We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories.
|(clipped from PolitiFact.com)|
The fact checkers:
Tom Kertscher: writer, researcher
Greg Borowski: editor
MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton made his comments on MSNBC's "Politics Nation," aptly enough. The transcript (yellow highlights indicate the portion quoted in the PolitiFact story):
SHARPTON: Republican politicians throw around budget numbers like it`s all some abstract game. But they seem to forget their policies have a devastating impact on real people across the country. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder has signed the law that puts a four-year lifetime limit on welfare benefits. That means next month, nearly 41,000 Michigan residents will stop getting welfare aid including nearly 30,000 children. Thousands of innocent impoverished kids, abandoned by the state. In Arizona, a new republican law punishes the families of prison inmates. To help deal with the state`s deficit, the state has begun charging $25 to visit someone in prison. It`s called a quote, "background check fee." But actually goes for maintenance and repairs.Aside from some journalistic impropriety, the quotation presents Sharpton's statement reasonably well.
And in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker`s budget cuts means, some kids are going without. One school district is so worried about losing state funding, that has stopped giving milk to elementary school kids during snack time. These are the real government of GOP priorities.
I'll take a moment to pan the journalists for the presentation of the quotation. PolitiFact lists the MSNBC transcript as the source. The transcript differs from the version of Sharpton's words used by the writer, Tom Kertscher, and passed on to the reader by the editor, Greg Borowski. The PolitiFact Wisconsin version cleans up some faulty grammar, including a missing "it," in the MSNBC transcript. Sharpton may or may not have made his statement the way PolitiFact presented it, but the transcript isn't the source of the quotation if the two differ unless PolitiFact Wisconsin relaxed its stance on the normal journalistic standard for handling quotations.
On with the fact check:
"Governor Scott Walker’s budget cuts mean some kids are going without," Sharpton declared. "One school district is so worried about losing state funding that it has stopped giving milk to elementary school kids during snack time."
Walker has prided himself as a budget cutter; his 2011-2013 spending plan reduced state funding of schools by nearly $800 million.
But did mere fear of state budget cuts leave some Wisconsin schoolchildren without milk to go with their graham crackers?
A small credit to PolitiFact, here: Sharpton's statement makes explicit the supposed relationship between Walker's fiscal discipline and the snatching of milk from the lips of babes. Er, schoolchildren. PolitiFact doesn't let Sharpton off by altering his claim.
We called and emailed MSNBC and the National Action Network, Sharpton’s Harlem-based civil rights organization, asking for evidence to back up Sharpton’s statement. Neither responded.The latter two paragraphs contain PolitiFact's entire justification for the "true" half of Sharpton's statement.
But we found that the day before Sharpton’s program aired, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison carried an article about milk for schoolchildren in Baraboo, which is about an hour northwest of the state capital.
The newspaper article said the Baraboo School District "decided to end its practice of providing milk with students' morning snack this year, citing concerns the state might eliminate subsidies for the program."
The PolitiFact team exercised its due diligence by contacting the principals in the story, who denied that the the threat of cessation of state aid served as a primary motivation behind the decision to cut milk from kids' snack time. Lacking corroboration from the principals, PolitiFact eventually rests its case on two newspaper stories (both by Brian D. Bridgeford) along with this (bold emphasis added):
News of the decision in early September troubled the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, so Laura Wilford, director of the board’s Wisconsin Dairy Council, contacted Baraboo school officials. She said she was told cost was the major reason for eliminating the program and that school officials were concerned about the condition of the Baraboo schools budget as well as cuts in state funding.Despite her obvious interest in seeing a continued subsidy of milk product in the public school system, we can grant Wilford the benefit of the doubt that she reports accurately what she was told by "school officials." But which ones? To whom did Wilford speak, and who said concerns about funding led to cutting out milk from snack time? It's an important detail, and the PolitiFact story provides no indication of any effort to obtain the important details.
And what about those two news stories from one Brian D. Bridgeford?
