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Print view: Rachel Maddow's puzzling report never made any clear sense
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WHAT MADDOW SAID! Rachel Maddow’s puzzling report never made any clear sense: // link // print // previous // next //

George Will lies down with the lamb: It’s amazing how much crap you can read in the Washington Post’s Outlook section.

Last Sunday, readers were handed this groaning reinvention from former House speaker Newt Gingrich. In his piece, Gingrich mis-describes the events which produced the last government shutdown:

GINGRICH (2/27/11): The crisis came late in 1995, when the Clinton White House and Senate Democrats set out to test our seriousness. They made a calculated, cynical decision to use the threat of a presidential veto—which would close the government—to insist that we drop our balanced budget.

This point deserves reiteration. It was President Bill Clinton's veto of our budget in December 1995 that closed the government. The White House knew that it could use the power of the presidency and the support of liberal media to blame us.

The highlighted statement is grossly misleading. Yes, Clinton vetoed the Republican budget—but that didn’t cause the government shutdown. (In fact, there were two shutdowns during this period.) What shut down the government was the subsequent failure of the two parties to agree on a so-called “continuing resolution” (CR)—a temporary spending measure which would keep the government open while budget negotiations continued. Because Gingrich refused to sign a “clean” CR—a CR which didn’t include his larger demands—he was widely blamed for the shutdowns.

In January 1996, Gingrich abandoned his weird demands and signed a series of CRs. The government operated on these temporary measures until a budget was finally achieved in April 1996.

Why would an editor publish this piece? Why not demand greater clarity? Whoever you think was right or wrong in the larger sense, the shutdowns weren’t caused by Clinton’s veto; they were caused by the two parties’ subsequent failure to agree on short-term CRs. At the time, almost everyone agreed that it was Gingrich who was making weird demands as a condition for signing such measures. For the most part, that’s why Gingrich was blamed, not Clinton.

You got to read reinvented history in this week’s Outlook section. Then too, the Sunday Post offered this classic op-ed column by George Will.

In his piece, Will applauded a long-standing conservative love object, those alleged educational “miracles.” In this case, Will gushed and fawned over Wendy Kopp and her Teach for America project.

“The small miracles of Teach for America.” So the headline read in our hard-copy Post.

TFA is A-OK by us—but it hasn’t produced known miracles. But so what? Pseudo-conservatives love to advance such claims. They love to imagine that Kopp’s Princeton kids can show up in low-income schools and make those miracles happen. This lets privatization proponents attack the nation’s lazy teachers and their infernal unions. If Princeton kids can make miracles happen, why not fire the lazy hacks who refuse to work such magic?

No miracle claim is too dumb to advance. This has been clear in the last four years as the mainstream press corps ran to credit Michelle Rhee’s miracle claims, which now seem extremely unlikely. (As they always did.)

That headline spoke about TFA’s “miracles.” But how odd! If you read Will’s column, he cites no studies concerning this program’s ginormous success. That’s because such studies don’t exist. To its semi-credit, this is what TFA currently claims on its web site:

TEACH FOR AMERICA: Research over time has conclusively shown that Teach For America corps members' impact on their students' achievement is equal to or greater than that of other new teachers.

Say what? The impact of the Princeton kids is “equal to or greater than” that of other new teachers? That doesn’t sound like a huge major deal—and in studies which seem to show that TFA teachers do somewhat better, they don’t do better by much. TFA goes on to make a second claim about the research, a claim which is stronger than the first. But why didn’t Will cite whiz-bang research findings? Because they don’t exist.

Indeed, in a new C-Span tape (click here), Malcolm Gladwell asks Kopp how well TFA teachers perform. To her credit, Kopp abandons her practice of making anecdotal miracle claims and seems to suggest that TFA teachers aren’t a whole lot better than everyone else. (This happens at 0:51. Rather typically, Gladwell shows no sign of having prepared for his session with Kopp, whom he describes as one of his heroes.) By the 1:05 mark, Kopp is back to making a miracle claim about a beginning teacher in Phoenix. But again: Will doesn’t cite any research about such miracles because it doesn’t exist.

