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Print view: When Hannity churns reports of this type, we liberals call him dishonest
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NOT UNLIKE SEAN HANNITY! When Hannity churns reports of this type, we liberals call him dishonest: // link // print // previous // next //

Ezra Klein buys Rhee: On the front page of today’s New York Times, Trip Gabriel does a worthwhile report about the ongoing war on teachers.

Headline: “Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?” Early on, Gabriel hints at one of the motives behind all the teacher-bashing:

GABRIEL (3/3/11): Even in a country that is of two minds about teachers—Americans glowingly recall the ones who changed their lives, but think the job with its summers off is cushy—education experts say teachers have rarely been the targets of such scorn from politicians and voters.

Republican lawmakers in half a dozen states are pressing to unwind tenure and seniority protections in place for more than 50 years. Gov. Chris Christie’s dressing down of New Jersey teachers in town-hall-style meetings, accusing them of greed, has touched a populist vein and made him a national star.

Let’s state the obvious: In part, this is a political war, driven by Republicans and corporate anti-union privatizers. The full set of motivations is wider than that, of course—and many folk have no “motives” at all. But in large part, the scorn that’s being heaped on teachers has a plain political sub-text.

This brings us to Ezra Klein’s rather strange piece in Tuesday’s Washington Post.

As we’ve long noted: When it comes to public education, our finer young liberals will often perform as running-dogs for corporate narratives. Ezra produced one of the strangest such performances we’ve ever seen.

Teacher lay-offs are coming, he said. In many states, this will mean that the least experienced teachers will get pink slips, based on their lack of seniority. You may think that’s the wrong way to make such decisions. But the following judgment is truly bizarre—and just consider that source!

KLEIN (3/1/11): State budgets are in worse shape than Charlie Sheen. With federal aid running out and local economies still struggling, the next few years will require deep cuts in spending. And where do states spend much of their money? On education—which is to say, on teachers.

The prospect of firing tens of thousands of teachers is bad enough. But, as a chilling report from the New Teacher Project explains, about 40 percent of the nation's teachers work in states where their contracts don't allow administrators to take performance into account when making layoffs. That is to say, they cannot try to lay off the bad teachers while saving the good ones. Instead, they're forced to use the "last-hired-first-fired" mechanism. The newest teachers get the pink slip, no matter how good they are. This will turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And let's be clear, it's the fault of the teachers unions.

Ezra damns those infernal unions as he makes an extremely strange judgment. And just consider that source!

What judgment did Ezra reach? For unknown reasons, he says it will “turn a crisis into a catastrophe” if school districts decide to lay off the least experienced teachers. That is one of the strangest judgments we’ve ever seen in print.

Plainly, Ezra doesn’t want any lay-offs. But why would he think that the youngest, least experienced teachers are better than everyone else? That’s pretty much what you have to think to advance this unexplained thesis, in which firing the least experienced teachers seems to create the worst possible outcome.

That’s an extremely unlikely hypothesis—but Ezra doesn’t explain it. Would it be better to let administrators decide, as he suggests? Maybe! But then again, that might be worse.

Firing the least experienced teachers would create a catastrophe? Who would advance such an overwrought notion? Who would issue such a “chilling report?” Why, the New Teacher Project, of course—the group Michelle Rhee founded!

On Sunday, Steve Benen was pimping Wendy Kopp. Two days later, Ezra semi-pimped Rhee.

Let’s be clear: Just because Rhee founded the New Teachers Project, that doesn’t mean there’s something “wrong” with the group. But Ezra’s claim is absurdly overwrought—and it follows the comic-book, Kopp/Rhee line in which the finer young children come into the schools and create the educational miracles the lazy unionized teachers simply refuse to produce. This has always been a ridiculous fantasy, based on miracle claims by Kopp and Rhee—utterly silly miracle claims supported by none of the research.

On Sunday, Benen was pimping this jive. On Tuesday, Ezra pretty much did. It pretty much never stops.

Ezra goes on to contemplate a new, better system of teacher evaluation. He betrays no sense of understanding how subjective judgment of the type he describes will often actually work. For ourselves, we favor more aggressive teacher evaluation—but that isn’t what caught our eye in this truly absurd analysis. We were struck by Ezra’s overwrought language, starting with his reference to that “chilling report”—a chilling report from one of the groups which has tended to serve as a useful tool for the corporate privatizers.

By the way: The New Teacher Project is one of the groups which supplies those inexperienced teachers. Presumably, some of their teachers would be getting laid off, which might explain that “chill.”

On Sunday, Benen praised TFA. On Tuesday, Ezra caught chills from the New Teacher Project. To a large extent, these groups have pimped dishonest claims which work against serious public school discourse. And of course, it’s the unions’ fault!

