TRMS correspondence with Politifact


Sent: Monday, February 21, 2011 1:11 PM
Subject: Correction requested re: The Rachel Maddow Show

February 21, 2011

Dear Mr. Umhoefer and Mr. Borowski:

I’m writing to request that you make a correction to your Truth-O-Meter post of Thursday, February 17th, 2011.

In your effort to challenge a Capital Times editorial you have mistakenly ascribed the argument therein to Rachel Maddow. In so doing, you have half-quoted her in one instance, misquoted her in another, and misrepresented her overall.

Ms. Maddow is well aware of the Wisconsin budget shortfall. She said so just a few sentences after the line you decided to single out for “truthometry”:

“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.”

To suggest – as your headline does – that we somehow neglected to report on the state’s real budget shortfall is absolutely erroneous. 

We recognize the journalistic value in writing a “where did the budget shortfall come from” piece, but, if you need a bogeyman to deny the existence of the shortfall so you can make your case in the Politifact truth-o-meter gotcha format, you should pick someone who didn’t explicitly say, “there is, in fact, a … shortfall.”

Your piece concludes with this summary:

“There should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall … We rate Maddow’s take False”. 

There isn’t any debate on that.  To suggest that we stated otherwise – while simultaneously leaving out a key part of our report – is a mistake on your part that damages the reputation of Ms. Maddow and MSNBC and therefore warrants immediate remedy.  Ignoring that Maddow did state the facts correctly is irresponsible and inaccurate and must be corrected.

More egregious, however, is Politifact’s false assertion– stated as fact, over and over again– that our report blamed Governor Scott Walker and the Republican-led legislature for the current budget shortfall: 

“She added a kicker that is also making the rounds: Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature this year gave away $140 million in business tax breaks – so if there is a deficit projected of $137 million, they created it.”

That synopsis of our report is a complete fabrication. Maddow never stated – not once– that Governor Walker’s tax breaks were the direct cause of the budget deficit this year. 

To state unequivocally – as you do here – that Maddow blamed Governor Walker directly for the current budget shortfall is a complete and utter distortion.  And, yet, it’s an assertion that is made repeatedly throughout your post:

“Meanwhile, what about Maddow’s claim – also repeated across the liberal blogosphere – that Walker’s tax-cut bills approved in January are responsible for the $137 million deficit?” … There is, indeed, a projected deficit that required attention, and Walker and GOP lawmakers did not create it … Walker’s tax cuts will boost the size of the projected deficit in the next budget, but they’re not part of this problem and did not create it.”

That claim may exist somewhere in “the liberal blogosphere”, but it was never made in our report.  Not once.  Not only did Maddow say no such thing, you’ve missed her meaning entirely.

The point of that whole introduction to the show is that the budget isn’t the real issue.  That’s why Maddow says, “What’s happening in Wisconsin right now is not about a budget.” The point of the segment is not to correct the governor’s math because it’s not about the budget. She’s not trying to find blame for the budget shortfall because –- again – it’s not about the budget.  Maddow’s argument is that one way we know it’s not about the budget is that the governor was willing to give away roughly the same amount as this year’s possible shortfall. So, regardless of what the Governor says, the shortfall must not be so dire:

MADDOW: 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.

If you were confused about the point of the segment – despite Maddow’s emphatic, repeated assertions that the budget was being used as a façade to hide the real intention of Governor Walker and Wisconsin Republicans to fatally weaken state employee unions – you might have contacted MSNBC or The Rachel Maddow Show for clarification.  You did not do so and instead published a dramatically inaccurate summary of Maddow’s views.

The damage already done by your article over the weekend will not likely be undone, but at least the record going forward can be corrected. We also ask that you remove the Maddow item from the Politifact Wisconsin feed that is populating the widget on the Journal Sentinel All Politics Blog - or at the very least that it be adjusted to not be misleading.

Best wishes,

Bill Wolff
Vice President of Primetime Programming
Executive Producer, The Rachel Maddow Show

Letter #2 after the jump…

Sent: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 11:47 AM
Subject: Correction Requested re: The Rachel Maddow Show

Dear Mr. Adair,

MSNBC yesterday requested a correction on a Politifact item concerning The Rachel Maddow Show.  We received response to that request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that was frankly dumbfounding.

