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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?