Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Rachel Maddow Show verses Politifact:
The Battle for Truth, Journalism, and Fairness

I was extremely distraught when I heard that two of my favorite sources for news were engaged in a heated argument. The trouble began when Politifact Wisconsin ranked one of Rachel Maddow’s claims about the Wisconsin Deficit false. She responded tonight (February 24th 2011) by saying that Politifact was wrong and in no uncertain terms attacked to validity of the entire organization. I decided to determine who was right and who was wrong.

The original claims in question were presented in the first 3 minutes of the first segment of Rachel’s February 17th show.  That is where she said the following:

            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.

She also said:

            The state is not bankrupt.  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.

Her show’s blog also included a post titled, “Wisconsin Governor made his own problem,” which blames the budget deficit on Walker’s tax breaks.

Politifact Wisconsin wrote an article that rated Rachel's statements false because the tax cuts that Walker signed into law don’t take effect until the next fiscal year and that the deficit for the current year is actually the result of expected shortfalls in Medicaid, the public defender’s office, and the office of corrections. Those shortfalls weren't included in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau's report (Wisconsin's CBO) because the non-partisan agency is uncomfortable with assuming budget fixes will be passed when creating a fiscal forcast.

The Rachel Maddow Show replied with two letters taking issue with the Politifact article that fact-checked Maddow. The letters correctly state that both the headline and summery of Politifact’s article gave the false impression that Rachel failed to acknowledge that there was a budget deficit in Wisconsin. Politifact Wisconsin also failed to contact The Rachel Maddow Show for explanation and comment before posting the article, a clear failure in fairness and journalistic ethics.

However, the letters also assert that Rachel never claimed that Walker’s tax cuts were the source of the budget deficit. That was certainly the impression that I came away with after watching the segment when it first aired. TRMS claims that Rachel was merely trying to show that Walker doesn’t care about fiscal responsibility and merely wants to break public sector unions. Nevertheless, the show’s blog clearly named Walker’s tax cuts as the culprit behind Wisconsin’s deficit. It even included an excerpt from the Madison Capital Times to prove it.

The Rachel Maddow Show also gave an on air response to the Politifact article. The video attacks Politifact for falsely claiming that she claimed that Wisconsin doesn't currently face a budget deficit, but completely ignores the controversy over what caused the deficit in the first place.

Both Politifact Wisconsin and The Rachel Maddow Show have acted irresponsibly in this dispute. Politifact failed to contact TRMS for an explanation before posting the article and created a poorly written and misleading headline and summery. The Rachel Maddow Show failed to admit that she implied that the Walker tax cuts were responsible for the budget shortfall, failed to debunk or even mention that misperception in their piece on the controversy, and failed to admit that their blog clearly stated the false claim.  Both sources need to offer corrections and apologies. This conflict is a disgrace for all involved.

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