The finer young liberals are often happy to run with the Kopps and the Rhees—with the finer Ivy Leaguers who look and sound so much like themselves. Or so it can seem when they make the types of overwrought claims found in Ezra’s piece.

Special report: Rise of the ditto-heads!

PART 4—NOT UNLIKE SEAN (permalink): There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes; people make mistakes all the time. But Rachel Maddow admitted no errors in her distraction-laden performance last week—a performance delivered beneath a big sign: DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS.

This report was delivered on February 24 (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/2/11). Maddow did demand “corrections”—from others. But she offered none of her own.

Maddow devoted a lengthy, twelve-minute segment to the topic of corrections. She repeatedly stressed the wonderful way she rushes to correct her own errors. But by the time her segment was finished, she had admitted no mistakes—and she was battering Politifact hard. As she neared the end of the segment, she completed a screed against right-wing sites who badger her because she’s gay. She then turned back to her main antagonist as she summarized the long segment.

Maddow returned to a pair of themes she had established four minutes earlier. She said Politifact had spread “bullpucky” when it criticized her report on Wisconsin, a report she had made one week earlier. And she said you don’t get to make shit up just because you have “fact” in your name:

MADDOW (2/24/11): Calling bullpucky is fun. Calling bullpucky is journalistically useful.

It is a neat idea to be able to call balls and strikes in facts and news, to fact-check things you hear in the news and fact-check things you hear politicians and political figures say. People do get stuff wrong and it should be pointed out. When I confused the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in terms of which one had a preamble, you may recall that I not only apologized for that, I sang and danced my apology to that.

When you get something wrong, it is both good practice, and I find it satisfying, to own up to it. Say you got it wrong, learn something about it, and move on. But that should apply to everybody. That should apply to everybody, even if you have the word “fact” in your name, or in what you say you are doing.

Calling somebody a liar when they are not lying is not the same as fact-checking. That is just bullpucky, too.

Thanks very much for being with us tonight. Now, it is time for the Ed Show.

In this summation, it was clear what this long, distraction-laden segment had been about:

Once again, Maddow insisted that she does fess up when she gets things wrong on her program. (She sings and dances her corrections, she said, helping us learn to adore her.) But according to Maddow, Politifact had called her “a liar” when, in fact, she hadn’t been lying. The site had thus spread bullpucky, another word for bull[shit].

According to Maddow’s summation, Politifact doesn’t get to spread bull[shit] around just because it has “fact” in its name.

Plainly, this was the principal point of Maddow’s long, rambling segment. That said, the segment was quite remarkable—remarkable for the type of conduct we call “dishonest” when it’s done by the other side. Maddow had done an extremely poor job of responding to the various things Politifact had said. In the process, she misled her viewers about the errors Politifact found in her work.

For starters: Sorry, but no—Politifact never called Maddow a liar. Nor had Politifact “slandered” Maddow and her staff, a suggestion she seemed to make a bit earlier. In fact, Maddow had made some obvious errors in her February 17 report—and Politifact had noticed. Politifact’s critique had been imperfect, but it also made some strong points. For the most part, it was Maddow who seemed to dissemble as she replied to Politifact’s challenge.

Can we talk? If Sean Hannity did a report like this, the liberal world would call him a liar. And it would be extremely hard to say that the judgment was wrong.

How did Maddow mislead her viewers last week? Let’s try counting the ways:

Maddow disappears her opening statement: Incredibly, Maddow never discussed the principal statement Politifact challenged in its report. She simply wished it away.

Right in its headline, Politifact scored this statement by Maddow 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 hard to know why Maddow made that statement—a statement which was puzzling at best. But Maddow made this odd remark as part of a longer opening statement—an opening statement in which she seemed to turn the world on its head. “I’m here to report that there is nothing wrong in the state of Wisconsin,” she weirdly said, speaking with the tone of a prophet. “Wisconsin is fine. Wisconsin is great, actually!” She then made the puzzling remark about Wisconsin being “on track to have a surplus.”

Which it pretty much wasn’t.

It’s hard to know why someone would paint such a puzzling picture of Wisconsin’s budget. Quite reasonably, Politifact challenged Maddow for this opening statement—and they scored that one statement “false.” But so what? Last Thursday, Maddow completely ignored this matter as she pretended to respond. Viewers were never told that she had made that odd remark as part of that longer, and odder, opening portrait.

Viewers weren’t told what Maddow had said. They weren’t told that Politifact scored it “false.” Maddow never had to explain. Her statement disappeared.

