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Print view: You really have to watch the tape to appreciate the depth of last Thursday's clowning
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WHEN RACHEL ATTACKED! You really have to watch the tape to appreciate the depth of last Thursday’s clowning: // link // print // previous // next //

Direct from Madison, Davey reports: We’re a nation of 300 million souls—and we live in an idiocracy.

What other conclusion can we draw from Monica Davey’s report?

Davey writes for the New York Times, our most famous and “smartest” newspaper. This morning, she reports direct from Wisconsin about that state’s budget fight.

At present, this is our nation’s biggest domestic issue. And yet, what happened when Davey reported? The analysts laughed, groaned, howled and cried when they read this deathless passage, in which Davey helps us understand the extent of Wisconsin’s travail:

DAVEY (3/2/11): No one here disputes that Wisconsin faces a serious fiscal problem, but there is wide disagreement over the severity of the crisis and whether increases in revenues, as well as cuts, might be needed. Among the nation’s deficit-troubled states, Wisconsin is neither the worst off nor the most fortunate. Mr. Walker has described the expected budget deficit for the coming two years at $3.6 billion, among the largest in state history, while others contend the woes have been exaggerated.

Let’s spend a moment on that.

According to Davey, everyone agrees that Wisconsin’s problem is “serious.” There is, however, wide disagreement about how “severe” it is.

To help put that puzzle into perspective, Davey reports that Wisconsin isn’t “the worst off” among the (many) deficit-troubled states—nor is it “the most fortunate.” Of course, that useless description would apply to all but two of these states.

There’s more. According to Walker, the two-year shortfall is $3.6 billion—but Davey then says that “others contend the woes have been exaggerated.” Does that mean that some people dispute that budget projection? It isn’t clear from what Davey writes—and then, we move to this:

DAVEY (continuing directly): “It’s like trying to fix a small leak in your roof by burning your house down,” said Brian Austin, a police union leader in Madison.

Davey said no one disputes the idea that the budget problem is serious. In the very next paragraph, she quoted a union leader—and it seems clear that he does.

Good God, what a worthless attempt at “reporting!” And yet, this passage typifies the work we’ve seen in the past several weeks. Have you seen anyone try to define the size of Wisconsin’s shortfall as compared to the shortfalls in other states? We have not. Have you seen anyone compare Wisconsin’s tax rates to those in other states? In the first paragraph we quoted, Davey makes a rare, glancing reference; she seems to say that some Wisconsinites are proposing higher taxes! But she doesn’t say who those people are—and she, like others, provides no way to evaluate such a proposal.

One more key point:

Early in her report, Davey says Wisconsin Democrats are appalled by Walker’s proposed budget cuts:

DAVEY: Democrats here—some of whom could be seen shaking their heads during portions of Mr. Walker’s address—described the level of cuts, to schools in particular, as devastating, even inhumane, to ordinary families. Some said they feared the cuts might result in the layoffs of teachers, and that public schools might find themselves crammed—perhaps to as many as 60 children in a single classroom in some cases.

“There is going to be an annihilation of education in this state,” said Representative Tamara Grigsby, a Democrat.

Walker’s cuts are devastating, inhumane; they will annihilate education. By the way: What would these Democrats do instead?

There’s no sign that Davey asked.

Big Eddie does the same thing: No, it isn’t Davey alone—although she writes for our most famous, “smartest” national paper. Similar efforts have been widespread on Our One True Liberal Channel. Last night, on the Ed Show, Ed Schultz spoke with all fourteen of Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators, direct from an undisclosed location in a state whose name he disclosed. For undisclosed reasons, Schultz held this segment until his program’s last five minutes. The segment started like this (all fourteen were there):

SCHULTZ (3/2/11): Joining us tonight from an undisclosed location in Illinois are Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor. Also, Senator Chris Larson and the longest serving legislator in the United States, Senator Fred Risser.

Fred, I’ll ask you first, how radical is this budget? What was your response to the governor’s numbers today of 900 million dollars being taken out of education?

RISSER: You know, Wisconsin has always been proud of its support for its public education. What the governor is attempting to do would devastate our educational system. He is proposing to take, as you pointed out, close to a billion dollars of funds away.

And how is he going to make it up? Well, he figures—the tools he talks about is busting the union and letting local school boards turn around and unilaterally write these contracts. It is just outrageous.

SCHULTZ: Senator Taylor, how do you feel about the governor blaming you that there will lay-offs if you don’t go back?

TAYLOR: I think it’s ridiculous. The governor knows it is. The governor knows that the amount of money he is taking out of our education system is going to devastate each of the districts. And the fact that we’re gone is not the reason why. And the repair bill does not provide them with, quote-unquote, tools that will make up for the amount of dollars that he’s taking out.

