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Rachel Maddow, again, is taking issue with the Truth-O-Meter. That’s the gimmicky device that the well-known fact-checking outfit PolitiFact uses to sum up its investigations into whether this-or-that public statement aligns with the facts. Over time, Maddow has made clear just what she thinks of the Truth-O-Meter.

Maddow’s slams on PolitiFact by now have taken on a familiar contour: She establishes the truth or fiction of a statement that PolitiFact is checking out. Then she directs viewers to the Truth-O-Meter ruling. And then she laughs at PolitiFact, concluding with some apocalyptic denunciation.

On last night’s program, Maddow examined PolitiFact’s fact-check of Martina Navratilova’s Sunday statement, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” that “In 29 states in this country, you can still get fired for not just being gay but if your employer thinks that you`re gay, you could still get fired.”


So, the retired tennis lady says that’s true of 29 states. PolitiFact decides to fact check that statement. It finds what she said was true about those 29 states. And so then, PolitiFact, with the name fact in its name, revealed the results of their fact-check of her statement — their statement which they found to be true. They rated her statement: half true, because they checked what they said and found it was true, so then they rated her half true, because they are PolitiFact.

Maddow on the fact-checking apocalypse:

And this is why the very important concept of fact-checking has become pointless at a time in our country when we really need it to mean something, because PolitiFact exists and has branded themselves the generic arbitrator of fact and the paragon of fact-checking, and they are terrible at it. They are terrible.

The brazen and fun part of Maddow’s takedown is the utterly short shrift given to the extensive analysis that accounts for the “Half True” rating of an ostensibly “True” statement. The reason that the organization didn’t give Navratilova an unqualified “True” is laid out in four detailed bullet points, showing that: 1) government employees in discrimination-enabling states get protections; 2) some municipalities in discrimination-enabling states have promulgated protections; 3) some employers offer the protections; and 4) the Civil Rights Act “provides protection for employees who are subjected to gender-based stereotyping.”

All those considerations, Maddow dismissed with a sharp tongue:

They fact checked a statement about state law, found it to be true, decided it didn’t seem seemly or whatever to actually just call it true, then they searched other unrelated information about how there are other kind of things, besides states, like some companies, they don’t want to discriminate, and doesn’t that count for something?

To Maddow, it counts for nothing. She’s a strict constructionist when it comes to fact-checking statements. Black and white, truth and falsehood. PolitiFact is a loose constructionist. Gray areas predominate on the Truth-O-Meter. That’s the essence of this entertaining multiyear drama involving a high-profile cable-news host and a hive of wonky Washington journos.

On the Navratilova question, the Erik Wemple Blog sides with Maddow. What the tennis star — nine singles titles at Wimbledon! — said about the state of discrimination protections countrywide was true. To throw a “Half True” rating on top of it suggests that Navratilova was somehow misleading the public. Not the case.

This Navratilova fact-checking dispute reminds the Erik Wemple Blog of the famous Marco Rubio-conservative clash. Back in early 2012, Rubio contended in a speech that the majority of Americans were conservatives. PolitiFact checked polling numbers, only to discover that while a plurality of Americans saw themselves as conservatives, “they don’t cross the 50 percent threshold.” The ruling? “Mostly True.” (PolitiFact later revised it to “Half True”)

Maddow short-circuited on that one. She demanded 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.”

The Navratilova case mirrors the Rubio case in that PolitiFact did the hard labor of finding the right facts and placing them in clear writing before its readers. Then it issued a baffling Truth-O-Meter ruling. Oh well.

What baffles the Erik Wemple Blog is why Maddow so loves to trash PolitiFact. If nothing else, the organization has shown a commitment to original and thorough research on items of public concern — just the sort of work that, you might suppose, would endear it to a Rachel Maddow. Nope, not even close. The Truth-O-Meter’s occasional non sequiturs draw her trademarked snark-and-outrage combo. She’s got to be one of the few people in this land who actually cares where that needle falls.

When asked to comment on the matter, PolitiFact responded that it was checking things out. In the meantime, the Erik Wemple Blog has a feeling that its response to the Rubio thing pretty well speaks to the current controversy, so we’ll republish it here, in part, as a placeholder:

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.

*As of February 2012

UPDATE 10:49 a.m.: Indications from PolitiFact are that it won’t be amending its Navratilova ruling, and it reaffirms the statement given to the Erik Wemple Blog following the Rubio thing.

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Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.