Kopp seems a bit saner chatting with Gladwell. We’d love to see her drop her miracle claims and just tell the truth a bit more often, as she seems to do here. But the miracle tales of Kopp and Rhee have long been used to drive attacks on regular teachers—on teachers who aren’t “the best of the best”—and their infernal unions.

You’d almost think that liberal intellectual leaders would understand this by now. Not Steve Benen! Finally, Benen has found a column by Will with which he can agree:

BENEN (2/27/11): George Will's column today sings the praises of Teach for America (TFA) and its CEO, Wendy Kopp. It's one of those rare Will columns that I have no trouble agreeing with, but it's the conclusion that's important.

Will explains in the piece that TFA helps direct graduates of elite universities into teaching positions in difficult-to-staff schools in areas of urban and rural poverty. It's been a striking success, and Kopp clearly deserves enormous credit—this program and its participants are making a remarkable difference that will pay dividends for all of us for years to come.

TFA has been “a striking success?” It’s making “a remarkable difference?” At best, Steve is reciting the type of cant he has heard for years.

For decades, career liberals have shown few signs of giving a fig about black kids. As Benen recites this conservative cant, it seems they never will.

Special report: Rise of the ditto-heads!

PART 2—WHAT MADDOW SAID (permalink): A lot of bad info was going around at the start of the budget fight in Wisconsin.

On February 17, Day 3 of the fight, Rachel Maddow aired the report Politifact later rejected (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/28/11). For a bit of context, consider the report Ed Schultz had aired just one night before.

On Wednesday evening, February 16, Big Eddie was angry at President Obama, who had made an unfortunate two-part statement. As part of his statement, Obama had said that Governor Walker’s attempt to restrict collective bargaining rights “seems like more of an assault on unions.” But uh-oh! The hapless president had also said this: “I would say, as a general proposition, that everybody’s got to make some adjustments to new fiscal realities.”

Big Eddie railed at Obama’s statement about those “adjustments to fiscal realities.” In fact, there was no fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, the big tub of liberal lard said:

SCHULTZ (2/16/11): Mr. President, whose side are you on? And where are the Democrats tonight? We’ll investigate that a little bit later on in the show.

But what’s going on here in Wisconsin is not a fiscal reality. My friends, if you take one thing out of this program tonight, know this: There is no financial crisis in the state of Wisconsin. Later in this show, I’ll prove that Governor Walker is basically cooking the books to make things look worse than they really are.

Big Eddie said that he would prove that Walker was “cooking the books”—that there was no “financial crisis.” Later that evening, he undertook that task:

SCHULTZ: Welcome back to the Ed Show. And thanks for watching tonight.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says that he has to cut union pay and benefits because of the state’s budget crisis. Crisis!

Guess what, folks? There is no crisis. There is no budget crisis. Walker says there is a deficit of $137 million. But on January 31st, the state legislative fiscal bureau put out a report saying, quote, "Our analysis indicates a general fund gross balance of $121.4 million, and a net balance of $56.4 million."

And even if Walker’s numbers are right, and there really is a deficit of $137 million, it’s Walker himself who’s responsible for most of the shortfall. In less than two months in office, he`s pushed through millions in tax breaks for the rich. Quoting the state fiscal bureau again, "These three bills will reduce general fund tax collections by $55.2 million in 2011 and 2012, and $62 million in 2012-2013." I didn’t say that, the report did.

“Crisis” is a term of art; it can mean all things to all people. But Schultz offered a view of the situation which was already becoming quite standard. Even if there was a shortfall, he said, Walker had created most of the shortfall himself! Soon, Schultz called on the fiery fellow to whom he tracked this analysis:

SCHULTZ: On the ground tonight is John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. John, you wrote an editorial for the Madison Cap Times called, "Walker Gins Up the Crisis to Reward Cronies.” Explain that to us tonight. And great to have you with us!