Sept. 6:Despite Wisconsin's nationally recognized status as the dairy state, the Baraboo School District has decided to end its practice of providing milk with students' morning snack this year.While many parents pay 30 cents for the daily dairy offering, school officials decided to end the program due to concerns the state might eliminate the Wisconsin School Day Milk Program, which helps pay for the cost of milk for students from poor families, said Molly Fitzgerald, director of elementary programming and principal at Gordon L. Willson Elementary School. And even with the support from the state program, students who receive free milk through the free and reduced lunch program cost the district about $10,400 for free milk with snacks last year.Baraboo News Republic
BARABOO — The Baraboo School District has decided to end its practice of providing milk with students' morning snack this year, citing concerns the state might eliminate subsidies for the program.
Many parents pay 30 cents for the daily dairy offering, but state funding through the Wisconsin School Day Milk Program helps pay for the cost of milk for students from poor families, said Molly Fitzgerald, director of elementary programming and principal at Gordon L. Willson Elementary School.
Both versions of the story contain a statement from Fitzgerald indicating that if the state stopped funding the system then some students might end up with milk while some went without, which gives rise to my hypothesis that Bridgeford made an unjustified inference regarding the reasons for ending the program. When Bridgeford hears that the cut in funding could create a unfair system he reasons that concerns about that unfair system led to ending the program, ergo the threat of the cuts at the state level ended the program. And the entire subsequent issue, including the fact check, ultimately stems from Bridgeford's inference.
PolitiFact put the pieces together a different way. The wrong way:
Although the May 2011 email from Fitzgerald to principals emphasized non-budgetary reasons for eliminating milk at snack time, she gave a different response when interviewed by the local newspaper for an article Sept. 2. The program was eliminated "due to concerns the state might eliminate" its funding, the Baraboo News-Republic quoted Fitzgerald as saying.Um, no. Fitzgerald did not say that, or at least we have no quotation of Fitzgerald matching that in the story that supposedly contains it. That was Bridgeford's paraphrase, and if my hypothesis is correct then it isn't a good paraphrase.
My hypothesis aside, PolitiFact's conclusion:
In criticizing Walker, Sharpton said "one school district is so worried about losing state funding that it has stopped giving milk to elementary school kids during snack time." Baraboo school officials now say state budget cuts had little or nothing to do with the decision to stop providing milk at snack time, but previously some of them indicated that fear of state budget cuts was the main reason."(P)reviously some of them indicated that fear of state budget cuts was the main reason." Oh, really?
We rate Sharpton’s statement Half True.
The evidence in support of PolitiFact's claim looks thin indeed, consisting as it does of a secondhand report of what an anonymous school official supposedly stated, along with dubious paraphrases created by a Wisconsinite reporter. There's no hard evidence of any such statement by any Baraboo school official in PolitiFact's story nor in the associated set of linked source materials.
Tom Kertscher: F
Greg Borowski: F
The stench of journalistic indifference emanates from this story. It is important who said what, as well as what was specifically said. PolitiFact simply treated Bridgeford's reporting as infallible gospel when his claims deserved examination as much as Rev. Sharpton's. The paraphrase won't do because it makes the entire story nearly dependent on one unexamined link in the chain. Add to that the outrageous judgment that Bridgeford's paraphrase was a quotation of Fitzgerald and no grade other than "F" will do.
On Sept. 21 I sent the following message to the PolitiFact writer, Tom Kertscher, under the subject heading "Mistake in PolitiFact fact check item":
Dear Mr. Kertscher,By the next day I had received Kertscher's relatively prompt reply acknowledging the point. Unfortunately the relevant section of the story remains unchanged through this date, improperly attributing a quotation to one of the key figures in the fact check.
The program was eliminated "due to concerns the state might eliminate" its funding, the Baraboo News-Republic quoted Fitzgerald as saying.
That's not a quotation of Fitzgerald. It is a paraphrase at best, and the distinction is important.
When we find we've made a mistake, we correct the mistake.Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
Still no change in the relevant text.
Suggested revision to PolitiFact's statement of principles (in the interest of accuracy):
When we find we've made a mistake we might correct the mistake if we feel like it and have the time to do so.