Sunday, May 20, 2012

PFB Smackdown: Rachel Maddow (again) and White House baby screening

It does seem that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has gone a tad unhinged over PolitiFact.

Maddow's latest complaint about PolitiFact stems from a "Mostly False" rating PolitiFact gave to a pro-life/anti-abortion group over its claim that the White House recognizes the existence of unborn babies for security purposes.

Maddow's problem seems to come from the fact that she doesn't recognize that PolitiFact's rating system weights toward the middle ratings because of compound statements and underlying arguments. 


Maddow seems inches from screaming (3:05) "It's got to be either true or false!"

Clearly Maddow believed the "Mostly False" rating from PolitiFact was inflated.  But she made her case with cherry-picked information.  And her choices weren't so surprising when PolitiFact did much the same thing, though not quite to the extreme Maddow took it.

This is the key line from the White House e-mail, which neither Maddow nor PolitiFact saw fit to mention (from the National Right to Life press release):
"We have received a number of calls regarding how to enter security information for a baby that has not yet been born," Shafer wrote.
The PolitiFact telling picks up with Shafer's next sentence (bold emphasis added):
The release was a response to an early-morning email from the White House Visitors Office detailing how to record the personal information of babies still in utero.

"Crazy as it may sound, you MUST include the baby in the overall count of guests in the tour. It’s an easy process," Visitors Office director Ellie Schafer wrote to congressional staffers, specifying that nine zeros should be filled in for the infant’s Social Security Number.
Using just the second sentence, it's very easy to charge National Right to Life with distorting the meaning of the email newsletter.  But with the addition of the preceding sentence it is plain that Shafer is giving instructions on entering security information for a baby that has not yet been born.  The first sentence helps illuminate why Shafer says it sounds crazy to include the (unborn) baby in the overall count.  The PolitiFact version at least introduces the quotation with a helpful paraphrase ("detailing how to record the personal information of babies still in utero").

The White House instruction to provide security information for the unborn baby, clear in the White House email, was the fulcrum on which the NRTL built its implication of White House hypocrisy.

But we need to clarify which fact PolitiFact chose to check.

(clipped from
The top portion of the PolitiFact image is a suitably accurate representation of the NRTL newsletter, and in light of the information already discussed, it can't be entirely false that the White House recognizes unborn babies in terms of its security procedures.  It sent out instructions to help expectant mothers fill out security information for babies not yet born.

The bottom portion of the PolitiFact image tends to mislead.  Saying the White House "screens" unborn babies conveys the impression that the babies have enough history to warrant some type of security threat, and implies that some unborn babies may not make the cut.  The NRTL newsletter doesn't mention anything about that type of screening and does not imply it.  On the contrary, the newsletter appears to take for granted that the White House asks for the information for the purpose of providing security for the visitors, including babies born or otherwise.

I'll go out on a limb and assume that if the White House security team has information about a pregnant woman visiting the White House on a day the White House is attacked, rescue efforts will take into account the fetus and take special action to help ensure its survival.  That's in line with the purpose of the NLRB press release.  There's a touch of hypocrisy in the policy and the NLRB newsletter doesn't overplay that angle.  If "Mostly False" isn't the correct rating then it should be higher than that.  Indeed, the NLRB's newsletter handled the truth more carefully than either Maddow or PolitiFact in this case.

Maddow's rant fits with a pattern of low-quality criticism of PolitiFact from the Left.

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