NICHOLS: Ed, it’s great to be with you. We’ve been together every night of this struggle, and as Scott Ross told you a little bit, the size of these crowds are just incredible. These are Wisconsinites who are coming out to say, “We do not believe you, Governor Walker. We do not believe that there is a fiscal crisis, period, and we certainly do not believe that there is a fiscal crisis sufficient to break our unions, to cut our pay, to cut our benefits."

Now, let me clear about what’s going on—

SCHULTZ: Is the governor cooking the books? John, I’ve got to ask you, is the governor cooking the books to get rid of organized labor in Wisconsin?

NICHOLS: There is simply no question that that is what is happening.

According to Schultz and Nichols, the state had boasted a budget surplus at the start of the year! That surplus had turned into a deficit due to Walker’s tax cuts. In that sense, Walker was cooking the books, Schultz said. There was “simply no question about it.” Or so Nichols said.

By now, of course everybody has agreed that Nichols’ editorial was factually wrong. Whatever one thinks of Walker’s tax cuts, they only affect the two-year budget cycle which starts this July. Walker’s tax cuts have had no effect on the current budget shortfall. Indeed: In its complaints to Politifact, the Maddow Show has insisted that Maddow understood these facts all along—that she never said, or meant to imply, anything different.

By now, everyone agrees that Walker’s tax cuts didn’t produce the current shortfall. But Nichols’ analysis was ruling the day in this, the first week of the fight. Even the smart guys thought Nichols was right!

On Friday morning, February 18—the morning after Maddow’s report—Ezra Klein produced his first post on the Wisconsin budget. Later that day, Klein would start correcting himself. But that morning, Ezra wrote this:

KLEIN (1/18/11): The Badger State was actually in pretty good shape. It was supposed to end this budget cycle with about $120 million in the bank. Instead, it's facing a deficit. Why? I'll let the state's official fiscal scorekeeper explain:

"More than half of the lower estimate ($117.2 million) is due to the impact of Special Session Senate Bill 2 (health savings accounts), Assembly Bill 3 (tax deductions/credits for relocated businesses), and Assembly Bill 7 (tax exclusion for new employees)."

In English: The governor called a special session of the legislature and signed two business tax breaks and a conservative health-care policy experiment that lowers overall tax revenues (among other things). The new legislation was not offset, and it helped turn a surplus into a deficit [see update at end of post]. As Brian Beutler writes, "public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda."

“[see update at end of post?]” In that update, Klein began to correct the mistakes he had made in this passage. But on the morning after Maddow’s report, even Klein was still following the Nichols line, in which Walker “helped turn a surplus into a deficit”—in which Wisconsin’s current budget shortfall had largely been caused by Walker’s tax cuts. The next day, Klein posted a full self-correction, quoting a budget expert from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank. Again, Klein noted that the current shortfall had not been caused by Walker’s tax cuts. And he noted a second key fact: Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion shortfall over the two-year cycle which starts in July of this year.

For our money, Ezra fudged a bit in this second post, understating the size of his error. But he did lay out the basic facts of the budget situation, and he noted that he had been wrong in accepting the analysis which tracks to Nichols’ piece in the Capital Times.

A lot of bad info was going around as the budget fight took shape. And sure enough! On Thursday evening, February 17, Maddow offered her first full report on the situation. Her report was strikingly imprecise; to this day, it’s virtually impossible to follow the logic of the various things she said. But to the extent that Maddow’s report ever made any clear sense at all, it closely tracked the prevailing wisdom which had emerged from the Nichols editorial. Beyond that, you might say the report was Vintage Maddow. It seemed to track the claims Schultz had made the night before—but in vintage fashion, Maddow improved on Schultz’ effort, offering the type of arm-waving, weird overstatement which set her work apart.

Below, you see the way she started. To the extent that this makes any clear sense, it seems to be weirdly wrong:

MADDOW (2/18/11): 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. 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.

So, um, then why exactly does Wisconsin look like this right now?

At this point, Maddow showed tape of the public protests in Madison. “So, um,” why was this happening, the animated broadcaster asked.

