President Obama loses his sense of balance
President Barack Obama, like many of us, dislikes much of what he drinks from the news spigot. As the New York Times reported this week:
Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.
Before I continue, I’ll give you just a moment to guess which of the two opposing sides the president thinks is being given “equal weight” but does not deserve it. Need a little more time? Just another second? O.K.…time’s up! The president thinks the press is allowing his unworthy, mendacious Republican opponents to nullify the truths he speaks from the Oval Office. Obama has expressed these views in meetings with columnists on both the left and the right, according to the Times. It peeves him when reporters give equal weight to both sides when one side is factually incorrect and when they blame both parties when one party is to blame. Obama’s specific beef, it seems, is coverage of health insurance legislation and the stimulus package.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told the Times that the president believes the press engages in false balance so they can say both sides are equally wrong or both are equally bad, which allows the press, said Carney, to “look high-minded.”
False political balance was on Obama’s mind when he spoke at the American Society of News Editors convention in April. He doesn’t blame the press directly, but you don’t need to read between the lines to gather what he’s saying. “I think that there is oftentimes the impulse to suggest that if the two parties are disagreeing, then they’re equally at fault and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and an equivalence is presented – which reinforces I think people’s cynicism about Washington generally,” the president said.
One obvious cure for the false balance that seems to be giving Obama vertigo would be a press corps that sided with him consistently. This would be an elegant solution if the president were infallible, but he isn’t – as he himself admits.
For instance, in 2006, while a U.S. senator, Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling. I’m sure that at the time, Obama thought reporters giving equal time to President George W. Bush and others who wanted the debt ceiling raised were guilty of extending false balance.
But then in April 2011, after becoming president, Obama called for the debt ceiling to be raised. When questioned about his reversal, Obama acknowledged his error, and sent Press Secretary Carney out to apologize for him. “The president … regrets that vote and thinks it was a mistake,” Carney said.
Now, it could be that there is one absolutely true and correct position on whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. I’m sure that in Obama’s mind, a “no” vote in 2006 was the only defensible position to take and that he believed that any journalist who gave space to the opposing view was guilty of extending false balance. Similarly, he must have believed that reporters who had followed the Obama line in their 2006 dispatches performed admirably.
But once Obama switched positions on the debt ceiling in 2011, who was he to criticize anybody of false balance! Indeed, he should have been praising the “false-balance” journalists who, in 2006, were critical of his vote and more admiring of the position of President George W. Bush.
The debt ceiling isn’t the only issue Obama has reversed himself on and caused a false-balance meltdown. Since becoming president, he has flip-flopped on gay marriage, the closing of the Guantanamo detention facility, “terror” renditions, exercising war powers without congressional approval, supporting President Mubarak, continuing the manned space program, and others. I’d be the last person to criticize Obama for changing his views, especially if they’re based on the presentation of new evidence. Isn’t that what the Enlightenment was all about? To paraphrase a recent Matt Ridley column in the Wall Street Journal, progress depends on openness to ideas from all corners, even unseemly ones. Such openness is especially vital for a figure like the president who has a near-monopoly over certain kinds of decision making – such as where to send drones. Besides, by inviting both left and right columnists to the White House, isn’t he admitting the usefulness of false balance, or whatever you want to call listening to multiple points of view?
“When a discipline defers to a single authority and demands adherence to a set of beliefs, then it becomes a cult,” Ridley writes. His subject is the role of confirmation bias in science, but what he says applies equally to politics and the press. I fear false balance less than I do those who would silence the false balancers. And if flip-flopping Obama were a tad more introspective, he’d feel the same way.
I’d give my balance beam performance a perfect 10. Send your scores to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Follow my Twitter feed to see me fall flat on my ass. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) Convention in Washington, April 3, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed