Special report: Rise of the ditto-heads!
PART 1—RACHEL PUSHES BACK (permalink): Last Thursday evening, February 24, Rachel Maddow began fighting back—fighting back against the cretins who had “slandered” her and her staff. (Maddow said these cretins had called her a “liar,” though no such thing had occurred.)
These cretins lurk beneath a bridge at the Politifact web site. Six days earlier, on February 18, the nervy site had dared to critique a bungled report by Maddow.
Things got ugly when Rachel pushed back. But first, a bit of background:
On Thursday evening, February 17, Maddow had opened her eponymous program with a report about the Wisconsin budget. (For the full transcript, click here.) As she spoke, the budget fight was in its third day; the protests by Wisconsin state workers were gaining the nation’s attention. But alas! Maddow’s report was deeply flawed—confusing and self-contradictory. As a courtesy, we’ll assume the bungled report was prepared by a Maddow Show staffer. But the ginormous bungling in the report should have left Maddow embarrassed.
No such luck—this is cable TV! Back to our basic narrative:
One day later, on February 18, Politifact posted its review of Maddow’s bungled report. In its headline, Politifact featured the following statement by Maddow:
“Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, the state is on track to have a budget surplus this year.”
Say what? Maddow had led her report with a rather puzzling statement. Indeed, the fuller opening of her report made Wisconsin’s budget problems sound like a day in the park:
MADDOW (2/17/11): 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.Things were rosy in Wisconsin—or at least, so it seemed. “There is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin,” the millionaire broadcaster said. In her usual self-assured way, Maddow assured her viewers that “Wisconsin is great”—and that she wasn’t kidding.
The next day, Politifact featured that one statement in its headline, though its full report treated various aspects of Maddow’s presentation. Politifact scored that key statement “false.” At the end of its piece, the site gave the same rating to Maddow’s full “take” on the subject.
Time for a second bit of background, this time concerning Politifact:
Politifact is a fact-checking site operated by the St. Petersburg Times. It launched in the summer of 2007. In 2009, it received a Pulitzer Prize, though you can’t always go by that.
Politifact isn’t always right in its judgments; the last time we checked, no one is. In our view, the site labors under a bit of a conceptual strait-jacket. Politifact scores all statements on a scale defined by “true” and “false.” (Its standard categories include these: Barely true, half true, mostly true, false.) But in the real world, the most problematic public statements are almost never technically false; instead, they are grossly misleading. Professionals can thoroughly mislead the public without ever making any false statements. Indeed, Maddow would try to prove this point before this battle was done.
Politifact isn’t always right. That said, we’d give the site a grade of A-minus for its review of Maddow’s report. If we were grading both parties in this first exchange, these are the grades they’d receive:
From the Howler grade-book:There were some flaws in Politifact’s work, but the flaws were minor. By way of contrast, Maddow’s report had been heavily bungled, as Politifact pretty much said.
Original report by Maddow: D
Politifact review: A-minus
Maddow had offered a bungled report. But as we noted in real time, this wasn’t hugely surprising (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/21/11). In the days before her report, a great deal of misinformation was floating around the liberal web concerning the Wisconsin budget. One day after Maddow’s report, several major liberal analysts began correcting their own mistakes; this included the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, a frequent guest on, and source for, MSNBC programs. (To review Klein’s second self-correction, click here.) To the extent that Maddow’s report ever made any sense, it seemed to follow the bungled narratives which had been widespread on the web. Those errors would soon start getting corrected—except on the Maddow program.
Maddow had fumbled—and Politifact challenged. So these wheels are supposed to turn. But last Thursday, February 24, Maddow aired a lengthy segment in which she rejected Politifact’s critique, while discussing a kitchen sink’s worth of unrelated, irrelevant issues.
This second, distraction-larded report was an utter embarrassment. The progressive world should be alarmed.
The progressive world should be concerned with work like this from Maddow. Her initial report was very weak; last Thursday’s attack on Politifact was an ungodly, semi-comical mess. Liberals and progressives should be disturbed when we get such work from our millionaire hosts—from the intellectual leaders the folks at GE have been nice enough to pick for us.
We should be concerned by the lack of competence—and, in last Thursday’s second report, by the apparent dishonesty.
Alas! No such concern was expressed in the wake of Maddow’s second report. Instead, the usual suspects began to swear that Rachel had gotten it wonderfully right—that Politifact had been defeated! So here’s a question for liberal history buffs: Remember when we used to laugh at the self-proclaimed “ditto-heads” found on the right? Alas! Now that our side has emerged from the woods, we seem to be breeding our own sorry gang of sycophantic hacks.
Maddow bungled her first report. Her second report was a good deal worse. But so what? The ditto-heads fell into line!
We’ll unpack this unfortunate nonsense in a four-part report.
Tomorrow—part 2: Maddow’s initial report