NYT uses false balance while reporting on false balance

Wonder if the “news media critic in chief” spotted that?

From today’s New York Times, we learn that “Obama Is An Avid Reader, and Critic, of the News,” as the headline on Amy ChozikChozick’s piece has it.

Chozick gives readers the following rundown of the president’s news media diet:

He typically begins his day upstairs in the White House reading the major newspapers, including his hometown Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, mostly on his iPad through apps rather than their Web sites. He also skims articles that aides e-mail to him, with the subject line stating the publication and the headline (like “WSJ: Moody’s Downgrades Banks”).

During the day, Mr. Obama reads newspapers on his iPad and print copies of magazines like The Economist and The New Yorker. On most Air Force One flights, he catches up on the news on his iPad.

He might also be found “dipping into blogs and Twitter,” writes Chozick, but “almost never watches television news.”

Thus has the president “developed a detailed critique of modern news coverage,” key to which are “what [Obama] 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.”

Tell us more about “false balance,” New York Times:

The term “false balance,” which has been embraced by many Democrats, emerged in academic papers in the 1990s to describe global-warming coverage.

Now that you’ve told us, can you also show us?

“I believe this type of ‘accuracy’ and ‘balance’ are a huge thing afflicting contemporary media,” said Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of the left-leaning Web site Talking Points Memo.

Conservative pundits see things differently. “Obama is used to the press cheerleading for him so any time a story gets reported straight he’s likely to think it represents a false equivalency,” said John H. Hinderaker, a Minneapolis lawyer behind Power Line, a conservative political Web site.

On the one hand, Marshall said “false balance” is a major problem in today’s media. On the other hand, Hinderaker said “false balance” is just something Obama sees in news stories that aren’t sufficiently boosterish.

Now what? (There’s not quite a factual dispute at issue here. Still, the reflex to present the two poles is just so…reflexive.) Can we get some kind of professionally objective voice to settle this for us?

Many journalism experts, for their part, agree that the news media sometimes struggle to distinguish fact from claim, even if Mr. Obama’s version of the critique always paints his administration in a good light.

“I think sometimes we in the media—particularly under the crunch of deadlines—don’t have time to work through all the issues of discerning what is fact,” said Paul E. Steiger, chief executive of ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative news organization, and a former Wall Street Journal managing editor, “and so we say ‘he said, she said.’ ”

Media criticism “coming from a sitting president…is hardly objective,” as Chozick smartly noted (that “experts say”) earlier in her piece. Still, there may be something to Obama’s “false balance” beef.

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Amy Chozick’s name. CJR regrets the error.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.