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PolitiFact fields fire after rating False a Rachel Maddow statement

By W. Gardner Selby February 28, 2011

Bill Adair, the founding editor of PolitiFact National, appeared on CNN’s "Reliable Sources" Sunday, taking the opportunity to talk up the state-based PolitiFact efforts and defend a recent PolitiFact Wisconsin fact check of MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

CNN’s host, Howard Kurtz, noted that all newspapers are supposed to check facts, but most, "except maybe in campaign time, aren't in this business."

"Why don't more newspapers do this?" Kurtz asked.

Adair replied: "Well, it takes a lot of resources. It takes a real commitment. And not only The St. Petersburg Times has been willing to do that, but as you noted, our eight state partners in Wisconsin and Texas and Ohio have also done that... They have to be willing to commit reporters and editors to journalism. That takes longer because this is not something you can do quickly."

Next, Kurtz turned to Maddow’s Feb. 24 declaration that PolitiFact Wisconsin blew it in rating False her earlier statement that "despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, the state is on track to have a budget surplus this year." Actually, Wisconsin has a shortfall.

But Maddow maintained that she already knew that, and repeatedly aired an excerpt of the Feb. 17 segment in which she also said: "There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall." (You can read a transcript of the entire segment here.)

Maddow then resumed: "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."

Before CNN’s broadcast, Adair and the editor of PolitIFact Wisconsin responded online, saying Maddow in her Feb. 24 show used artful editing to tell an incomplete story .
Our Wisconsin colleagues examined her surplus claim because they had many requests from readers and it was the main subject that opened her Feb. 17 segment, which went on for nearly a minute. Her brief mention of the shortfall, which she linked to $140 million in tax breaks for businesses, came later. Still, PolitiFact Wisconsin acknowledged in its article that she made that point.

In her Feb. 24 criticism of PolitiFact, Maddow 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 her failure to mention the budget surplus statement that PolitiFact Wisconsin did check -- deprived viewers of the full story. Our Badger State colleagues not only examined that claim, they also debunked the suggestion from Maddow and others that the tax breaks were the cause of the $137 million shortfall.

On Sunday’s program, CNN’s Kurtz asked Adair: "Did you make any mistakes here?"

"No," Adair said, adding that Maddow misled viewers by playing a nine-word video clip "without putting in context. If you look at what she said, both the longer claim that PolitiFact Wisconsin checked, plus that claim that she said PolitiFact Wisconsin should have checked, you can see that we made the right call. We checked the right fact. She made a claim that Wisconsin tonight has a budget surplus. That's False."

For more on PolitiFact’s research for the Maddow article, see PolititFact’s long look back, posted here, which also features the original video from Maddow’s Feb. 17 program. Also, to the right we’ve posted video of CNN’s Feb. 27 interview of Adair. The comprehensive analysis of Maddow’s incorrect statement appears here.

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PolitiFact fields fire after rating False a Rachel Maddow statement