Responding to Rachel Maddow
On her Feb. 24, 2011 show, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow criticized PolitiFact Wisconsin and how we handled a request for a correction about a Truth-O-Meter item from a statement on her Feb. 17, 2011 show.
We feel it is important to respond.
First, we have a policy on corrections and review all requests for corrections that we receive. When we've made an error, we acknowledge it, as PolitiFact Oregon did recently with this item.
Maddow's criticism in Thursday's show used artful editing and told an incomplete story. At issue is whether we checked the right factual claim. We examined her statement that Wisconsin "is on track to have a budget surplus this year." But she maintains that in the same segment, she made clear that she knew the state had a shortfall. (You can read a transcript of the entire segment here.)
We chose to examine her surplus claim because we had requests from many readers and it was the main focus at the beginning of her segment. It went on for nearly a minute. Her later statement about the shortfall was very brief and her main point seemed to be that the shortfall was created by $140 million in tax breaks for businesses. Still, we acknowledged in our article that she made that point.
In her criticism of PolitiFact Thursday night, Maddow misled viewers by repeatedly playing just a nine-word snippet of her saying that "There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall." She neglected to include her full quote in context:
"There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall. Republican Gov. Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office. Hey, wait. That's about exactly the size of the shortfall."
That artful editing -- plus the fact that she didn't mention the more lengthy quote that we checked -- deprived viewers of the full context for her remarks and our reasoning for checking the claim we checked. We not only examined that claim, we also debunked the suggestion from Maddow and others that the tax breaks were the cause of the $137 million shortfall.
When her producer Bill Wolff e-mailed us earlier this week asking for a correction (his correspondence to us has been posted on the Rachel Maddow blog) we reviewed our work, watched the segment and decided no correction was warranted.
Our e-mails are below.
Response to Maddow producer Bill Wolff from PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair, sent Feb. 23, 2011
In response to your request for a correction on the PolitiFact Wisconsin article about Rachel Maddow, I have reviewed the article, the show's transcript, your e-mail to Greg Borowski and watched the segment. I don't see anything that warrants a correction or clarification.
Was it unfair to check this claim?
You wrote in your e-mail that "In short, Politifact alleges that an assertion was made on The Rachel Maddow Show that in fact was not made." Your point was that it was unfair for PolitiFact Wisconsin to fact-check the claim that "the state is on track to have a budget surplus this year."
But I don't see how it's possible to say the claim "was not made." It was the opening segment of the show and the discussion of it went on for about one full minute:
RACHEL MADDOW, HOST: Good evening, Lawrence. Thanks very much for that.
And thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.
I‘m here to report that there is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is fine. Wisconsin is great, actually. Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin‘s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.
I am not kidding. I‘m quoting their own version of the Congressional Budget Office, the state‘s own nonpartisan "assess the state‘s finances" agency. That agency said the month that the new Republican governor of Wisconsin was sworn in, last month, that the state was on track to have a $120 million budget surplus this year.
To emphasize the point, you showed graphics on the screen that excerpted the report that supposedly showed the surplus. Any viewer who saw the segment clearly came away with the impression that Wisconsin had a surplus. So it was fair for us to check the claim. Indeed, I think the overwhelming majority of viewers came away with the surprising conclusion that there was a surplus.
Did Maddow make clear to viewers that the state actually had a shortfall?
You wrote that it was unfair for us to rate the budget surplus claim because Maddow "did acknowledge, on television, out loud and clearly," that the state was in fact operating under a deficit.
But I disagree with your characterization. In reviewing the segment and transcript, I found that while she mentioned the shortfall, she did not do so "loudly and clearly." She did it, as the PolitiFact Wisconsin article noted, in a comment that criticized Gov. Walker for proposing a $140 million tax cut for businesses. She said:
Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus—now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall. Republican Governor Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office.
Hey, wait. That‘s about exactly the size of the shortfall."
And while there is a contradiction in her two points, let's consider the prominence of each. Her claim about the surplus was the opening of the show and went on for about one minute. The acknowledgment of the shortfall was made in one brief sentence and it was quickly overshadowed by the next sentence, which made the point that Walker has given away the same amount in business tax breaks.
And contrary to what you said in your e-mail, the PolitiFact Wisconsin article mentioned her comment:
She added a kicker that is also making the rounds: Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature this year gave away $140 million in business tax breaks -- so if there is a deficit projected of $137 million, they created it.