Maddow disappears an obvious error: As we noted yesterday, Maddow made an erroneous claim on February 17 about an alleged budget surplus. Early in her presentation, she said that Wisconsin’s non-partisan budget agency “said…last month that the state was on track to have a $120 million budget surplus this year.” (On screen, a visual showed that Maddow was referring to a report by Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau.) Maddow repeated this general claim several times as she continued.

As we’ve noted, many liberals were making that claim around the time of Maddow’s report. But as Politifact showed in its challenge to Maddow, that claim was erroneous—“false.” In the days after Maddow made her report, several other major liberals self-corrected on that very point. But as with the claim which Politifact headlined, Maddow took the easy way out. During last Thursday’s 12-minute segment, she didn’t mention her own repeated error about the alleged budget surplus. Once again, she disappeared what she had said—even as she swore, again and again, that she is very, very, very careful to correct her own mistakes.

When Sean Hannity does [shit] like that, the liberal world calls him dishonest.

Politifact makes a mistake: Politifact did some very good work in its critique of Maddow. In particular, they clarified some basic facts which were being widely bungled. We would assume that their report helped produce the self-corrections which were observed in the next few days. In this post, for example, Kevin Drum linked to Politifact’s report, recommending its account of the facts, even as he added an update to his own post. “The original draft of this post underestimated the size of Wisconsin's future deficits,” he wrote. “I've corrected the text to more accurately reflect the legislative analyst's estimates.” (Because his update supplanted his original text, we don’t know how badly Kevin had underestimated things in his original post.)

Politifact helped clarify some basic points which were being widely misreported. And Maddow had been one of the people making these basic errors. That said, Politifact also made an error in its challenge to Maddow. As with Maddow’s various bungles, Politifact’s error was understandable. But it was wrong all the same.

Politifact’s error came here:

POLITIFACT (2/18/11): [Maddow] 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.

Maddow and others making the claim all cite the same source for their information—a Jan. 31, 2011 memo prepared by Robert Lang, the director of the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

According to Politifact, Maddow had made a “claim;” she had claimed that Walker “gave away $140 million in business tax breaks—so if there is a deficit projected of $137 million, [he] created it.” In fact, that claim was “making the rounds,” just as Politifact said. On February 16, Ed Schultz plainly made this claim, with The Nation’s John Nichols in hot agreement. The erroneous claim seems to track to Nichols’ February 16 editorial in the Madison Capital Times.

One day later, Maddow aired her own report—and Politifact thought she too had advanced this claim. But was she really advancing that claim? Is that what she was trying to say? As with almost everything in her report, it’s rather hard to tell. In the passage we highlight below, Politifact thought it spotted that claim:

MADDOW (2/17/11): 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!

What is happening in Wisconsin right now has absolutely nothing to do with public workers. The headline here, the way this keeps getting shorthanded, is “Workers angry after state is forced by budget crisis to crack down.”

That’s not what’s going on. The state is not being forced to crack down. A lot of states do have budget crises right now, but heading into this year, Wisconsin was not one of them.

On February 16, Ed Schultz explicitly said that Walker’s tax cuts helped produce the shortfall. That same day, Nichols had explicitly made that claim in his editorial. One night later, Politifact thought Maddow had made the same “claim”—but Maddow didn’t explicitly do that. As with so much of Maddow’s report, it isn’t clear what she meant when she compared the (allegedly new) $137 million shortfall to the $140 million in new tax cuts. Her live delivery of this material doesn’t help clarify matters; she semi-stumbled when she said that “now” a shortfall does exist—a statement which seemed to contradict what she said as she started her report.

In letters of complaint to Politifact, MSNBC’s Bill Wolff insisted that Maddow had meant something different. In truth, there’s no way to tell what she actually meant; this passage continued the reign of confusion displayed throughout her report. But Politifact shouldn’t have said that Maddow made that “claim.” In this passage, as in much of her piece, it’s simply unclear what she meant. (As a courtesy, we’re assuming that Maddow’s report was written by one of her staffers.)

By the way: Other parts of that passage are factually wrong or foolish. Throughout that passage, Maddow extends her false assertion about Wisconsin’s supposed budget surplus. And how about this: “What is happening in Wisconsin right now has absolutely nothing to do with public workers.” That’s a very peculiar statement. If the budget shortfall “has absolutely nothing to do with public workers,” then why in the world have the public workers, and their unions, agreed to Walker’s give-back requests? The shortfall isn’t the “fault” of the workers; the workers shouldn’t be “blamed” for the shortfall. But Maddow’s statement is utterly silly, like so many things she says.

