Barack Obama

News Junkie Obama Rejects "false balance" of Media Coverage

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Falsely balanced

Here's an interesting New York Times article about President Barack Obama's voracious media diet, his stubborn (and I think inaccurate) belief that his political troubles are significantly attributable to his failure "to tell a story to the American people," and his familiar left-of-center critique that straight journalism's tradition of giving credence to both sides of a story gives an asymmetrical advantage to the lying liars of the right. Here's an excerpt on the latter point:

While Mr. Obama frequently criticizes the heated speech of cable news, he sees what he views as deeper problems in news outlets that strive for objectivity. In private meetings with columnists, he has talked about the concept of "false balance" — that reporters should not give equal weight to both sides of an argument when one side is factually incorrect. He frequently cites the coverage of health care and the stimulus package as examples, according to aides familiar with the meetings.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, was previously Time magazine's Washington bureau chief. He said the president thought that some journalists were more comfortable blaming both parties, regardless of the facts. "To be saying 'they're both equally wrong' or 'they're both equally bad,'" Mr. Carney said, "then you look high-minded."

The term "false balance," which has been embraced by many Democrats, emerged in academic papers in the 1990s to describe global-warming coverage.

"I believe this type of 'accuracy' and 'balance' are a huge thing afflicting contemporary media," said Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of the left-leaning Web site Talking Points Memo.

It is interesting, and complicated, to ponder the manipulatable limitations of journalistic "fairness," and to even begin trying to determine which broad camp of American humans is more likely to tell, spread, and believe in lies about policy, politics, and science. But I think it's also important, and even telling, to point out something that the Press Critic in Chief and his fellow anti-false-balancers typically do not: The president is BSing us too. Particularly on the very topics he name-checks above: Obamacare and the stimulus.

Do you remember when the president warned Obamacare critics that "If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out"? While the anti-false balancers thundered their applause, the president went on to tell tall tales of his own. Here's how I described it at the time:

"There may be those—particularly the young and healthy—who still want to take the risk and go without coverage," he warned, in a passage defending compulsory insurance. "The problem is, such irresponsible behavior costs all the rest of us money. If there are affordable options and people still don't sign up for health insurance, it means we pay for those people's expensive emergency room visits." No, it means that, on balance, the healthy young don't pay for the unhealthy old. The whole point of forcing vigorous youth to buy insurance is using their cash and good actuarials to bring down the costs of covering the less fortunate. […]

"Add it all up, and the plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years," he said, trying hard to sound like those numbers weren't pulled out of Joe Biden's pants, and won't be dwarfed by actual costs within a year or two. "We've estimated that most of this plan can be paid for by finding savings within the existing health care system–a system that is currently full of waste and abuse," he said, making him at least the eighth consecutive president to vaguely promise cutting Medicare "waste" (a promise, it should be added, that could theoretically be fulfilled without drastically overhauling the health care system). […]

And in a critical, tic-riddled passage that many of even his most ardent supporters probably don't believe, Obama said: "Here's what you need to know. First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits–either now or in the future. Period." In case you couldn't quite read his lips, the president repeated the line for emphasis. Then: "And to prove that I'm serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don't materialize." 

If that "one dime" formulation sounds familiar, that's because Obama made—then almost immediately broke—the same promise regarding taxes on Americans earning less than $250,000 a year. Surely the no-new-deficits pledge is headed for the campaign dustbin faster even then that "net spending cut" we'll never see.

I wrote about journalistic critics' preference for scrutizining the health care remarks of Sarah Palin over at CNN Opinion last year.