Commentary Magazine


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Revisiting Obama’s Complaints About Press “Equivalence”

During the 2012 presidential election, President Obama was becoming increasingly agitated by the press coverage. Something was different this time around: reporters were occasionally writing stories that legitimized the Republicans, as if their opinions were, from time to time, worth hearing out. It manifested in a misleading balance, the president told a gathering at the Associated Press luncheon in April of that year.

The press-critic-in-chief lectured, bordering on exasperated: “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 an equivalence is presented — which reinforces I think people’s cynicism about Washington generally.”

In fact the president, in telling the mainstream media to be even more biased in his favor, was repeating an opinion that had become popular among many in the media as well. The sentiment gave rise to the so-called “fact checkers,” who were liberal opinion columnists masquerading as referees. In one of their most famous rulings, the “fact checker” PolitiFact rated the conservatives’ talk of “death panels” in ObamaCare as its 2009 “Lie of the Year.” The president’s “keep your plan” falsehood was, by contrast, labeled “half true.” Yet now some mainstream journalists are singing a slightly different tune:

Mark Halperin raised the specter of the notorious Obamacare “death panels” during an interview on Monday.

Halperin was speaking to Newsmax host Steve Malzberg when the subject came up.

“You believe there will be rationing, aka death panels?” Malzberg asked.

“It’s built into the plan,” Halperin said. “It’s not like a guess or like a judgment. That’s going to be part of how costs are controlled.”

Halperin clarified, tweeting:

In Mon intv I did not say “death panels” nor do I believe ACA contains them. Was speaking of political/policy challenge of IPAB cuts. My bad

Of course there won’t be anything actually called “death panels,” but Halperin isn’t backing off the inevitable rationing to help control costs while at the same time his magazine has a cover story on ObamaCare’s “Broken Promise.” It’s a good indication that were the press to really push back against a supposed false balance, it might have challenged obviously false claims by the president as much as it did the theatrical critiques of his health-care plan by Republicans.

And the recent exposure of all these falsities explains why this White House has been so obsessive in its attempts to control the press, and so paranoid as to spy on reporters’ parents. The press is now pushing back not only by reporting more honestly about ObamaCare but also by confronting the president over his controlling, propagandist impulses.

Those impulses tend to spiral out of control if left unchecked–which they were. And so they resulted in, as Jonathan noted last week, the White House deciding it didn’t need pesky press photographers hanging around when the administration could simply take and distribute its own propaganda photos. National Journal’s Ron Fournier described the moment of confrontation:

New York Times photographer Doug Mills strode into Jay Carney’s office Oct. 29 with a pile of pictures taken exclusively by President Obama’s official photographer at events the White House press corps was forbidden to cover. “This one,” Mills said, sliding one picture after another off his stack and onto the press secretary’s desk. “This one, too–and this one and this one and …”

The red-faced photographer, joined by colleagues on the White House Correspondents’ Association board, finished his 10-minute presentation with a flourish that made Carney, a former Moscow correspondent for Time, wince.

“You guys,” Mills said, “are just like Tass.”

Comparing the White House to the Russian news agency is a hyperbole, of course, but less so with each new administration.

The protest has picked up momentum. Noah Rothman reports that USA Today is joining Tacoma’s News Tribune in a new policy: outside of “extraordinary circumstances,” no White House handout photos.

It seems ironic that the president who galvanized millennial support by utilizing social media while mocking his 2008 opponent’s lack of computer skills (due to his war injuries–a particularly low moment for the Obama campaign) would work so hard to lock out the press, but in fact it’s appropriate. Obama revels in going around the media and delicately managing his image, aware of the way new media can magnify any photo or sound bite.

It may be petty to shut photographers out of routine events, but when it comes to an overwhelming distrust of anyone not on the payroll, nothing is too petty for this administration. As the reporting on ObamaCare and the photographers’ rebellion indicate, Obama may wish for the days of “equivalence” and regret asking the media to cast a more discerning eye on the events of his presidency.