And one other thing, Ed. When you look at the fact that in Milwaukee, in particular, that our children who are African-American are leading the nation for the fourth grade and 8th grade for the lowest reading scores, we’re already devastated.

So, you know, how are we going to be prepared for the jobs that he says he wants to create or be able to compete globally? This is really a sad moment in Wisconsin history.

Taylor seems like a very competent person, as do many of these state senators. How would they address the shortfall?

In the course of a full segment, Schultz forgot to ask.

We’re a nation of 300 million souls. Can you explain the puzzling work you encounter each day, each night?

Not that there’s anything wrong with it: We’ve become intrigued by Big Ed’s political history. He became a Dem in the year 2000. Not long before that, there was this:

BISMARCK TRIBUNE (2/26/94): Sportscaster and radio talk show host Ed Schultz says he may seek the Republican endorsement for Congress. Schultz mentioned his interest in running against first-term Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy during Thursday morning's “Viewpoint'” talk show on WDAY radio. The only declared GOP candidate for the House is state Rep. Gary Porter of Minot, an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1992. "I just think North Dakota needs a new, fresh conservative voice,'' Schultz said. “I think I could be that person. I don't know if I am yet.”

In 2004, Chuck Haga profiled the emerging now-liberal talker for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “Back in his sneeringly conservative days, he called the state's three Democrats in Congress—Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad and Rep. Earl Pomeroy—‘the Three Stooges,’” Haga wrote. One year later, Howard Kurtz told the heart-warming tale in the Washington Post:

KURTZ (1/10/05): Big Ed (6-2, 250 pounds) was a college quarterback who briefly made the roster of the Oakland Raiders but became a sportscaster after failing to catch on in the NFL. He drifted into political talk after voting for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "I was pretty much a warmonger and a pretty greedy guy,” he says. "I always wanted to make as much money as I possibly could and felt the downtrodden didn't deserve a break."

In the fairy-tale version recounted in his book, "Straight Talk From the Heartland," Schultz saw the light during a first date with the woman who would become his second wife, Wendy, who managed a Fargo homeless shelter. He spoke with military veterans there and realized they were not the bums and freeloaders he had lambasted on the air.

Schultz says his views evolved over time until he declared on the air in 2000 that he was a Democrat.

There’s nothing wrong with true evolution, of course. We applaud when the knuckles come up off the ground! That said, we were struck by that quote:

"I always wanted to make as much money as I possibly could.” Nagging question: How much has that outlook evolved?

Special report: Rise of the ditto-heads!

PART 3—WHEN RACHEL ATTACKED (permalink): Rachel Maddow made some flat-out mistakes in her first report on Wisconsin—as people often do.

Maddow aired that first report on Thursday evening, February 17. But uh-oh! Consider the following highlighted claim, which came near the start of her effort:

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. 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.

The agency to which Maddow referred is Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau. More precisely, she referred to a January 31 memo prepared by Robert Lang, the bureau’s director. One day before Maddow aired her report, an editorial in the Madison Capital Times asserted that Lang’s report “determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.”

That evening, Ed Schultz attributed this editorial to his guest, Maddow’s friend, John Nichols. Based in part on this editorial, Schultz and Nichols told the world that Governor Walker was cooking the books—that Walker’s new tax cuts had turned that projected surplus into a budget shortfall (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/1/11).

But uh-oh! On February 18, Politifact began to fact-check Maddow’s confusing report. In the process, they spoke to Lang himself; they concluded that Maddow, like several others, had gotten this matter wrong. This wasn’t the primary focus of Politifact’s review of Maddow. But in this passage, Politifact asserted that Maddow got this wrong—as people sometimes do:

POLITIFACT (2/18/11): The confusion, it appears, stems from a section in Lang’s memo that—read on its own—does project a $121 million surplus in the state’s general fund as of June 30, 2011.

But the remainder of the routine memo—consider it the fine print—outlines $258 million in unpaid bills or expected shortfalls in programs such as Medicaid services for the needy ($174 million alone), the public defender’s office and corrections. Additionally, the state owes Minnesota $58.7 million under a discontinued tax reciprocity deal. The result, by our math and Lang’s, is the $137 million shortfall.

To appearances, Politifact didn’t include that $58.7 billion when it did its math; nor did it explain that decision. (Elsewhere, the site explained that different news orgs had calculated different figures for the size of the shortfall.) But simply put, there never was a $121 million surplus projection; Nichols failed to consider Lang’s “fine print” when he wrote that. But after Nichols’ editorial appeared, this error had bounced around—to Schultz, to Maddow, to Ezra Klein.

