Maddow lowers the boom on PolitiFact!


Sadly, she was largely right: Rachel Maddow’s jihad against Politifact began in a compromised fashion.

As we all eventually do, Maddow had made a mistake. Politifact corrected her on her mistake. In the process, PolitiFact made a mistake of its own.

Maddow reacted in an extremely unbalanced way, and a war was born. She went on and on and on and on, lambasting PolitiFact for its mistake, without ever noting the fact that the site had been right about her own mistake.

We’d have to call that old reaction mostly dishonest. If you want to review this unbalanced old mess, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/11.

Last night, Maddow ended her program by trashing PolitiFact once again. She pounded the site extremely hard, even suggesting that someone should sue it because of its errors. Here’s the background:

PolitiFact had fact-checked the following statement by Martina Navratilova: "In 29 states in this country, you can still get fired for not just being gay, but if your employer thinks you are gay."

By normal construction, Navratilova’s statement seems to be accurate. As PolitiFact noted in its report, 21 states have laws against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The other 29 states do not.

By normal construction, that makes Navritalova’s statement true. You can get fired for being gay in those 29 states! By this, Navritalova meant that a person would have no legal recourse in the event of such a firing.

But uh-oh! PolitiFact often has a very hard time applying its own basic ratings to the statements it fact-checks. These are three of the site's basic ratings: True, Mostly true, Half true.

In this case, the site presented some valid background information—information which didn’t contradict what Navritalova had said. But uh-oh! After presenting this extra information, the site then rated her statement this way:

“Half true.”

In our view, that was a rather strange judgment. But PolitiFact does this sort of thing with its ratings all the time.

How hard did Maddow pound the site for this latest strange rating? To watch the whole segment, just click here. To get the flavor of Maddow’s objections, here’s the way she ended:
MADDOW (5/7/13): 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 arbiter of fact and the paragon of fact-checking, and they are terrible at it. They are terrible.

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, so then they searched other unrelated information about how there are other kinds of things besides states, like some companies decide they don’t want to discriminate, and doesn’t that count for something?

No! Because that is not the statement you are fact-checking! The statement you were supposed to be fact checking is true! And until somebody figures out how to sue you in order to retrieve the meaning of the word "fact" from the dark and airless hole you have stuffed it into, PolitiFact, then no, it is not OK for you to just make this stuff up. You are truly terrible.

Fact-checking has to count for something and, PolitiFact, you are ruining it for everyone. There.

Now it's time for The Last Word. Have a good night.
Someone should sue PolitiFact to retrieve the word “fact!”

Ever since she herself got fact-checked, Maddow’s jihad against PolitiFact has tended to go over the top. Last night wasn’t entirely different.

In truth, the concept of fact-checking really hasn’t become pointless at this time. If it has, it isn’t because PolitiFact has branded itself the generic arbiter of fact. Nor is PolitiFact in the process of ruining fact-checking for everyone, whatever that might mean.

There are several major fact-checking sites out there; PolitiFact is only one. Nor is PolitiFact able to “brand itself the generic arbiter of fact and the paragon of fact-checking,” although the Pulitzer committee helped do so when it gave the site a Pulitzer Prize, an award Maddow didn’t mention.

Should someone sue PolitiFact? Its ratings often strike us as very strange, but that is a fairly outsized suggestion. That said, Maddow was right about this latest decision to downgrade a statement which was, in fact, simply accurate.

We’ve noted this problem in the past. PolitiFact often does good work developing background information about a particular topic. But after developing such information, the site is often amazingly bad at applying its basic ratings.

Navritalova’s statement was true! You can get fired in 29 states for being gay, without any legal recourse. That doesn’t mean that every gay person does get fired. It doesn’t even mean that everyone is exposed.

PolitiFact noted that government employees in those states would have legal recourse. We assume that means federal employees, but PolitiFact (Oops!) wasn’t clear.

That was a valid point to add. But the original statement is still accurate. You can get fired in 29 states. In 21 states, you cannot.

At these moments, you see the remarkable lack of intellectual skill in our upper-end press corps. PolitiFact is often amazingly shaky when it applies its own ratings.

PolitiFact is a Pulitzer-winning site, but it has this remarkable logical problem. This is a window into the intellectual world of our upper-end press corps.

Maddow was right about this rating. That said, we recall where this jihad began.

When it comes to major mainstream press organs, Maddow tends to hit PolitiFact hard, go quite easy on everyone else. Given the press corps’ ocean of errors, we would have to rate her fury this way:

“Justified but quite selective.”


  1. "Fact-checking" can provide a useful service in publishing the facts which were missing or incorrect in the original account. Of course this sort of thing should actually be done by reporters who cover the initial story, instead of just parroting the statements or press-releases of politicians or others, so it is a kind of feather-bedding in the media. Also there is little original fact-uncovering in "fact-checking", just looking things up on the internet (which the original reporters could have done also, at least).

