MSNBC’s Brian Williams And NYT’s Editorial Board Member Mara Gay Blasted For Bad Math On Air

Written by Dana Sanchez
bad at math
Journalists are notorious for saying they’re bad at math. That came back to haunt MSNBC host Brian Williams and New York Times editorial board member Mara Gay. Williams, then anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” spoke at the Women’s Conference in Long Beach, Calif, Oct. 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

Journalists are notorious for saying they’re bad at math.

It’s been that way since before data, analytics and market analysis were a part of the job, and “it may well be a lurking variable in the death of journalism’s institutions,” wrote Matt Waite, Pulitzer Prize-winning developer of PolitiFact.

“Welcome to journalism, where ‘bad at math’ isn’t just a destructive idea — it’s a badge of honor,” Waite wrote in a 2013 guest column for Harvard University’s Nieman Lab. “Bad at math,” Waite said, is “your admission to the club. It’s woven into the very fabric of identity as a journalist.”

Waite is a professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. A former senior news technologist at the St. Petersburg Times, he hates the idea of journalists saying they’re bad at math. Waite did something about it. He studied calculus.

That embarrassing owning up of an inexcusable lie came back Thursday night to haunt MSNBC host Brian Williams and his guest, Mara Gay, a New York Times editorial board member.

On the “11th Hour” show, Williams and Gay both missed the flawed math in a tweet that incorrectly claimed Mike Bloomberg could have repurposed his $500 million presidential ad campaign budget and given $1 million checks to all 327 million Americans — and still have money left over.

In fact, each American would’ve received about $1.53 — kudos to Mediaite for figuring that out.

Williams and his entire production team missed the mistake, displaying and endorsing a completely wrong tweet which has since been deleted.

“Somebody tweeted recently that actually with the money he’s spent, he could have given every American a million dollars,” Gay said, as the false claim appeared on screen.

“I’ve got it. Let’s put it on the screen,” Williams said, also missing the faulty math.

Williams corrected himself 10 minutes later. “(T)urns out Mara and I got the same grades at math,” Williams said. “I’m speaking of the tweet we both misinterpreted. He could give each American $1. Again, I didn’t have it in high school. I don’t have it tonight. I stand corrected. Sorry about that. The tweet is wrong.”

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Later, MSNBC’s official account apologized, saying that the show had “quoted a tweet that relied on bad math” and that it “corrected the error after the next commercial break and have removed it from later editions of tonight’s program.”

It’s easy to fail at math, journalism professor Waite wrote. He knows exactly how.

“Don’t put any effort in. Blow it off. Do something else … The difference between good at math and bad at math is hard work. It’s trying. It’s trying hard … So do me a favor: Try. Stop with the jokes … Because it’s not true. You can. If you try. You can be good at math.”