One night earlier, Schultz had said that the state of Wisconsin faces “no budget crisis.” Waving her arms to attract attention, Maddow ratcheted that fuzzy claim up a bit. According to Maddow, nothing was wrong in the state of Wisconsin; actually, Wisconsin was great! In the process, she made the puzzling claim Politifact would score as “false.” (“Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.”) It’s still unclear what Maddow meant by that statement; at this point, everybody seems to agree that there is a current shortfall. Indeed, as Maddow continued her report, she seemed to contradict that original claim—although her live presentation is so confused it’s hard to know just what she meant:

MADDOW (continuing directly): Why is there a revolt in the American midwest tonight? Why are we in Day 3 of massive, massive protests—real upheaval in Wisconsin’s capital city of Madison? Why are we seeing what was described today by my friend John Nichols, a seventh-generation Wisconsinite, as perhaps the biggest protests that have been seen in that state since Vietnam? Why is this—look at this! Why is this happening?

As the state’s own finances show, it is not happening because people who work for the state are the cause of some horrible budget crisis. It’s not because teachers are lazy and rich. It’s not because greedy snowplow drivers have bankrupted the state somehow.

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!

Maddow cited “my friend John Nichols”—the man who made the initial mistake. She said “the state is not bankrupt,” thus refuting a fuzzy claim that no one had really made. At no point were viewers ever told that the state where everything is great is facing a $3.6 billion shortfall in the coming budget cycle. Indeed: Judging from a Nexis search, Maddow has never reported this basic fact as she excitedly waves her arms for her transfixed viewers.

And then, we reached the puzzling statement in which Maddow seemed to contradict her opening claim. Or something like that.

“Now, there is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall,” Maddow hurriedly said at one point, seeming to contradict the claim at the start of her report. If you watch the tape of this report, Maddow’s delivery here is a bit uncertain; to our eye and ear, it almost seems she may have been surprised when this statement appeared on her prompter. But however one judges her state of mind, the claim that there is a budget shortfall seems to contradict the earlier apparent claim that there isn’t—and Maddow moved directly from there to Walker’s tax cuts, the tax cuts everyone else was blaming for the current shortfall. In its complaints to Politifact, the Maddow Show has insisted that Maddow didn’t mean to imply that Walker’s tax cuts helped cause the current shortfall; she understood this matter all along, the show has claimed. But her presentation was very murky—and it perfectly tracked prevailing liberal wisdom, in which it was claimed that the tax cuts had led to the shortfall.

What did Maddow mean to convey by this confusing report? In an imperfect but detailed analysis, Politifact scored her opening statement “false.” Beyond that, Politifact said her overall “take” on this topic was “false.” For ourselves, we would have used different terms, though we don’t find a great deal of fault with Politifact’s judgments. We would have said that Maddow’s report was “highly confusing” and “grossly misleading”—and self-contradictory too.

Just so you’ll know: Everyone agrees that the state of Wisconsin has a real budget problem. Compare what Maddow said that night to Paul Krugman’s later assessment:

MADDOW (2/17/11): 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.

KRUGMAN (2/21/11): Some background: Wisconsin is indeed facing a budget crunch, although its difficulties are less severe than those facing many other states. Revenue has fallen in the face of a weak economy, while stimulus funds, which helped close the gap in 2009 and 2010, have faded away.

In this situation, it makes sense to call for shared sacrifice, including monetary concessions from state workers. And union leaders have signaled that they are, in fact, willing to make such concessions.

To the liberal world’s nascent army of ditto-heads, those presentations will mean the same thing. Beyond that, such people will see no contradiction between Krugman’s statement about the need for “monetary concessions from state workers” and Schultz’s claim that the whole budget problem represented “cooked books.” Remember what Nichols said on the Ed Show? (“We do not believe that there is a fiscal crisis, period, and we certainly do not believe that there is a fiscal crisis sufficient…to cut our pay, to cut our benefits.”) Our ditto-heads will affirm that statement—and they’ll affirm Krugman’s too.

A lot of bad info was going around as the budget fight took shape. Klein and others corrected their errors. Last Thursday, Maddow refused.

Tomorrow—part 3: Maddow reacts to a slander