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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 09:32 AM ET, 05/11/2012

Maddow resumes PolitiFact-checking

UDPATE: PolitiFact won’t be changing this rating, from the sound of things. Bill Adair, who runs the site, writes, “We stand by our work and our rating. The letter that John Kane -- a Maddow fan -- sent to her show explains very clearly why the statement merited a Mostly False.”

Original story: Rachel Maddow attacked PolitiFact again last night. Time to blog!

The back story behind the MSNBC host’s latest pursuit of the fact-checking site is juicy: On Tuesday, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) pounced on what it considered a damning contradiction. A press release from the organization spelled out the politically explosive material:

The Director of the White House Visitor’s Office, Ellie Shafer, today distributed an email newsletter (”Tuesday’s Tidbits”) to many recipients, including Members of Congress, which gives detailed instructions on how to register an unborn child (”a baby that has not yet been born,” as Shafer puts it) into the security system that is employed to arrange White House tours.
“We have received a number of calls regarding how to enter security information for a baby that has not yet been born,” Shafer wrote. “Crazy as it may sound, you MUST include the baby in the overall count of guests in the tour. It’s an easy process.”

Aha, says the NRLC: What we have here is hypocrisy. “It is ironic that President Obama’s staff recognizes the existence of unborn babies for purposes of providing security within the White House — yet, there is no indication that President Obama has any problem with the fact that throughout the District of Columbia, abortion is now legal for any reason up to the moment of birth,” the committee quotes Douglas Johnson, National Right to Life legislative director, in its release.

The title of that release puts the matter pointedly:

Obama White House recognizes “baby that has not been born” for White House security purposes, but tolerates legal abortion to moment of birth in District of Columbia

PolitiFact went to work on these claims, whose prima facie outlandishness scream out for some investigative work. And sure enough, the NRLC’s charge turns out to be nonsense. The White House is not “counting” babies in utero as people for security purposes. The e-mail from the visitor’s office, instead, addresses tours that will happen in the future.

PolitiFact extracts an explanation from the Secret Service: “This refers to a pregnant woman providing information for a tour in the future that will include the new family member. So when a 7-month pregnant woman is providing information for a tour that is 4 months in the future, there is a ‘place holder’ for the new baby.”

One quote thus reduces a sociopolitical scandal to a nit about paperwork.

Now, Maddow has little problem with the fact that PolitiFact addressed itself to this issue, nor that the site put in the labor to expose the committee’s claim as “wildly misconstrued,” in PolitiFact’s own construal.

What she has a gripe with — and this is nothing new — is PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter, which rates the degree of veracity in checked claims. In the instant case, PolitiFact rated the NRLC’s claim “Mostly False.”

No way, screamed Maddow. “What does it take to get a false rating on PolitiFact?” She continued, “Every time your trademarked TruthO-Meter points at something, something dies in this country. Go away, PolitiFact. Don’t go away mad, just go away.”

What we have here is a color-loaded cultural clash. Maddow is into black and white; PolitiFact adores gray. To explain why PolitFact dropped just a touch of mitigation into its cheesy meter rating, let’s go to John Kane, an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph’s College. Kane sent some comments to Maddow’s show on her PolitFattack, and here’s a key point therefrom:

It simply cannot be argued, Ms. Maddow, that the White House does not recognize unborn children: by asking potential visitors whether they are pregnant, so as to account for a possible additional attendee in the future, the White House IS ACKNOWLEDGING unborn children at that moment. There is no getting around this; it is pure logic. But, as Politifact then argues, the White House does not recognize the unborn children as the NRLC implies; the NRLC’s suggestion is indeed “wildly misconstrued.” Hence, the IMPLICATION is terribly misleading and IS FALSE, but the STATEMENT is, BY ITSELF, technically true.

And that’s how you come to “Mostly False.”

The winner in this showdown isn’t human. It’s not Maddow, whose quibbles about “False” v. “Mostly False” don’t carry a 31 / 2-minute segment. It’s not the proprietors of PolitiFact, who have to answer to these charges (the site’s boss says there’ll be a statement later today). The winner is that stupid, gimmicky gauge, about which everyone is fussing.

By  |  09:32 AM ET, 05/11/2012

Tags:  politifact, rachel maddow, truth-o-meter, national right to life committee, secret service, in utero, infant, white house

 
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