday, Maddow never replayed all of this “Wisconsin-is-fine” stuff – hyperbole that (by virtue of its placement as the introduction to her Feb. 17 show) leads the viewer to the opposite sentiment of her 9-word snippet. Contextually, it’s not like the snippet acts as a rhetorical disclaimer. It sounds more like an accusation about how Republican tax cuts helped create deficits.

So PolitiFact’s synopsis of her statement is probably mostly true. It’s not false, as she falsely asserts. And to call it a "complete fabrication" is a fabrication itself.

In the correspondence on her website, her producer goes on to explain away the start of the show: “The point of that whole introduction to the show is that the budget isn't the real issue.”

Too bad she had to say something false to try to prove it. It's also too bad she didn't take the time that very night to correct an earlier NBC Nightly News statement that FL Gov. Rick Scott wants to "eliminate" police pensions. He doesn't.

But, a week later, Maddow was on offense. She essentially claimed she’s taken out of context, yet her website shows none of the correspondence from PolitiFact responding to the producer. Without PolitiFact's correspondence, Maddow takes the opportunity to make what sounds like a whopper of a false statement about the PolitiFact editors: “They have told us they do not intend to run a correction about their mistakes on this.”

That's false. PolitiFact editor Bill Adair tells us he never said that it made “mistakes” about this. Disclaimer: The Miami Herald is in partnership with the St. Petersburg Times, which founded PolitiFact. So I know Adair. I was also on Maddow's radio show in 2008 where I found her to be funny, decent and exceedingly smart.

But perhaps she's too smart by half in a FOX sort of way. After all, Maddow claims she’s misquoted, but misquotes PolitiFact in the process. She claims she’s taken out of context and takes PolitiFact out of context. And she takes herself out of context as well.

The issue really isn't this complicated. It's pretty simple. It is false to say Wisconsin “is” in a state of surplus. But maybe, just maybe, it depends on what your definition of “is” is?


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Rachel has always suffered from mad cow disease.


Are you serious? You are really quibbling about the definition of "is?"

Marshall Stern

My my. A little defensive here aren't we? I have been watching Rachel since she came on the air and before when she guest hosted for Al Franken and had her own show on Air America. In all that time I have never seen her hesitate to correct a mistake or unintentional false statement. Never! To compare her to Fox News tactics shows your own bias and disqualifies you as an objective observer. By your own standards, why didn't you disclose your close association with Politifact at the very top rather than burying it as an aside in the end? Having watched both I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt and state that at worst this was a huge misunderstanding. The problem for me is that Politifact, and by extension you, refuse to acknowledge that your report was misleading and weighted to make Rachel's statements appear to be purposefully false. Given the choice, I would trust her over you any day of the week.

Gayle Johnson

And, another "Champion of the Truth" debunked.
Thank you, Marshall! I have begun to go to Politifact to try to get to the relative truth of an issue....but with Politifact's crazy, convuluted story regarding Rachel's take on the Wisconsin debacle....I am debating whether or not to keep them on facebook. Rachel is a breath of fresh air amidst the clamoring of the right wing talking heads. And I agree withy you, I would trust Rachel over Politifact any day of the week.

Joyce Luck

Really, you're splitting hairs here. If this is the only "untruth" you can catch Rachel Maddow in, this was hardly worth mentioning. Anybody is a liar if subjected to hairsplitting of this magnitude. PolitiFact would do better to go find a lie that's worth exposing. There are many.

For instance, PolitiFact could address its failure to tell the truth in this article in Tax.com:

"Politifact.com has a Wisconsin operation and it was also among those that got it wrong – 100 percent dead wrong -- because it assumed the facts as stated by Gov. Walker and failed to question the underlying premise. Further, contrived assumptions make it is easy for the perpetrators of the misrepresentation to point to data that support a false claim, something Politifact missed entirely, on at least two occasions, in proclaiming false statements to be true."

Link the whole article is: http://www.tax.com/taxcom/taxblog.nsf/Permalink/UBEN-8EDJYS?OpenDocument


Much ado about nothing.

whasup: mad cow disease? Here are her credentials: degree in public policy from Stanford University in 1994; at graduation she was awarded the John Gardner Fellowship; Rhodes Scholar; Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in politics from Oxford University.

Having been a news librarian most of my career, I have nothing but the highest respect for the research Maddow and her staff do.

Dianne Smith Harper

Rachel is the most thorough fact-checker in the business. I saw the original segment and understood exactly what she said and meant. I was baffled by politifact's ruling, and am much less likely to rely on politifact or suggest others do so.

