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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 10:28 AM ET, 02/15/2012

Maddow, PolitiFact and the non sequitur

Drawing prolonged rebukes from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow can do nothing but drive traffic to the famous truth-seeking site PolitiFact. Which is the only possible justification for the ruling that PolitiFact reached yesterday in response to a remark from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). It had to be Maddow bait.

Here’s how the PolitiFact item in question opens:

Liberals may want to argue with Sen. Marco Rubio’s remarks at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
But they don’t have the evidence to argue with this statement: “The majority of Americans are conservatives.”

PolitiFact then proceeds to lay out the evidence to argue with that statement. It cites Gallup, which has been keeping data on the ideological meter of America since 1992. Key Gallup facts mentioned by PolitiFact:

*The largest group of Americans identify as conservative (40 percent); then comes moderate (35 percent); then liberal (21).

*In 2011, Gallup found that Americans were pretty much evenly split on party, with about 45 percent for the Republicans and an equal share for the Democrats.

*The number of conservatives in this country has “never” crossed the 50 percent line.

And so PolitiFact called Rubio’s “majority” assertion “Mostly True.”

Huh?

And that’s where Maddow walked to her toolshed and took out the sledgehammer.

After laying out the prima facie logical disconnects in the PolitiFact text, Maddow demands that PolitiFact “please leave the building. Do not bother turning off the lights when you leave. We will need them on to clean up the mess you have left behind you as you are leaving. PolitiFact, you are a disaster.”

A couple of things stand out here. One is that PolitiFact executed to perfection the difficult part of this particular fact-check. It relied on the right data, broke it out in clear and understandable fashion, and crunched it in ways that might undergird Rubio’s statement.

Alas, that exercise found no corroboration for that statement. Then it failed the easy part — the rating. It’s tempting to credit PolitiFact for giving us all the requisite data to figure out that its ruling is bonkers, but still: A “Mostly True” for this statement is risible.

The most telling line from the item is this: “Technically, he would be more accurate if he said a plurality of Americans are conservative.” Nothing “technical”at all about that supposition — it’s accurate to say plurality; a lie to say majority.

The reason that PolitiFact deserves as much scorn as Maddow and others can muster is its decision to frame the question in such divisive ways. It started out by asserting that “liberals” lack the “evidence” to vacate Rubio’s claim. When you’re throwing grenades in ideological war, prepare for incoming.

Bill Adair, PolitiFact honcho, has this to say:

Our goal at PolitiFact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative accuracy of a political claim. In this case, we rated it Mostly True because we felt that while the number was short of a majority, it was still a plurality. Forty percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. It wasn’t quite a majority, but was close.
We don’t expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make. We have published nearly 5,000 Truth-O-Meter ratings and it’s natural that anyone can find some they disagree with. But even if you don’t agree with every call we make, our research and analysis helps you sort out what’s true in the political discourse.

By  |  10:28 AM ET, 02/15/2012

Tags:  marco rubio, rachel maddow, msnbc, americans, conservative

 
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