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.