President Obama, as depicted by Reuters
President Obama (Reuters)

President Obama last night appeared at a fundraiser in Chicago and used the occasion, in part, to criticize the news media for a commonly cited offense: “False equivalence,” or coverage that blames both political parties in equal measure for bad political outcomes, instead of more critically observing which one is at fault.

“Now, you’ll hear if you watch the nightly news or you read the newspapers that, well, there’s gridlock, Congress is broken, approval ratings for Congress are terrible,” said Obama, according to a transcript on the White House’s Web site. “And there’s a tendency to say, a plague on both your houses.”

That’s a mistake, however, in the president’s view. Because there’s a “specific” problem in Congress. “We have a group of folks in the Republican Party who have taken over who are so ideologically rigid, who are so committed to an economic theory that says if folks at the top do very well then everybody else is somehow going to do well; who deny the science of climate change; who don’t think making investments in early childhood education makes sense; who have repeatedly blocked raising a minimum wage so if you work full-time in this country you’re not living in poverty; who scoff at the notion that we might have a problem with women not getting paid for doing the same work that men are doing.”

By contrast, he argued, proposals from Democrats are reasonable and moderate. For example: “Health care — we didn’t suddenly impose some wild, crazy system. All we said was let’s make sure everybody has insurance. And this made the other side go nuts,” he said.

The president’s point: “So when you hear a false equivalence that somehow, well, Congress is just broken, it’s not true. What’s broken right now is a Republican Party that repeatedly says no to proven, time-tested strategies to grow the economy, create more jobs, ensure fairness, open up opportunity to all people.”

These frustrations aren’t terribly fresh. Months before the 2012 presidential election, the New York Times reported on Obama’s approach to the media:

Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

Reuters media critic Jack Shafer sort of laughed that one off, pointing out that Obama may very well have benefited over the years from whatever false balance the media practices.

Obama has an intellectual partner in this critique. Back in 2011, when Congress was gridlocking over the debt-ceiling mess, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) read into the Senate record an op-ed piece by Paul Krugman of the New York Times that read, in part: “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.”

Perhaps the solution to this false-equivalence debate is to simply let partisan media outlets overrun the news. After all, no one’s out there complaining about the cult of balance on MSNBC or Fox News.

(h/t Plum Line)

Text of the media portion of Obama’s remarks:

Now, you’ll hear if you watch the nightly news or you read the newspapers that, well, there’s gridlock, Congress is broken, approval ratings for Congress are terrible. And there’s a tendency to say, a plague on both your houses. But the truth of the matter is that the problem in Congress is very specific. We have a group of folks in the Republican Party who have taken over who are so ideologically rigid, who are so committed to an economic theory that says if folks at the top do very well then everybody else is somehow going to do well; who deny the science of climate change; who don’t think making investments in early childhood education makes sense; who have repeatedly blocked raising a minimum wage so if you work full-time in this country you’re not living in poverty; who scoff at the notion that we might have a problem with women not getting paid for doing the same work that men are doing.

They, so far, at least, have refused to budge on bipartisan legislation to fix our immigration system, despite the fact that every economist who’s looked at it says it’s going to improve our economy, cut our deficits, help spawn entrepreneurship, and alleviate great pain from millions of families all across the country.

So the problem is not Dick Durbin. The problem is not Michael Bennet. The problem is not that the Democrats are overly ideological — because the truth of the matter is, is that the Democrats in Congress have consistently been willing to compromise and reach out to the other side. There are no radical proposals coming out from the left. When we talk about climate change, we talk about how do we incentivize through the market greater investment in clean energy. When we talk about immigration reform there’s no wild-eyed romanticism. We say we’re going to be tough on the borders, but let’s also make sure that the system works to allow families to stay together, and that we’re attracting talent like Michael who constantly replenish the American Dream.

When we talk about taxes we don’t say we’re going to have rates in the 70 percent or 90 percent when it comes to income like existed here 50, 60 years ago. We say let’s just make sure that those of us who have been incredibly blessed by this country are giving back to kids so that they’re getting a good start in life, so that they get early childhood education, so that struggling middle-class families are able to finance their education, and that if a talented young person wants to go into teaching or wants to become a social worker that they’re not burdened by hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt.

Health care — we didn’t suddenly impose some wild, crazy system. All we said was let’s make sure everybody has insurance. And this made the other side go nuts — the simple idea that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, nobody should go bankrupt because somebody in their family gets sick, working within a private system.

So when you hear a false equivalence that somehow, well, Congress is just broken, it’s not true. What’s broken right now is a Republican Party that repeatedly says no to proven, time-tested strategies to grow the economy, create more jobs, ensure fairness, open up opportunity to all people.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.