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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 01:30 PM ET, 02/23/2012

The Maddow-PolitiFact clash


Maddow, smiling---but not about PolitiFact (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images) (Frederick M. Brown - GETTY IMAGES)

PolitiFact boss Bill Adair reports that clicks to his site have by no means dropped off in recent months. “It’s helped our traffic some,” says Adair. “There’s definitely been a bump.”

In this case, though, Adair is unlikely to write a note of thanks to his referral source. That would be Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host who has repeatedly tarred the fact-checking operation connected with the Tampa Bay Times.

Though the rulings that wind up on PolitiFact’s famous Truth-O-Meter occasionally kick up outrage on one part or other of the political spectrum, Maddow has made it her business to fact-check these particlar fact-checkers.

On her Dec. 20 show, Maddow said, “Today, the self-proclaimed but quickly becoming irrelevant Web site PolitiFact declared the idea that Republicans voted to end Medicare their lie of the year for 2011. That comes after lots of lobbying by Paul Ryan for that to be declared a lie.”

On Jan. 25, Maddow was mad that PolitiFact had initially rated “half true”---later changed to “mostly true”---a claim that President Obama had made about job creation in his State of the Union address. Maddow argued the claims were simply true: “PolitiFact, you are fired. You are a mess. You are fired. You are undermining the definition of the word ‘fact’ in the English language by pretending to it in your name. The English language wants its word back. You are an embarrassment. You sully the reputation of anyone who cites you as an authority on fact-ishness, let alone fact. You are fired.”

On Jan. 26, Maddow took issue with PolitiFact’s “half-true” take on an Obama ad that had bragged about this country’s lessening dependence on foreign oil: “PolitiFact, you sometimes rate the president`s statements true and sometimes rate him false. You sometimes rate me true. You sometimes rate me false. You sometimes rate Rush Limbaugh true. You sometimes rate him false. Nobody cares anymore. It is not personal. It`s not ideological. It`s about you.”

On Feb. 14, Maddow came after the fact-checkers for giving Sen. Marco Rubio a “mostly true” rating on his claim that the United States is a majority-conservative country: “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.”

On Feb. 20, Maddow expressed outrage at a PolitiFact ruling that rated ”mostly false” a claim by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell that critics of the G.I. bill had called it “welfare.”: “Hey, good news! PolitiFact is quitting. At least, I think PolitiFact is quitting. OK, whether or not they`re up and going out of business, PolitiFact is at least letting us know, I think, that they are giving up. That they are at least no longer trying.”

In just about every case, Maddow is griping about PolitiFact’s use of its trademarked Truth-O-Meter---that square thing that sits on the site, complete with a retro-looking needle that bounces around among these ratings: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. The operation’s little innovations are protected by three trademarks, says Adair, and the publishers have had to issue about 10 threat letters since the site’s 2007 launch to protect them.

From a marketing standpoint, Maddow’s fulminations accomplish what thousands of dollars in promotional investment could never manage. Think about it: A major broadcaster is making a crusade out of where the needle drops on the cheesy, gimmicky gauge that you created to sum up your journalism. What could be better? Adair himself notes: “It’s wonderful to see that PolitiFact is now part of the national conversation. There were times that we had to spell PolitiFact” to people on the phone.

It’s the very success of the outlet, suggests Maddow, that gets her fired up. “I generally wouldn’t care that an outfit like Politifact is bad at their job (it’s like that great xkcd comic, ‘Someone is wrong on the internet!’) -- except for the fact that they have established themselves as America’s nationally branded fact-checker of political claims,” writes the MSNBC opinionator via e-mail.

They did so, too, with a bit of help from Maddow herself. There was a time, after all, when the host could cite PolitiFact without frothing.

Dial back to December 2009. PolitiFact decided that the conservative fantasy about the so-called “death panels” in the health-care reform package constituted the year’s biggest lie. Maddow spoke approvingly:

The original round of “death panel” claims were christened by PolitiFact.com as “Lie of the Year for 2009” in politics. That`s not an award that most people in politics would like to win but it is something. You would think the right would have been embarrassed for having pushed something that was debunk as roundly as this one was the first time around.

For Maddow, tilting against bogus conservative/Republican talking points is a professional obsession. PolitiFact provided a boost on this front again in August 2010, when she scoffed at the notion that Phoenix ranked No. 2 on the worldwide list of kidnapping capitals. The MSNBC host noted, “when PolitiFact, Texas, checked that claim out when it was made by the lieutenant governor of Texas back in June, they found it to be, and I quote, ‘false.’”

Wisconsin changed things.

In a segment one year ago, Maddow addressed the budget battle then raging in Gov. Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. Maddow opened with classic Maddow, affirming that the state is “fine” and “great” and that it’s “on track to have a budget surplus this year.” Later in the segment she conceded that the state does have a “a $137 million budget shortfall” but that’s roughly the same size as the tax cuts that Walker had given to businesses.

PolitiFact pounced on the opening statement, pronouncing it “false.”

War! Maddow’s producer sought a correction from PolitiFact; PolitiFact rejected the correction request. And so Maddow took to a formulation that her viewers by now recognize quite well---addressing PolitiFact directly, that is: “PolitiFact, you are wrong here on the facts and bluntly and you ought to correct it. Putting the word ‘fact’ in your name does not grant you automatic mastery of the facts.”

Adair recalls the spat. “I spent hours looking into that,” he says. “In that case, PolitiFact Wisconsin got it right.”

Reviewing PolitiFact rulings hammered by Maddow on air is a line item that has crept into Adair’s job description. And if Maddow is right about the organization, surely Adair is to blame. It is he, after all, who trains new PolitiFact checkers in the 10 states in which the organization has established a presence.

