False-Equivalence Watch: The Platonic-Ideal Form

Yesterday Barack Obama went to the annual Associated Press luncheon and exhorted journalists to avoid the "false equivalence" syndrome in coverage of controversial events. If you've missed the previous 10 million items on this theme, you can read his speech or my precis of it. In short, the false equivalence problem is that although it's convenient and "objective"-seeming for reporters simply to quote "both sides" of a public issue, the results can be misleading when one of the sides is simply making things up.

Today the same Associated Press published an article on his speech that perfectly exemplified the problem Obama was complaining about, and was all the more piquant for being presented as a "fact check." The subject was the now-infamous "individual mandate" provision of the administration's health-care plan.

As Obama pointed out in his speech, the individual mandate originated as a conservative/Republican idea. Conservatives preferred it precisely because it was an alternative to government-run "single-payer" coverage, like Medicare or the VA. This was part of the reason Mitt Romney embraced the mandate in his health-care plan in Massachusetts. Yesterday Obama said:

So as all of you are doing your reporting, I think it's important to remember that the positions I'm taking now, ... 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.

Today the AP was back with its "fact check":

[I]f Republicans have moved to the right on health care, it's also true that Obama has moved to the left. He strenuously opposed a mandate forcing people to obtain health insurance until he won office and changed his mind.

This is false equivalence in its Platonic-ideal form. It's presented as being "objective" -- These politicians! They all just flip and flop! -- but in fact is deeply misleading about the realities. As Brian Beutler pointed out today on TPM, making things seem symmetrically unprincipled in this case requires either lack of awareness of, or knowing manipulation of, the basic facts.

grassley.jpgYes, Obama's position on health care has changed. But his embrace of the "individual mandate" represents a move to the right, not leftward as the story claims. Before that, he had been in favor of (a) single-payer coverage, in his days as an Illinois politician, and (b) the "public option" during his 2008 primary campaign against Hillary Clinton. His decision to build "ObamaCare" around the individual mandate -- rather than on the public option or a single-payer concept -- reflected pressure on the administration to make the plan more "centrist," not more leftist or radical. When the switch to individual mandate was announced, by far the most heated criticism came from the left, on grounds that Obama had sold out supporters of the public option. Meanwhile, the likes of the impeccably conservative Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa (right) were saying that there was a "bipartisan consensus" in favor of the individual mandate compromise. So: the current Republican hostility to the individual mandate represents a rightward shift, and so too does Obama's embrace of the plan.

Beutler sums up the achievement of this latest "fact check":

His hosts [at AP] weren't listening -- and as a result they've made Obama's points about Republicans and the media for him....

It's true that Obama campaigned against an individual mandate in 2008, only to embrace it -- however reluctantly -- after he became president. But to say that constitutes a move to the left betrays a lack of understanding about the origins and purpose of the individual mandate, and of Obama's broader evolution on health care reform.

Wow. I my current affable mood, I will assume that with this item the AP was actually paying ironic homage to Obama's argument, and reminding him of the importance of continuing to make it. For more on today's false-equivalence news, see Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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