A piece by Amy Chozick in the New York Times this week has to be read to be believed (ok, you’ll read it and you still won’t believe it). Proving that there is absolutely nothing for the media to do in August, Chozick was commissioned to write a piece on President Obama’s relationship with the press, including the Commander-in-Chief’s critical exegesis of the fourth estate. The results are predictably hilarious:
The news media have played a crucial role in Mr. Obama’s career, helping to make him a national star not long after he had been an anonymous state legislator. As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. He particularly believes that Democrats do not receive enough credit for their willingness to accept cuts in Medicare and Social Security, while Republicans oppose almost any tax increase to reduce the deficit.
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.
Mr. Obama’s assessments overlap with common critiques from academics and journalism pundits, but when coming from a sitting president the appraisal is hardly objective, the experts say.
Basically, you can close your eyes, point to any sentence at random, and prepare to guffaw.
There’s a lot of awfully stupid analysis here (both the Times and Obama’s). Maybe one of the reasons, for instance, that Democrats’ supposed willingness to rein in entitlements goes unpraised is because there have been some tells that it’s less than sincere — like the occasional fit of the vapors that finds liberals essentially accusing Paul Ryan of going from hospital to hospital unplugging life support machines.
There’s also the Times’ eager embrace of the unquestioned wisdom of (unnamed) “academics and journalism pundits” (FYI, that last one’s not a real job), a not-too-subtle hint that Obama’s frustration, poor soul, is shared by Really Smart People everywhere.
The aspect that I find most telling, however, is the president’s frustration with “false balance,” which it’s hard to interpret any other way than an irritation that the press doesn’t accept his side of the argument as gospel. This is of a piece with what he told the American Society of News Editors at a speech back in April:
“As all of you are doing your reporting, I think it’s important to remember that the positions that I am taking now on the budget and a host of other issues — if we had been having this discussion 20 years ago or even 15 years ago — would’ve been considered squarely centrist positions,” he said in response to a question about Republicans’ criticisms of his spending priorities. “What’s changed is the center of the Republican party and that’s certainly true with the budget.”
“This bears on your reporting,” he said Tuesday. “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 I think reinforces peoples’ cynicism about Washington in general. This is not one of those situations where there’s an equivalency.”
For what it’s worth, I actually agree with Obama on “the truth lies in the middle” trope. There are occasions when that’s true, but most times that you hear someone express that sentiment it’s a sign that they’ve put their brain on cruise control and resigned themselves to communicating exclusively through cliches. What’s the midpoint between the death penalty being legal or illegal? What’s the midpoint between going to war with Iran or not going to war with Iran? No one actually lives by “moderation in all things” (”So it’s okay if I just participate in occasional arson?”), but everyone talks that way. That mindset creates especially acute problems in public policy, where splitting the baby almost always yields bad results.
There are two problems, though, with Obama’s analysis. The first is that the only corrective for “false equivalence” is a more ideological press, which presents issues from unapologetic (and admitted) liberal and conservative viewpoints. That’s where we are today and, while there’s plenty of chaff as a result, I’m inclined to think it’s far preferable to an overwhelmingly liberal media trying to create the illusion of objectivity. But that’s not what Obama wants. He’s clearly longing for the days when ‘media’ was a de facto singular noun and those who disagreed with him would have been pilloried as unreasonable without much push back.
The second problem is that Obama himself ascended to office on the basis of little more than ‘false equivalance’. If you’d like to give your brain the equivalent of diabetic shock, go back and read his treacly 2006 best-seller, “The Audacity of Hope,” where nearly every issue discussed is framed with a “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” device (he’s sandbagging you, of course — every question is resolved, ostensibly by inches, in favor of liberalism.)
So do I think Barack Obama knows bad writing? Yes. Because he’s practiced it.