BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
And here’s President Obama speaking to a roomful of journalists this week at a luncheon of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. [CLIP]:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I guess another way of thinking about this is – and this bears on your reporting – 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, and – and, and a – an equivalence is presented, which is – reinforces, I think, people’s cynicism about Washington generally. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Barack Obama: President, Commander-in-Chief, journalism professor? The luncheon is a tradition that has attracted every American president since Coolidge to speak and field questions. What made this week’s iteration unusual was that Obama got into the nitty-gritty of a topic dear to our hearts here at “Media Criticism Central,” and that is false equivalency, also known as “He said, she said reporting.”
The Atlantic’s James Fallows wrote about Obama’s exhortation. He says that, in fact, the press has gotten a bit better when it comes to this kind of reporting.
JIM FALLOWS: The mean case in which we’ve seen the press sort of rise to that challenge, I think, was with the “birtherism” controversy of maybe two years ago where, for a while, it was reported as, “Some people say President Obama was not born in America. President Obama denies the charge.” Eventually, the press began saying the charge is not true.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it possible that in the midst of a campaign, the President’s desire for the press to dig in to the various claims is gonna redound to his detriment?
JIM FALLOWS: Yes. And I think the President was in a dilemma, which he himself even seemed conscious of, because in the sort of lighthearted beginning to his speech he was saying, we don’t want you in the press to be reveling in all these gaffs and misstatements, unless, of course, it’s the other guy, in which case, good job.
But I think that probably he was in the grips of an uncontrollable frustration. And I say uncontrollable in that other Democratic presidents feel as if they have to give vent to their feeling that the press really should be approaching things in a different way, even as the conscious parts of their brain realize that this really won’t do any good.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you a question about psychology. It seems to me that in the last few years, the press actually is doing a better job of getting to the heart of claims, as opposed to simply repeating them stenographically. Is it possible that as a result of being lectured to by the President, that some news organizations will react – I’m not – this guy’s not gonna tell me how to do my job – and actually kind of backslide?
JIM FALLOWS: It is possible there could be this backfiring effect because nobody in the press wants to be seen as doing a politician’s bidding, even if objectively we’re doing something like that. And you saw a very ironic consequence or at least sequel to the President’s speech from the Associated Press itself the day after the speech.
BOB GARFIELD: So in fulfillment of the President’s request, they vetted his claim.
JIM FALLOWS: Yes. So he was saying they were reporting on the individual mandate as some wacky radical anti-constitutional idea when, in fact, it was originally a Republican proposal. Romney had enacted it in Massachusetts.
BOB GARFIELD: And the AP said that the President was being disingenuous because he characterized the healthcare package as very centrist but that the individual mandate was – explicitly a left wing notion.
JIM FALLOWS: Which, of course, was exactly the opposite.
BOB GARFIELD: Because the President’s original position was for the public option, also known as “single payer”* which would have been more – you know, I almost hesitate to use the word, but socialistic in nature, like Medicare, and going to the individual mandate was a move to the right, no?
JIM FALLOWS: Yes. And so, there was a kind of fabulous triple whammy five-dimensional aspect to this fact check by the AP. So, on the one hand, they were doing a fact check the day after President Obama asked for a fact check, so that might look as if they were doing his bidding.
On the other hand, they’d been doing these fact checks for a number of years, so they were sort of anticipating his objection there. And yet, for the final back flip, they got the facts exactly wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: It’s like a hall of mirrors, Jim.
JIM FALLOWS: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Let me play another piece of tape from the President’s speech. [CLIP]:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: So as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it's important to remember that the positions I'm 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 have been considered squarely centrist positions. What's changed is the center of the Republican Party. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think that ideas that were once dismissed as fringe will be culled out by the press, according to the President’s wishes?
JIM FALLOWS: I think that it’s hard for the press to operate in circumstances like these. And here’s an example from recent history. Looking backwards less than four years, almost everybody, including a large number of Republican Party strategists, can say that Sarah Palin was not a plausible nominee for the vice-presidency, that she was a drag on the McCain ticket, that she was not really qualified, etc.
It was very hard for reporters to say that at the time, for fear of being seen as partisan or doing the bidding of the Democratic Party, etc., etc. So I will predict to you here and now that a year from now, two years from now, reporters will easily say that in the 2012 Republican primaries, the Party really moved to the fringe, and a lot of, of ideas that just didn’t have any sort of centrist plausibility were becoming the central part of the Party’s platform.
While we’re in real time, it’s hard for, quote, “objective” unquote, journalists to say within the conventions of our business. And that’s the struggle that we all are dealing with for these next couple of months.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim, as always, thank you so much.
JIM FALLOWS: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
*In his interview with James Fallows, Bob incorrectly equated the concepts of "Single Payer" health care and the "Public Option." According to Factcheck.org, "Single-payer is a complete government-run health insurance system under which everyone is covered, e.g., Canada’s system. The "public option" is a single federal insurance plan that would compete with private insurance companies."
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