Presswatch

False Balance

An official interpretation is not a fact.

By From the October 2012 issue

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THE WRITER of this Associated Press headline, appearing the week before the Republican National Convention in August, was either witty or clueless: “Obama Defends Tenor of His Campaign, Slams Romney.” The mixed metaphor almost seemed appropriate for such a mixed message. At a press conference, the AP reported, the president “took questions from four reporters, the most he has taken from the national press corps in two months.” CBS’s Nancy Cordes confronted the president about the viciousness of his attacks on Mitt Romney. Reporters also brought up a third-party ad that, essentially, accused Romney of killing a man’s wife by shutting down the steel mill where he’d worked, causing her to lose medical insurance.

In response, Obama “defended the tone of his campaign…and insisted it’s actually Mitt Romney’s ads that are ‘patently false.’” But his very denials of negative campaigning amounted to negative campaigning. As the AP put it, he “did distance himself from a particularly provocative negative ad by a political group that supports him.”

Said the president: “I don’t think that Governor Romney is somehow responsible for the death of the woman that was portrayed in that ad”—repeating the allegation in the course of weakly repudiating it.

Obama similarly employed apophasis when he asserted that “nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon.” In fact, as the Washington Examiner noted, Obama aide Stephanie Cutter had done just that, suggesting to reporters in July that Romney might have been guilty of “misrepresenting his position at Bain to the SEC, which is a felony.”

The preceding week, in an interview with Entertainment Tonight (!), Obama made this risible assertion: “I don’t think you or anybody who’s been watching the campaign would say that in any way we have tried to divide the country. We’ve always tried to bring the country together.” The reader who sent me that interview clip observed that Obama probably believed what he was saying and described him as the “most isolated president since Nixon. That’s always the problem. Who tells his boss he is acting like [a jerk]?”

Nixon was famously paranoid, though that didn’t mean his adversaries, including in the media, weren’t out to get him. By contrast, journalists for the most part are favorably disposed to Obama. “The media is very susceptible to doing what the Obama campaign wants,” Time’s Mark Halperin observed. He should know. In March 2010, just after Obamacare was enacted, he opined that if Republicans “make the fall election a referendum on Obamacare…they may be playing right into the Democrats’ hands” (see Presswatch, TAS, February 2011).

No pundit is immune to errors of prognostication, but how could Obama be so out of touch not to realize that he was running a nasty campaign, or even that he was perceived as doing so? The Taranto Principle—the theory that approving coverage from liberal journalists encourages self-defeating behavior by liberal politicians—would not seem to apply here, at least not directly. Even admiring journalists had taken note (sometimes admiringly) of the nastiness and divisiveness of the president’s re-election campaign. The New York Times reported in early August that Obama “is an avid consumer of political news and commentary.” So he could hardly have been unaware that some people thought his campaign was divisive.

The Times report suggested a resolution to the conundrum. It seems Obama has adopted a system to rationalize away whatever critical coverage he receives:

In his informal role as news media critic in chief, he developed a detailed critique of modern news coverage that he regularly expresses to those around him.…

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.

It gives Obama too much credit to say he “developed” this “critique,” and the Times piece acknowledged that his “assessments overlap with common critiques from academics and journalism pundits.”

But what exactly is meant by “false balance”? As the Times noted, the term, “which has been embraced by many Democrats, emerged in academic papers in the 1990s to describe global-warming coverage.” In the ensuing years, a few news organizations expressly took this complaint to heart, announcing that thenceforth they would treat global warming as a “fact” and refuse to acknowledge dissent.

The Times reported that Obama “frequently cites the coverage of health care and the stimulus package as examples” of false balance. The story didn’t elaborate on the complaint, but I have an idea of the kind of deference to “fact” he’s looking for. At one point in Times reporter Kate Zernike’s generally fair 2010 book, Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, she puzzles over how Tea Party activists “could be impervious to reports from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the closest thing the government has to a neutral arbiter, that the federal stimulus had cut taxes and created millions of jobs and that the health care legislation passed in 2010 would reduce the federal deficit.”

The complaint of “false balance” turns out to be little more than an appeal to authority—a denial of the distinction between opinion, or at least authoritative opinion, and fact. Global warmism is not actually a fact but a set of vague and ever-changing warnings of disaster. The CBO’s rosy view of Obamacare was a prediction, not a fact, and its assertions that the stimulus created jobs were an interpretation that not everyone accepted.

“What you need to realize is that the CBO is the servant of members of Congress, which means that if a Congressman asks it to analyze a plan under certain assumptions, it will do just that—no matter how unrealistic the assumptions may be,” Times columnist and former Enron adviser Paul Krugman observed in 2010. 

Yet Krugman frequently cites CBO analyses as authoritative when they agree with his left-liberal ideology. The same week that Obama insisted his campaign wasn’t negative, Krugman wrote that the office had “found that [Obamacare] would reduce, not increase, the deficit.” That was in the course of denouncing Newsweek’s Niall Ferguson as “unethical” for having observed accurately in an anti-Obama cover story that CBO projections found its “insurance-coverage provisions…will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012–22 period” (emphasis mine).

Krugman’s faults are legion, but as he is an opinion writer, simple bias is not among them. The complaint of “false balance,” however, amounts to a rejection of balance itself—to a demand that news reporters abandon any pretense of ideological evenhandedness.

Obama’s “critique” of the media takes the Taranto Principle to a new level. He is not only taken in when liberal journalists give him unrealistically favorable coverage but also insulated when they give him realistically unfavorable coverage.

The latter sort of insularity is a danger for conservative politicians as well. Correctly expecting the media to be biased against them, they are apt to minimize indications of genuine popular discontent. But Obama, by means of his tendentious “critique,” has managed to make himself impervious even to friendly criticism.

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.