This error was made by a range of people. Maddow made it too.

On Friday, February 18, Salon’s Andrew Leonard corrected himself on this point, and on one or two more (click here). The next day, Klein published a full self-correction (click this); he linked to a “good editorial” in the Wisconsin State Journal which made this same point about that misunderstood, phantom surplus.

Please note: The fact that Maddow seems to have made this mistake isn’t a hanging offense. Nichols made the error first, and several others followed. But other people corrected themselves, and Maddow simply didn’t. Politifact challenged her report on February 18—and all was silent for almost a week. But all hell broke loose last Thursday night, with Maddow saying that she had been “slandered” when Politifact called her a “liar.”

Politifact didn’t call Maddow a liar, of course; it simply said she had made some mistakes. But Rachel Maddow is rarely wrong— if you let Rachel Maddow tell it. Last Thursday, she issued a blistering, 12-minute rant in which she hotly denied all error. Her rant was grossly unfair, and highly deceptive—but it had a very long list of highly comical elements too.

To fully appreciate the clownishness of Maddow’s rant, you really should watch the tape (click here). At any rate, just consider the comical way Maddow began her attack.

Maddow’s full rampage/report would run well over twelve minutes (12:32 total). But in fact, she spent amazingly little time reviewing what she or Politifact had said about Wisconsin. Instead, she considered a long list of highly irrelevant matters, killing time, building sympathy and directing attention away from her bungled report. Prepare to laugh as you see the way Maddow started her attack on the demons who slandered her staff.

No, we really aren’t making this up. Maddow began with a thoughtful rumination about how amazingly responsible she herself really is:

MADDOW (2/24/11): We do a recurring segment on this show whenever we feel like it because we’re just that disciplined. It’s a segment called "Debunktion Junction."

And the reason we really like "Debunktion Junction" is twofold. Number one, we have a really cute cartoon train. And I really dig it when we get to run that—“Whoo, whoo!”—cartoon train.


Also, it gives us a chance to debunk stuff. There are claims that arise on the news sometimes that are widely believed to be true but can demonstrably be shown to be false. Also, there are some things in the news that seem too outlandish to really seem actually true, but they are confirmable. So, we use that segment to confirm as true, or debunk as untrue, stuff that you might have heard about in the news. We don’t do it all the time but when we do it, I think there is a public interest value to it. So, I’m glad that we do it.

Isn’t she wonderful? First, Rachel endeavored to make us love her, playing her silly cartoon train games. Then, she let us admire the way she and her staff use their adorable “choo-choo” segment to debunk claims which simply aren’t true. Again, you really have to watch this report to appreciate how clownish the self-pleading is. But as Maddow continued, she burned up more time describing her high moral fiber:

MADDOW (continuing directly): We also make a regular practice on this show of running corrections. If we say something on the air, if I say something on the air that turns out not to have been true, either an inadvertent mistake or an editing error or just wrong information or a false interpretation, we correct it. Not everybody in TV news makes a practice of doing that, but for us, we have always felt like it’s a responsible and useful thing to do.

Isn’t she great? By her own admission, she’s a great deal better than most TV folk! But the comedy lies in the gross deception. By now, Klein and others had corrected their own mistakes on the budget matter. By contrast, Maddow was gearing up for an attack on Politifact—an attack in which she would hotly deny the claim that she had erred at all.

By now, Maddow had burned a minute ten off her twelve-minute report. But she still had a long way to go. So she praised herself more:

MADDOW (continuing directly): One of the by-products of that, however, which I think is sort of fascinating, is that a lot of times when we say something critical about somebody or some group, they write to us immediately and tell us that we’ve got our facts wrong. Because I think we have a policy of running corrections, we always take those missives very seriously. We always quadruple-check what it is they’re upset about just to make sure that we got it right. And in most cases, these folks turn out to just not like what it is we’ve said about them, but we haven’t actually made an error.

Translation: Even when idiots write to complain, Maddow quadruple-checks their complaints! And now, Maddow threw a new cloud of gorilla dust, distracting us from the serious question she would barely discuss. She let us shake our heads at some of the people whose claims she’s forced to multiply check. In this long segment, Maddow built sympathy, letting us cringe at the types of people with whom she is forced to interact.

What kinds of people seek corrections? Rather than turn to Politifact’s claims, she served this cringeworthy example:

MADDOW (continuing directly): For example, Kansans for Life. Kansans for Life is an aggressive anti-abortion group with an innocuous-sounding name. They told us today that we were upset that last night we quoted from a death threat letter sent by somebody who has worked with them.

The death threat in question was addressed to Dr. Mila Means, the doctor in Kansas who’s been threatened and harassed by the anti-abortion movement for saying she wants to perform abortions in Wichita since nobody else has been doing that since the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

A representative of Kansas for Life called our office today and was very, very, very, very angry with us, at length, because we reported that the author of that death threat, a person named Angel Dillard, excuse me, is somebody who has worked with Kansans for Life in the past.

Can we talk? In the taxonomy of Maddow’s show, nothing could build viewer sympathy more than the claim that someone from this group had telephoned Maddow’s office while being “very, very, very, very angry.” There was of course no way to know how accurate Maddow’s claim might be during the rest of this lengthy passage. But much later, after these stories were done, Maddow laid down the law to all such correction-seekers:

MADDOW: I am happy to talk about this stuff and we will correct it when we get it wrong, but we will also correct you if you say publicly that we are wrong when we are really not.

There are too many people who work too hard on this show for us to get slandered when we are in fact telling the truth.

Except there was no sign that Kansans for Life had “publicly” said that Maddow was wrong when she wasn’t. In fact, a complaint had been posted on the group’s blog about a recent Maddow broadcast (click here)—but that public complaint had nothing to do with the alleged complaint Maddow now described, a complaint that had of course been made in a private telephone call. Nor was there any sign that John Boehner’s office had publicly said that Maddow was wrong—had “slandered her when she was telling the truth”—but Maddow also killed beaucoup time with a set of rambling tales about all the erroneous complaints that office had recently lodged. Along the way, Maddow helped us understand how amazingly patient she and her wonderful staffers are. “One of our producers spoke with that representative from Kansans for Life again tonight for more than a half hour,” she self-admiringly said. “She was very nice but she was unable to refute any of our reporting. We did not get it wrong.”

After reciting all those tales about Boehner’s office and Kansans for Life, Maddow had ratcheted viewer sympathy quite near the breaking point. Even better: By now, almost seven minutes was gone from her segment (more precisely, 6:32). At this point, Maddow began an extremely short attempt to speak to the actual matter which lay behind this long, dull, pointless, evasive, self-glorifying, denial-driven report.

What was driving this long, dull report, in which Maddow rejected all claims of error? (Comically, she rejected all claims while perched beneath a large sign. “DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS,” it said.) As would become abundantly clear, this long report had been occasioned by the Politifact report—the week-old post which said that Maddow had bungled her report about the Wisconsin budget.

Before we review Maddow’s brief and extremely selective attempt to defend her Wisconsin report, let’s note that she would end up burning even more time on highly irrelevant points of distraction. Amazing but true: During her entire report, Maddow spent less than 90 seconds discussing what she and Politifact had actually said about Wisconsin; viewers would get almost no idea what Politifact had criticized her for. Incredibly, viewers would never be told about the puzzling statement Politifact featured. (“Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin’s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.”) Viewers would never be told that Maddow had said that—or that Politifact had featured that statement in the headline of its report.

Incredibly, Maddow would spend less than 90 seconds responding to what had been said. But after that very brief faux-defense, Maddow would build more viewer sympathy, complaining about the right-wing sites that trash her because she’s gay or because they say she looks like a man. Beyond that, she would burn an additional 80 seconds hammering Politifact for two unrelated errors she said they had made in 2009. Different people will judge those allegations differently; in our view, Maddow went very far afield in search of stones to throw back at the site. That said: Even if Politifact did make two errors two years ago, what could that possibly have to do with what Maddow had said about the Wisconsin budget?

Absolutely nothing at all. But Maddow was playing her viewers for rubes as she pretended to fact-check her own statements. Sitting beneath that DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS sign, she essentially never told viewers what she had said that Politifact judged to be false.

Rachel’s viewers heard all about Kansans for Life. They heard about John Boehner’s office. They heard about right-wing sites which engage in rank homophobia. They heard about two niggling errors Politifact may or may not have made, two years ago. And as always, they heard a pile of effusive self-praise about Rachel and her fine staff.

But good lord! In 12 minutes and 32 seconds, Maddow spent less than 90 seconds discussing her own Wisconsin report! Viewers were left with little idea why that report had been challenged.

“DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS?” Apparently, the sign referred to what Maddow directs at everybody else! We’re often stunned by Maddow’s conduct. Tomorrow, we’ll look at her short, embarrassing faux self-defense—and at a rain of mega-dittos which poured in from the provinces.

Tomorrow—part 4: Huzzahs from our own ditto-heads