    Where "fact-checking" goes wrong is in the selection of things to check, and in the judgement of truthfullness, or the number of pinocchios to assign. In both of these things it seems to me that Kessler (for one) is very careful to assign equal blame to both sides, not to actually uncover lies or the magnitude thereof. How do the total pinocchios assigned to Democrats and Republicans stack up? (no, I'm not going to count them).

  2. IIRC, Kessler kept a running count of his "Pinnochios" during the 2012 presidential campaign. He gave Romney's campaign about 10 - 15% more "Pinnochios," which I thought quite charitable, given that even Beltway veterans were calling Romney's campaign the most dishonest they'd ever seen. He then spent the months after the campaign attacking Obama for every little thing he could, presumably as a form of penance to the Gods of Balance.

  3. Mathematicians make a big fuss about quantifiers. "∀" means "for all" or "every". "∃" means "there exists" or "some". The Navritilova/PolitiFact ruckus is about quantifiers.

    Navritilova's statement would be entirely correct if it meant, "In 29 states SOME employees can be fired for being gay." Politifact points out that the statement would be wrong if it meant, "In 29 states ALL employees can be fired for being gay."

    Unfortunately, most people don't speak with the precision of mathematicians. Navritilova's statement could be understood either way. One way it's true, the other way it's false. PolitiFact split the difference and called it Half True. That seems fair to me.

    1. David, I think what Politifacts split was hairs.

    2. And we all wish David would just split...

    3. I don't know why. He's intelligent and unfailingly polite.

    4. CeceliaMc, I rate the statement of Anonymouse on 5/8 @ 5:11P as half true. I certainly don't care whether DAinCA splits or not. But in contrast to your judgment, DAinCA is unfailingly ignorant but polite. Take his latest bullshit about quantifiers. Navritilova said that you can get fired for being gay in 29 states. In English, the use of the 2nd person indeterminate and the auxiliary "can" means that it's possible for an employee to be fired for being gay in 29 states. It takes a deliberate misreading to "understand" that Navritilova meant that any and all employees could be fired for being gay in those 29 states. In fact it takes a contortionist in language to reach DAinCA's Schrodinger's statement that's one way true and the other false.

    5. "He's intelligent and unfailingly polite."

      Pick one. If he's really as intelligent as you claim, can you explain how knowingly tossing bullshit around this site is "unfailingly polite"?


    6. I just want to know how he can type a upside down "A" and a backward "3".

  4. I think you don't understand just why a gay woman would be so upset about this particular fact check. To give you some idea, let me relate a true story. In 1995, I signed up for a graduate program based in MS. It was an exceptionally close knit program which had about 20 people per year enter. We were from some fairly heavy hitting universities. We had a Dartmouth grad, a Harvard grad, among others. In short, we were what one would presume were well informed people. I came out to this group fairly early on but warned them they had to keep it quiet as I could be fired from my job (teaching) due to being gay. To a person they were stunned that even in MS that was true. That perception leads to the notion that by asking for non discrimination laws we are really asking for special rights. Politifact helped foster that perception with their deeply flawed fact check and richly deserved the scorn heaped upon them.

  5. "Half True" implies there is a whole truth. That whole truth in this case would include the fact that most of the states without protections for gays are "at will" employment states, meaning employers can fire people for being gay, being blonde, prefering blue over green, renting their home, or any of a total of say 987,654,321 things. Based on that, my own assessment is that Navritilova's statement is only 1/987,654,321 true, and that "Half True" is very generous.

    1. But they cannot be fired for their religious affiliation, or their race, amoung other things that are protected by law. Should being gay be included in this protected list? Thankfully, the nation is getting closer to answering this, "Yes."

    2. "But they cannot be fired for their religious affiliation, or their race, amoung other things that are protected by law."

      Read up on "at will employment".

    3. For companies involved in interstate commerce with more than 15 employees, or in labor organizations, and also employment agencies, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 trumps "at will employment." So are we both half-right?

  6. In 29 states, there's no state law against firing someone because he or she is gay. Here's a serious question, if anyone knows.

    In the last year, how many people actually were fired because they were gay? In other words, how big a problem is this?

    1. "In the last year, how many people actually were fired because they were gay?"

      How would you even go about discovering the answer, and is it even possible to know?

    2. I'm trying to understand whether additional laws are needed. Here's an easier question. Does anyone know any facts at all showing that significant numbers of people are now being fired because they're gay?

      AnonymousMay 8, 2013 at 9:51 PM gave a real-world example., but it took place 18 years ago. I can give a personal example from the early 1980's. I hired a young man out of graduate school. I later was told that he'd been turned down by another company because he was gay. However, attitudes have changed rapidly. In the middle 1990's, Democrats supported the Defense of Marriage Act. I don't know how big a problem discrimination against gay employees is today.

      Does anyone, either through their own knowledge or through news reports, know of other, more up-to-date examples of gays being fired or discrimination against gays?

    3. "How would you even go about discovering the answer, and is it even possible to know?"

      Kind of like with the pay gap for women, how would you be able to tell if there is discrimination?