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:
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.Someone should sue PolitiFact to retrieve the word “fact!”
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.
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.”