Rachel Maddow Contests Politifact Fact Check Ruling

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Politifact recently ruled that one of Rachel Maddow's statements was false. (Credit: Politifact)

MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show and fact-checking organization Politifact had a disagreement last month over one of Politifact’s recent fact checks of Maddow’s on-air comments.

Maddow and her producer claims her statements deemed false by PolitiFact were taken out of context.

Politifact quoted Maddow as saying on air on Feb. 17:

“Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, the state is on track to have a budget surplus this year.  I am not kidding.”

According to Politifact, Maddow also commented 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.”

Politifact analyzed her statement “claims of a surplus” (see here) and concluded “We rate Maddow’s take False.”   According to PolitiFact, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s “tax cuts will boost the size of the projected deficit in the next budget, but they’re not part of the problem and did not create it.”

But, Maddow’s executive producer, Bill Wolff, countered Politifact’s ruling, saying that Maddow is “well-aware of the Wisconsin budget shortfall,” and that she made that point “just a few sentences after the line [PolitiFact] decided to single out for ‘truthometry.'”  In a Feb. 21 letter, Wolff wrote:

“In your effort to challenge a Capital Times editorial you have mistakenly ascribed the argument therein to Rachel Maddow. In so doing, you have half-quoted her in one instance, misquoted her in another, and misrepresented her overall.”

“To suggest — as your headline does — that we somehow neglected to report on the state’s real budget shortfall is absolutely erroneous,” he wrote to PolitiFact.  The point of Maddow’s segment on Wisconsin was “that the budget was being used as a facade to hide the real intention of Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republicans to fatally weaken state employee unions.”

Wolff went on to state:


“We recognize the journalistic value in writing a ‘where did the budget shortfall come from’ piece, but, if you need a bogeyman to deny the existence of the shortfall so you can make your case in the Politifact truth-o-meter gotcha format, you should pick someone who didn’t explicitly say, ‘there is, in fact, a … shortfall.'”


Wolff called on Politifact to issue a correction and to remove its Politifact posting about Maddow. “The damage already done by your article over the weekend will not likely be undone, but at least the record going forward can be corrected,” Wolff claimed.  “We also ask that you remove the Maddow item from the Politifact Wisconsin feed that is populating the widget on the Journal Sentinel All Politics Blog – or at the very least that it be adjusted to not be misleading.”

In a follow-up Feb.22 letter to Politifact’s Bill Adair, Wolff criticized Politifact again:

“Politifact is seriously and clearly wrong and should correct the matter immediately.  Your inaccurate representation of Maddow’s statements has now been posted online for enough days, with enough secondary pickup in the media, that a full new statement correcting Politifact’s errors in this matter would be a more appropriate action than a simple update to the erroneous original post.”

Maddow also weighed in on the controversy, calling on air for a correction from Politifact:

“I am happy to talk about this stuff and we will correct it when we get it wrong but we will also correct you if you say publicly that we are wrong when we are really not. There are too many people who work too hard on this show for us to get slandered when we are in fact telling the truth.”

“The right wing this week, for example, got very excited when a St. Petersburg Times project called Politifact [interesting phrasing since they are somewhat familiar to people who follow cable politics] called a piece of our reporting on the Wisconsin crisis false. It was specifically about Wisconsin’s budget.”

Maddow reportedly stated on air that she has asked Politifact to “correct their error, but they told her that they will not run a correction.”

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

Politifact editor Bill Adair defended its ruling on Feb. 27’s “Reliable Sources,” according to Mediaite.  On the program, host Howard Kurtz was reportedly “skeptical of how readily Adair should be labeling journalists as having peddled falsehoods” but “Adair defended the importance of not just fact-checking politicians, as they most frequently do, but also monitoring television commentators.”

Politifact also addressed Maddow’s complaints in a Feb. 25 post on its website.  Politifact stated that it has “a policy on corrections” and “When we’ve made an error, we acknowledge it,” citing a Jan. 31 correction from Politifact Oregon.

“Maddow’s criticism in Thursday’s 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. (You can read a transcript of the entire segment here.)”

According to Politifact, readers asked for the fact-checking organization to look into Maddow’s claims in the first place.

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Rachel Maddow Contests Politifact Fact Check Ruling

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2 Responses

  1. Bradley J. Fikes says:

    You still haven’t refuted PolitiFact’s point: Maddow made a claim about the current budget based on a tax break that applies to the next budget. There is no relation between the tax break and the current deficit, because the tax break hasn’t even taken effect yet. So her claim is false.

  2. Bryan White says:

    I strongly object to "That depends" not distinguishing me from a spambot in answer to the question as to whether I support a free and independent press. Now I have to start over.

    Mr. Fikes, I don’t think StinkyJournalism is taking sides on this one. Smith’s reporting follows the "both sides of the story" model. I see no evidence of an overt leaning one way or the other. As for the controversy, I think there’s room to fault both Maddow and PolitiFact. Maddow’s presentation encouraged viewers to conclude that Walker’s tax cuts created all or most of the Wisconsin budget deficit. But PolitiFact was careless in some of its descriptions. It wasn’t a clean takedown of Maddow, in other words.

    I liked your criticism of a past PolitiFact story on Michele Bachmann, btw. Very well done.

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