Aspiring team members must complete a three-day camp with this guy. First day, trainees sample the PolitiFact “owner’s manual,” review the franchise’s standards and discuss the principles of the Truth-O-Meter. Second day, Adair assigns the newbies an item to fact-check and the process begins. Third day, pupils review the completed checks and discuss the edits, writing, etc.

These folks accede to an organization awash in editorial redundancy. In a process put in place by Adair, every single PolitiFact item gets reviewed by a small panel consisting of the original editor plus two others who come in with fresh eyes. They all look at the fact-gathering, the conclusions and the Truth-O-Meter rating. No lie: This review group is known to PolitiFacters as the “Star Chamber.” Adair calls it a “unique process” in journalism. Maddow, did you know what a journalistic braintrust you were messing with?

“I hope that Rachel Maddow’s viewers appreciate that we put a lot of time and thought into these ratings,” says Adair.

No, viewers and the rest of us appreciate the end product, nothing more. On this front, PolitiFact erred most egregiously on the Marco Rubio contention. Despite having cited polling data showing that roughly 40 percent of the country identified as conservative, PolitiFact rated “mostly true” the Rubio’s contention about a majority-conservative America.

On at least two of the other public spats, Maddow and PolitiFact are clearly talking past each other. Take the item about President Obama’s State of the Union address. In his discussion about the economy, the president said this:

In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly 4 million jobs. And we lost another 4 million before our policies were in full effect.
Those are the facts. But so are these: In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. (Applause.)
Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. Together, we’ve agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion. And we’ve put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like this never happens again. (Applause.)

In an extensive analysis of the president’s contentions, PolitiFact concluded that he had gotten the numbers right. Yet it initially gave him a rating of “half true,” later adjusted upward to “mostly true.”

What! cried Maddow.

So PolitiFact looked into this part of the president`s speech. “In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.”
They went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics to figure this out, I don`t know if they looked at this specific report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but within about 15 seconds of Googling, we found this and you`d find it too. From a couple weeks back, January 6th, 2012, in this report, the bureau says, since February 2010, quote, “The private sector has added 3.2 million jobs.” So that`s 22 months. In 22 months, businesses added more than 3 million jobs.
PolitiFact came to the same conclusion. So, put a check mark next to that part. It checks out. What the president said is true.
PolitiFact then went on to say, OK, the second part of Obama`s statements, the fact that businesses made more jobs last year than any year since 2005. It turns out, that`s true too.
Quoting PolitiFact here, “As for whether 2011 was the best job- producing jobs since `05, he`s right, if you`re counting private sector jobs.” They go on, “The increase in 2011 represented the highest one-year total since 2005.”
So to sum up, president says thing A and thing B. PolitiFact looks into it and decides that thing A and thing B as stated by the president, both true.
So, on their truth-o-meter, they rate the statements half true. How did two trues add up to a half true?

Let Adair explain that. The Truth-O-Meter, he says, judges not only whether a statement of fact is solid; it judges the often implicit contention by politicians that their work is behind the turn of events. In this case, Maddow appears to be asking that PolitiFact limit its ruling to whether Obama’s statement about job creation is accurate.

PolitiFact is on a broader mission. On one track it clearly wants to verify that the numbers cited by the president are real. But there’s another track as well. Obama made boastful mention of “our policies” just before launching into the stats on job creation. That’s tantamount to claiming credit for the upturn. And so PolitiFact investigates whether the improvement is attributable to Obama’s policies. That’s how two trues can add up to a “half true” or “mostly true” meter rating. It’s this very same dynamic that accounts for Maddow’s slam on PolitiFact’s findings on the Obama ad on energy dependence---sure, that dependence is going down, but how much credit can the president claim for the trend? “They’re difficult rulings to do because you have to assess how much of the implication should be part of the Truth-O-Meter ruling,” says Adair.

Claims of conceptual and interpretive difficulty probably wouldn’t impress Maddow, who has trouble finding the upside in the work of PolitiFact: “So when Politifact fails, again and again -- when they prove themselves to be truly, recklessly awful -- they are not just failing alone on the internet, they’re undermining something that we need as a country. Fact-checking -- particularly fact-checking political claims -- is really important. Everyone in journalism should do it. Citing a Politifact rating or running one of their meters or analyses is a lazy counterfeit for real fact-checking.”

But surely Maddow isn’t so anti-PolitiFact that she’d prefer they “leave the building” for good. That has to be on-air shtick, right? Maddow on that point: “If Politifact can’t start making corrections of their egregiously wrong ratings, if they can’t get better (and it seems to me like they’re getting worse, not better), it would be better for the country if they ceased to exist. As long as they are the nationally-branded exemplar of what it means to ‘rate the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics,’ no one will take that job seriously. And we ought to.”

As for that whole corrective thing, Adair says that in recent weeks PolitiFact has issued a diktat changing one important fact-checking protocol. It is cracking down writers and editors to ensure that the PolitiFact “ruling statement”---that is, the statement by a politician or pundit that’s under scrutiny---correlates precisely with what shows up on the Truth-O-Meter. So there’s a reform for which Maddow and the anti-PolitiFact crew can claim some credit.

As to whether Maddow’s fire-breathing will prompt any changes in the under-siege PolitiFact rulings themselves, Adair responds: “When we’ve been criticized in the past, we have looked at our work and in a few cases have changed our ratings. I don’t know if we’ll do that this time.”

By  |  01:30 PM ET, 02/23/2012

 
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