PolitiFact Catches Keith Olbermann In Another Significant Error

Keith Olbermann had a terrible day on Tuesday.

In baseball terminology, he went 0 for 3. 

After NewsBusters reported two segments from his low-rated "Countdown" program that either included selectively edited transcripts to mislead viewers or material misrepresentations contradicted by numerous sources, the fact-checking website PolitiFact determined another statement made by MSNBC's hottest property was "False".

So egregious were Olbermann's comments that Politifact almost gave them their lowest rating, "Pants on Fire," which readers should recall from their youth always came after "Liar, liar."

Before we get to PolitiFact's analysis, let's witness Olbermann at his worst (video follows with transcript and LOTS of commentary, h/t Lachlan Markay):

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: BP and its co-conspirators are also gaining from previously unreported tax benefits. It‘s allowed to write-off the rent it paid for Transocean, the company that owned the Deepwater Horizon, in order to lease the oil rig. That saves BP hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Transocean, meanwhile, having fled first to the Cayman Islands and then to Switzerland to lower its corporate tax bill by almost 15 percent.

The Center for American Progress counting nine different subsidies that the U.S. government gives to an industry that makes more money that any other industry, including refunds for drilling costs and refunds to cover the cost of searching for oil. Subsidies for oil and gas companies make up 88 percent of all federal subsidies. Just cutting the oil and gas subsidies out would save the U.S. government $45 billion every year.  

Uhhhh, no! Frankly, not even close as PolitiFact reported Friday:

We tracked down the Center for American Progress paper the statistic was drawn from -- "Pumping Tax Dollars to Big Oil: Getting Government Priorities Right on Tax Subsidies for Oil Companies," published on April 14, 2010, by Sima J. Gandhi, a senior economic policy analyst with the center.

In the paper, Gandhi wrote, "Tax expenditures are government spending through the tax code. They are distributed through deductions, exclusions, credits, exemptions, preferential tax rates, and deferrals. What makes them look different from grants or checks is that they are delivered through the tax code as part of tax expenditure spending programs. These tax expenditures can amount to a significant portion of federal subsidies for oil and gas. The cost of tax expenditure programs for oil and gas companies made up about 88 percent of total federal subsidies in 2006."

When we read that, it sounded to us like Gandhi was saying that 88 percent of all oil and gas subsidies were accomplished through the tax code -- not that 88 percent of all federal subsidies went to the oil and gas industry.

To check that, we contacted Gandhi. She confirmed our suspicion and pointed us to her original source -- a 2006 paper published by the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, a state office. The paper includes a detailed table and says that "various taxes represented approximately 87.4 percent of federal government subsidies for oil and gas in 2006."

So it's clear to us that Olbermann misstated that statistic.

As for the government saving $45 billion a year if all oil and gas subsidies were cut:

This one proved even easier to check. We located a different Center for American Progress paper by Gandhi, "Eliminating Tax Subsidies for Oil Companies," published on May 13, 2010. In it, she outlines nine different types of subsidies (Olbermann was right about that number) and concludes that "the total government savings from eliminating these subsidies is projected to be $45 billion over 10 years."

That's $45 billion over 10 years, not one year, as Olbermann had said.

We aren't qualified to judge the accuracy of the Center for American Progress' statistics, which may well draw criticism from conservatives. But Olbermann clearly muffed it twice when he repeated them incorrectly to viewers -- and by a substantial margin -- giving viewers the impression that oil and gas subsidies are 10 times more expensive than they actually are. Because of this, we considered rating his comment Pants on Fire, but his errors seemed to us to be sloppy rather than devious. So we'll give him a rating of False.

PolitiFact may see this as "sloppy rather than devious," but when a man gets three things wrong in one show, one certainly has to wonder.

As NewsBusters previously reported, Olbermann on the same evening selectively edited and cherry picked from a Rush Limbaugh radio transcript to make the conservative talker appear racist.

The "Countdown" host also on Tuesday claimed Abraham Lincoln only lost one election in his political career, an errant proclamation employed to discredit Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle.

PolitiFact just identified strike three.

The question is how much more of this is MSNBC going to put up with.

Right now, despite only getting about one million viewers an evening, Olbermann is this cable channel's hottest property.

But can a news network tolerate this level of incompetence while maintaining any sense of credibility, or is that beside the point for an organization that turns a blind eye to its newscasters admitting that they get tingles up their leg when a presidential candidate speaks?

While you ponder, remember that one day after making all of these errors on national television, Olbermann called former Alaska governor Sarah Palin an idiot.

With this in mind, when does instant karma get this charlatan? 

*****Update: Olbermann acknowledged his error on Friday...

OLBERMANN: One last note on the subject of oil. An apology and thank you, apologies to you for getting this wrong this past Tuesday.

We said the oil and gas industry gets 88 percent of all federal subsidies. Not true. A report by the Center for American Progress concluded that 88 percent of federal subsidies to oil and gas came in the form of tax breaks and credits and so forth. We all misread it. The buck stops here so I apologize for passing on the wrong info to you.

Cutting oil and gas subsidies would save $45 billion, but that`s over 10 years, not in the one year we reported. So, our apologies again -- and our thanks to PolitiFact.com which brought this to light and guessed correctly that we misread the report, and our thanks to them for only rating our report "false" rather than their other option "pants on fire." 

Yes, you SHOULD thank them for that. However, if they had also taken the time to bust you for your Abraham Lincoln error, maybe they would have given you a "Pants on Fire" for both.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.