Friday, July 29, 2011

How "Balanced" News Distorts the News

Here is a bit from an excellent NY Times op-ed by Paul Krugman that examines how the media's insistence on writing a "he said, she said" story and which puts "balance" on a pedestal, distorts proper political analysis:
Some of us have long complained about the cult of “balance,” the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read “Views Differ on Shape of Planet.” But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom?

The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won’t punish you for outrageous behavior if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. As you may know, President Obama initially tried to strike a “Grand Bargain” with Republicans over taxes and spending. To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of G.O.P. extortion, he offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases. As The Times’s Nate Silver pointed out, Mr. Obama effectively staked out a position that was not only far to the right of the average voter’s preferences, it was if anything a bit to the right of the average Republican voter’s preferences.

But Republicans rejected the deal. So what was the headline on an Associated Press analysis of that breakdown in negotiations? “Obama, Republicans Trapped by Inflexible Rhetoric.” A Democratic president who bends over backward to accommodate the other side — or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he’s in danger of falling over — is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance!

Which brings me to those “centrist” fantasies.

Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don’t. Wisdom doesn’t necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing.

But for those who insist that the center is always the place to be, I have an important piece of information: We already have a centrist president. Indeed, Bruce Bartlett, who served as a policy analyst in the Reagan administration, argues that Mr. Obama is in practice a moderate conservative.

Mr. Bartlett has a point. The president, as we’ve seen, was willing, even eager, to strike a budget deal that strongly favored conservative priorities. His health reform was very similar to the reform Mitt Romney installed in Massachusetts. Romneycare, in turn, closely followed the outlines of a plan originally proposed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. And returning tax rates on high-income Americans to their level during the Roaring Nineties is hardly a socialist proposal.


But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out — a cop-out that only encourages more bad behavior. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you’re not willing to say that, you’re helping make that problem worse.
What I find funny is the idea the expectation that political beliefs can be laid out along a single line. I guess it is my inner mathematicians, but I would expect that a proper representation would be in a multidimensional space. At a very minimum a three-cornered representation such a Timothy Ferris in The Science of Liberty is interesting because it allows for a tension between three impulses:
  1. Conservative - the impulse to maintain traditions and social stability

  2. Liberal - the commitment to individual liberty, free thought (science), and an openness to change

  3. Progressive - an emphasis on justice and equality, the valuing of lives requiring equal opportunity, rights to equal education, and legal system that ensures fair play
Sadly, Obama has only a tenuous commitment to liberalism and progressivism. He appears to be deeply conservative, but he sold himself in 2008 as a liberal commited to "change you can believe in" and people mistook his community organizer background and his racial background as indicators that he would be sensitive to the needs of progressivism. Sadly, that is not true. Instead, he comes out as deeply committed to one value: gathering as much political funding for his re-election as possible which means he listens most closely to the "needs" of Wall Street and the big banks, not the unemployed or those dispossed of their homes by the foreclosure crisis.

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