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Why is MSNBC's Rachel Maddow criticizing PolitiFact? Editor Bill Adair explained on CNN's Reliable Sources



rachel-maddow.jpgThe conflict between an arm of the St. Petersburg Times' fact-checking site PolitiFact and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was explored on CNN Sunday when Reliable Sources host Howie Kurtz invited PolitiFact editor Bill Adair onto his show.

Unfortunately, much as I admire Kurtz and Adair, I don't think the interview did a great job of explaining the conflict with Maddow or why PolitiFact thinks it got this one right. So here's my try.

On Feb. 17, Maddow aired a commentary on the fight between union workers and the Wisconsin governor that said the state was "on track to have a budget surplus this year." Her segment also noted that there was now a shortfall and the governor had given $140-million in tax cuts to big business. Her laugh line: "Hey wait, that's about exactly the size of the shortfall."

So the PolitiFact site in Wisconsin, operated by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper, called a False.

After reading the memo on which Maddow based her segment's figures and doing other research, PolitiFact Wisconsin concluded the MSNBC anchor was wrong in saying the state was on track for a surplus. Instead, the full scope of the memo revealed the state was headed for a deficit, after various debts and budget shortfalls were factored in for this fiscal year. Maddows' report seemed to focus on one section of the report which bolstered her case.

The site also looked at Maddow's statement about the impact of the governor's tax cuts, noting that the $140-million in cuts won't take effect until next fiscal year.  So even though she never actually said the state's current deficit was caused by the cuts, she implied it with a snarky juxtaposition -- without explaining that the governor's tax cuts will not affect the current budget deficit.

Maddow responded last week by telling viewers that PolitiFact was wrong, because it said she denied the existence of a shortfall -- playing a clip where she acknowledged the shortfall. But that's not what what PolitiFact criticized. The site ruled on her statement that Wisconsin was on track to have a budget surplus, referencing a memo which concluded the opposite. Confusing? For sure.

Where Maddow may have a point is in where PolitiFact said she made a "claim" that Wisconsin's budget deficit was caused by the governor's tax cuts. She strongly implied that connection without actually saying it, which her executive producer noted in a letter to PolitFact Wisconsin.

But Maddow didn't make that point to viewers in her rebuttal -- perhaps because it's tough to explain why she brought up the governor's tax cuts at all if it wasn't to explain how a state "on track to have a budget surplus" wound up with so much red ink. 

This sounds like a tempest over a very complex teapot. But it gets to the core of Maddow's growing brand as a smart, intellectually honest liberal, who makes her arguments without resorting to the kind of rule-bending critics sometimes accuse conservatives like, say Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh of indulging.

It seems, in this case, her segment lacked a lot of important context and came to some incorrect conclusions. Since PolitiFact is a high-profile project established by my employer, the St. Petersburg Times, I'm not without my own entanglements here.

But, given Kurtz's profile today of Maddow as MSNBC's biggest hope for keeping momentum after the departure of Keith Olbermann, it's worth taking a look at how this fight over a false rating has actually unfolded. Here's PolitiFact's reponses to Maddow, along with a rebuttal from Adair.

Look below to see Kurtz and Adair's discussion:


[Last modified: Monday, February 28, 2011 7:11pm]


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