Steve Gorman

So your whole big scoop is that Maddow said there "is" a budget shortfall when she should have said their was "was" a budget shortfall. Or vice-versa? Is that the best you can do? There are more discrepancies in one minute of a Fox News broadcast than in the entire Rachel Maddow show. If the fact is that Wisconsin would have had a budget surplus if not for the governor's giveaways, that sounds like the real story here. Plus the phone sting where the governor actually said he'd thought about planting troublemakers into the demonstrations. I'd trust Maddow any day over Rupert Murchoch's propaganda machine.


marshall, gayle, joyce and tnlib...you all are right on. you all said what IS in my head. nobody or nothing should ever be compared to fox...never!


She's right. The deficit/budget crisis in WI is 100% false. Even Shep on Fox News pointed this out. Google his comments if you will. He explains why the current Governor is creating the illusion of this crisis, why he really wants to bust up the unions there, and more importantly his motives. PolitFact... I'm usually a fan but you got it wrong wrong wrong this time!!!

Gene Brown

If you've ever read a PolitiFact story, you'll see that they begin with an exact quote or assertion and then critique it based on facts or reports that they can specifically cite in the article. There's no "us vs. them" when it comes to telling the truth. Just because Fox News lies all the time, it doesn't make it okay for Maddow to lie once. I've read the piece, and I can see exactly why PolitiFact made the determination that they did. The fact that I generally think Maddow does a decent job of telling the truth does not have to blind me to an instance where she does not. It wouldn't be a crime for her to admit, "oops, maybe I overdid it that time" and just move on. Getting all whiny and defensive just makes her sound more like Beck or O'Reilly. If they want to hold Fox accountable, then MSNBC needs to lead by example. There's more than enough true crap spewing from the Republican Party, there's no need to make stuff up or twist stuff around.

Rob S.

"I have never seen her hesitate to correct a mistake or unintentional false statement. Never!"

That would take a whole other show. The left's hesitance to correct mistakes or intentional false statements is exactly why Err America doesn't exist anymore.


Finally, someone calles her on her left-wing bias. And she cn't take it! HAHAHAHAHAHAAHA

Antonio FV

I got what she said the night she said it. I agree that she could have approached it differently, but I hang on her words and I heard where she said there was a deficit in the correct context.

I would not be surprised if she revisits this issue on air.

The other thing I feel is that Politifact finds so many right wingers lying that they strive to find lefties, and end up giving the same sentence to unequal transgressions. Because they want to be acknowledged as unbiased, they must punish all parties equally. That's crap. They call it "fair and balanced" elsewhere.

Jay Hirschi

Antonio is quite right. We all understood where Rachel was coming from in her original statement, it was the truth regarding what is really going on in Wisconsin, and all the rest is just splitting hairs. Politifact should have been analyzing the entire point not just one sentence. Shame on Politifact and you should admit your mistakes.

Rodegr Davidson

MSNBC and FOX are opposite sides of the same coin. They both pander to their constituents. People who watch those stations don't want to hear facts, they want someone to confirm what they've already decided. Thanks, Politifact, for staying on top of the lies.


I've kind'a listened to Rachel Maddow off and on for many years. Often, I have heard her correct herself. Very open and very honest. That is something that cannot be said about a lot of other commentators.

Joanne Libby

She said "is on track" then she said "was on track" in the next sentence. By the end of the paragraph there was no doubt that she was saying the projected surplus had become a deficit. Is PolitiFact claiming otherwise?


Rachel Maddow is awesome. I think she a great person. I belive politifact has the edge here. Words are awesome and every word has a definition for a reason. So that you can understand what someone is saying.If your going to start changeing the definition of words no one will ever know what your saying. So debate the word 'is'. define every word in every scentence amke people understand that the words they use are important, don't let people get away saying one thing then say "i meant" say what you mean.


It is continually annoying that PF seems intent on microscopically examining a single sentence taken out of larger context - which they seem to do over & over - missing the forest for the trees, creating strawmen to knock down. I am a reasonable person & I understood the point of the RMS segment - which was that Walker's claims of deficit as his reason for this legislation are a canard, obfuscating a larger agenda. I am not so foolish as to get hung up on 1 sentence.

Perhaps too many people these days are not used to someone presenting an issue in such a long format - developing an argument over several minutes rather than seconds-long soundbites...?

bob somerby

For years, we liberals laughed at the "dittoheads" of the right. Now, we're saddled with our own, as can be seen from quite a few comments above.

Several commenters insist that Maddow was right, even as they continue to misstate the basic facts of the case. One commenter cites her academic credentials, as if that somehow settles it.

Maddow's initial report was deeply bungled; it was confusing, self-contradictory, highly misleading. It's sad to see our own dittoheads rushing to buy her defense.

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