What did Maddow actually mean when she cited Walker’s tax cuts? Two weeks later, we have no idea. There’s no way to tell from her muddled text, which is long on snark but short on clarity. Quite possibly, some viewers thought what Politifact thought; they may have thought she was telling the world that Walker helped cause the shortfall, which Maddow falsely said was new. That claim was being widely bruited; it may be what Maddow’s staffer had in mind when composing that passage. But Politifact erred when it said that Maddow actually made that “claim.” This leads to one last point from Maddow’s rebuttal.

How Maddow responded: Despite that error, Politifact did a lot of good work in its challenge to Maddow.

It corrected a set of bungled facts about the Wisconsin budget. It corrected at least one obvious error from Maddow’s report. Beyond that, it challenged the extremely puzzling way she started her report. At any rate, as it summarized its presentation, it rated her “take” to be “false:”

POLITIFACT (2/18/11): Here’s the bottom line:

There is fierce debate over the approach Walker took to address the short-term budget deficit. But there should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall. While not historically large, the shortfall in the current budget needed to be addressed in some fashion. 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.

We rate Maddow’s take False.

Politifact made several basic statements:

“There should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall,” Politifact said. On that point, we’d say that Maddow’s report was confused and confusing.

Walker’s tax cuts “are not part of this [current] problem and did not create it,” Politifact said. That’s true, but it isn’t clear that Maddow made that claim. (She did claim that the budget shortfall was new this month. That claim was significant—and false.)

Politifact’s report was full of information—information Maddow should have brought to her viewers’ attention. Instead, she edited Politifact’s summation and offered a narrow, misleading defense of her own confusing report—a narrow defense which was highly misleading. In a long and rambling segment which spanned twelve minutes and 32 seconds, she devoted less than 90 seconds to a review of the actual things she had said.

She disappeared the erroneous things she had said, even as she boasted and bragged about her devotion to self-correction. Instead, she played tape of the one accurate thing she had said—a nine-word statement which seemed unclear and self-contradictory in context.

What follows is Maddow’s full response to Politifact. When Hannity pimps silly [shit] like this, the liberal world calls him dishonest:

MADDOW (2/24/11): The right wing this week, for example, got very excited when a St. Petersburg Times project called Politifact called a piece of our reporting on the Wisconsin crisis false. It was specifically about Wisconsin’s budget. They said, quote, "Maddow and the others are wrong. There is indeed a projected deficit in Wisconsin."

Flashing red lights! Bells and whistles! Meter to red! Maddow lied! She said there is no budget shortfall in the state of Wisconsin!

Roll the tape.

MADDOW (videotape): There is, in fact, a $137 million budget shortfall.

MADDOW: Politifact ran a whole article about me supposedly denying the existence of a budget shortfall in Wisconsin. They say, quote, "Here’s the bottom line. There should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall. We rate Maddow’s take false."


MADDOW (videotape): There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall.

MADDOW: Politifact says I am false, false, because I denied there is a budget shortfall in Wisconsin.

MADDOW (videotape): There is in fact a $137 million budget shortfall.

MADDOW: If you are somebody who does not bite your nails, but you would like to start, if you feel like reading the letters we sent to PolitiFact asking them to please run a correction on this, we have posted those letters on our blog so you, too, can share in our frustration. They have told us they do not intend to run a correction about their mistakes on this, which I should not find astonishing but I do.

Politifact, you are wrong here on the facts, and bluntly, and you ought to correct it. Putting the word "fact" in your name does not grant you automatic mastery of the facts.

Actually, Politifact said it was “false” when Maddow said the following: “Despite what you may have heard about Wisconsin`s finances, Wisconsin is on track to have a budget surplus this year.” But Maddow never played that tape of that statement, so no explanation was needed.

In a 12-minute, 32-second report, that was Maddow’s full attempt to respond to Politifact. Her weird opening statement was gone. So were her repeated false statements about that alleged budget surplus. She didn’t explain what she meant by linking the current budget shortfall to Governor Walker’s new tax cuts. She simply played tape of one short statement, and pretended that this settled everything.

Politifact made a mistake in its piece. After further consideration, we’re dropping its overall grade to a B.

But Rachel Maddow’s initial report had been an incoherent mess—a bungled mess containing real errors. One week later, her second report was vastly worse. It’s hard to believe that intelligent people could produce such work in good faith.

According to Newsweek, Maddow is paid $2 million per year. According to Howard Kurtz, she has 17 full-time staffers. It’s a stunning sign of the times when someone with such massive resources produces such hapless work. That first report was incoherent, a mess—a disservice to Maddow’s viewers.

That said, worker ants rush to praise their queens. Tomorrow, the ditto-heads speak.