The correspondence is copied below for your reference, but frankly, I am writing to you not to re-litigate but to cut to the chase and ask you to clear up a rather straightforward error that Politifact has left uncorrected online for five days now.

In short, Politifact alleges that an assertion was made on The Rachel Maddow Show that in fact was not made.  

Compounding the error, Politifact asserts that The Rachel Maddow Show ignored factual truths that Ms. Maddow explicitly did acknowledge, on television, out loud, and clearly.

We are not nitpicking here – Politifact is seriously and clearly wrong and should correct the matter immediately.  Your inaccurate representation of Maddow’s statements has now been posted online for enough days, with enough secondary pickup in the media, that a full new statement correcting Politifact’s errors in this matter would be a more appropriate action than a simple update to the erroneous original post.

So we’re clear here… The Rachel Maddow Show was factually accurate in its reporting on Governor Scott Walker, the Wisconsin state budget, and the rights of state employees to bargain collectively:

PolitiFact asserts that Maddow argued that Wisconsin’s budget shortfall doesn’t exist: “There should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall … We rate Maddow’s take False”.

This is baldly and plainly untrue.  Maddow’s reporting on these points was accurate.  Maddow followed-up the statement that Wisconsin started the year on track for a balanced budget (which is clearly stated in the Legislative Fiscal Bureau report she cited) with the (also true) reporting that, in fact, the state was now facing a budget shortfall.  Maddow stated, “there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall”. Politifact never notes this statement from Maddow.

PolitiFact asserts that Maddow blamed the $137-million on the $140-million tax cut: “She added a kicker that is also making the rounds: Walker and fellow Republicans in the Legislature this year gave away $140 million in business tax breaks – so if there is a deficit projected of $137 million, they created it…. What about Maddow’s claim … that Walkers tax-cut bills approved in January are responsible for the $137 million deficit?”

This claim is untrue, misleading and unfair.  Maddow never stated that Governor Walker’s tax cuts caused the state’s $137m deficit. Maddow stated – accurately – that there is a budget shortfall and that the revenue forsaken by Governor Walker’s tax cut program is about the same amount of money as the shortfall.  Both of those assertions are true.

What Maddow’s reporting illustrated was not that the Governor’s tax cuts caused a budget deficit but, rather, that the Governor’s behavior gives lie to his claim that his actions are motivated by budgetary concerns.  Governor Walker added the cost of those new tax benefits to the deficit with no offsets, at a time when he claimed to be purely driven by a desire to tackle that deficit.  Those deficit-funded tax giveaways, indeed, are about exactly the same size as the budget hole the Governor now insists he must take extraordinary emergency measures to fix.

That, in fact, was the point of Maddow’s report; it was not an attempt to assign blame for the budget shortfall. Given Wisconsin unions’ offered concessions and the Governor’s refusal to accept them (and thereby move towards balancing the budget), Maddow’s reporting was not only accurate but prescient. 

A correction of your reporting is in order.  Mr. Borowski’s response to our request for a correction – resorting to quoting other unrelated items on a show staff blog with which he takes issue – highlights the weakness of Politifact’s efforts to try to use Maddow’s show to attack other points of view or points of fact that she herself has not espoused.

Which gets to a larger point here, and that is that a simple phone call or email from PolitiFact ahead of the publishing of this item could have served to clear much of this up.  There is an underlying incoherence to Politifact’s allegations.  As written, Politifact claims that Maddow says there’s no budget shortfall, but also that the budget shortfall is Gov. Walker’s fault.  How can Maddow deny the existence of a shortfall and at the same time blame the shortfall on the Governor?  She can’t, she wouldn’t, and she didn’t. 

This fundamental misunderstanding of our report could have, in all likelihood, been cleared up had you reached out to us in the first place.  That is a courtesy – it should be noted – that is routinely extended to the various subjects of your posts, but for some reason was not in this case. Failing to provide us with that opportunity was unfair and it should be corrected. 

PolitiFact describes Maddow’s reporting inaccurately and disparagingly. Her reporting was entirely accurate, and I would ask again that PolitiFact recognize that fact publicly. 

Below please find links to the PolitiFact post in dispute and to our show’s transcript as well as the text of our request for correction and Mr. Borowski’s reply.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  I appreciate your consideration.


Bill Wolff

Vice President, Primetime Programming, MSNBC Executive Producer, The Rachel Maddow Show 

TRMS correspondence with Politifact