Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Letter from a Rachel Maddow fan

An anti-abortion group said an email from the White House visitors office about tour security requirements showed the Obama administration was hypocritical on abortion.
An anti-abortion group said an email from the White House visitors office about tour security requirements showed the Obama administration was hypocritical on abortion.

On May 10, 2012, Rachel Maddow criticized our Mostly False rating on a claim by the National Right to Life Committee that  the Obama White House recognizes a "baby that has not been born" for security purposes. Maddow believed the statement should have been rated False. 

We stand by that rating and our work. To respond, we thought readers might be interested in a letter that John Kane, an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College and a self-described Maddow fan, sent to her show.

Hi,

Full disclosure:  I say this as a very left-leaning viewer (and professor of Political Science).

On tonight's show (5/10), Ms. Maddow, whom I have great respect for, went too far in her comments on an analysis done by the fact-checking site Politifact.com.

The analysis had to do with a provocative claim by the National Right to Life Committee, which said that the White House recognizes unborn children.

Rating the claim "Obama White House recognizes 'baby that has not been born' for White House security purposes, but tolerates legal abortion to moment of birth in D.C," Politifact ruled that it was "Mostly False."  Ms. Maddow said that such a rating was nonsensical, and that it is either True or False.  She then closed with suggesting that Politifact just "go away."

For someone as intelligent as Ms. Maddow, it's sad that she doesn't appreciate the refreshingly nuanced, quasi-legalistic approach that Politifact employs.  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.  Politifact, as they often acknowledge, have the difficult task of rating STATEMENTS while also factoring in the veracity of the statement's IMPLICATION.

So how does one judge a statement that is technically true, but extremely misleading (as the NRLC's statement was)?  We must call it "Mostly False."  The meaning of "Mostly False," according to Politifact's website, is "The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression."  This is the perfect rating for the NRLC's comment.

The problem isn't with Politifact's nuanced, reasoned, careful analysis of statements; the problem is our frequent inability to get out of our black-and-white world, where the number one priority is to not cede ANYTHING to "the other side," even if it involves abandoning nuance in the process.  Let's not try to guilt Politifact into acting more like partisan pundits; let's try to act more like Politifact.  It doesn't mean we have to give up our values--it just means that we should not give up on nuance and an unyielding commitment to the truth.

With the utmost sincerity,
John K.