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What happened? MSNBC math flub forces on-air correction

It was so incredibly hard to believe that MSNBC’s Brian Williams just had to share it with the world.

A tweet from freelance columnist Mekita Rivas claimed that with all the money former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent on political advertising for his now-defunct presidential campaign, he could have given each American citizen $1 million.

The math was based on the thought that the amount Bloomberg spent on campaign advertising (around $500 million) divided by the number of people living in the United States (about 327 million) yielded $1 million per citizen.

That math is wrong. But that didn’t stop MSNBC’s Brian Williams and New York Times contributor and editorial board member Mara Gay from sharing the incredulous tweet on Thursday evening’s broadcast of “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” on the progressive cable news channel.

Williams said the tweet was “an incredible way of putting” Bloomberg’s ad spend into context, and that it “all became clear” when he first spotted the tweet on social media.

“It’s an incredible way of putting it,” Gay said. “It’s true. It’s disturbing.”

Between then and the time it made it to air, someone had to screen capture the tweet, turn it into a graphic, load it into the show’s control room and cue it for air — and throughout the process, not one person apparently thought twice about the contents of the tweet or its errant math.

In a series of posts on Twitter after the show, a social media editor said the errant information had been edited out of future airings of the show and apologized for the mistake. The account later included a note from Williams — who does not tweet himself, despite having a verified account — saying everyone on the show felt “terrible” about the error.

“Williams and Gay were off by about $1 million per person,” Dan Evon, a writer for Snopes, published on Friday. “Neither Williams nor MSNBC [have] corrected the mistake. Gay posted a message on Twitter attempting to laugh off the blunder, writing that she was ‘buying a calculator.'”

The Snopes article, though, is also inaccurate: Williams noted the math was wrong about 15 minutes later on the show, saying it was “garbage in, garbage out.”

As for Rivas, she has yet to correct the statement publicly — her Twitter account is on lockdown, though her bio now acknowledges that she’s “bad at math.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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