You said in your e-mail that "Maddow never stated that Gov. Walker's tax cuts caused the state's $137m deficit." While that may technically be true, I am sure that many viewers -- indeed, probably most viewers -- would come away thinking there was a connection between the two.
As you may know, I was not involved in the editing or Truth-O-Meter rating of the original item, so I came to this with a fresh eye. I've now watched the full segment several times and my response to it has been the same each time: I think any reasonable person who watched Maddow's comments would come away with a couple of clear points:
1. The state doesn't have a budget crisis -- it has a surplus.
2. To the extent there was any surplus, Walker gave it away in business tax breaks.
I think Maddow's wording was artful and careful, but her meaning was very clear. So I don't feel a correction or a clarification is necessary.
As for your point about not being contacted by the reporter, it is our general practice to contact the people we are fact-checking to ask for their sources. But sometimes we don't find it's necessary to do that because the person we're checking has already provided their source, as Maddow did by showing the documents from the agency that makes projections on Wisconsin's finances. Still, it's always best to hear the perspective of the people being checked, so I will remind our staff to make sure they contact the people they are checking.
Response to Bill Wolff from PolitiFact Wisconsin editor Greg Borowski, sent Feb. 21, 2011
Thanks for your note … we sure have a hot issue to follow here in Wisconsin.
We’ve gotten lots of requests from readers to check a host of statements – including many from MSNBC viewers who pointed us to this one in particular wondering if it was true there is no budget shortfall.
I’ve looked over your note, but based on the information provided do not feel a correction or clarification is warranted.
Let me try to respond to your points in order.
First, you begin by questioning the use of a quote Ms. Maddow plainly used in her show. In fact, it was positioned at the very beginning of a segment, in which she stated:
"I’m here to report there is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is fine. Wisconsin is great, actually. Despite what you may have heard, about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year."
She goes on to emphasize this point by stating: "I’m not kidding."
Then she very clearly cites her source as the memo from the state’s legislative fiscal bureau. We note this in the item.
If there is an additional source she was using, please feel free to share it with us.
Next, you argue that in our item we are really challenging a Capital Times piece, and "mistakenly ascribe the argument therein to Rachel Maddow." Our item notes that the perception there is no budget crisis has emerged from a variety of quarters among those opposing Gov. Walker’s bill, and mention the Capital Times piece among others.
Contrary to your perception, we are evaluating Ms. Maddow’s statement, not the editorial, though they clearly make some of the same points.
Beyond that, it appears the editorial in question is a source for your own reporting. On the Rachel Maddow blog in a post dated 9:57 a.m. Friday, Feb. 18 -- the morning after the segment aired -- the same editorial is cited. Here is the excerpt from the blog:
He (Walker) says it's because there's a budget crisis going on, but as we reported on the show last night, the "repair" he's calling for would fix the giant dent he made himself. From the Madison Cap Times:
It goes on to link to the Capital Times editorial in question and to quote from it.
To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker’s new spending schemes -- or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues -- the "crisis" would not exist.
Next, you take issue with a line we included in our piece:
"She added a kicker that is also making the rounds: Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature this year gave away $140 million in business tax breaks -- so if there is a deficit projected of $137 million, they created it."
Your view is that Ms. Maddow made no such claim. You cite this statement as support for your position:
MADDOW: Even though the state had started the year on track to have a budget surplus—now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall. Republican Governor Scott Walker, coincidentally, has given away $140 million worth of business tax breaks since he came into office. Hey, wait. That‘s about exactly the size of the shortfall.
If anything, your statement reinforces what we wrote. She cited the shortfall, but only to immediately knocked it down with information about $140 million given away as "business tax breaks" and with this pointed statement: "Hey, wait. That’s about exactly the size of the shortfall."
Additionally, I would call your attention to the headline on the Feb. 18, 2011 blog post I cited earlier.
That headline reads: "Wisconsin gov made his own problem"
As our item clearly noted the tax cuts in question have not yet taken effect, so they cannot be a cause of the current shortfall. That position is reinforced by the very person who wrote the fiscal memo Ms. Maddow cited. In short, he agrees with our interpretation.
Finally, your own email acknowledges that Ms. Maddow was inconsistent within her own statements – first saying there was no shortfall, then saying there was (albeit only to immediately knock down that idea with an incorrect statement about the impact of the tax cuts)
To me the inconsistency only underlines the need for fact-checking operations like PolitiFact Wisconsin.
We stand by our item and our reporting.
If you have additional information we should consider, please feel free to submit it to me.