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New York Times: What’s in the ‘Center’?

July 29, 2013

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Sometimes a headline says it all. Like this one from theNew York Times(7/24/13):

Some Democrats Look to Push Party Away From Center

Matt Wuerker's cover for Extra! (8/06)

Matt Wuerker’s cover for Extra! (8/06)

One of the most important tenets of corporate political journalism is the elevation of the “center” as the ideal. Partisanship, which implies disagreement and/or strongly held views, is often seen as one of the big problems in Washington. And the way this message is communicated is often by pundits and journalistsadvocating for the Democratic Party to “move to the center”–which is, of course, moving to the right.

One problem with this worldview is that is that the “center”  doesn’t actually mean what one might think it means–especially in the context of the political views of the American public.

For instance, when pollsters ask about single-payer healthcare, it is popular–sometimes getting the support of nearly two-thirds of the public, depending on how the question is asked. Is that in the “center,” in media-speak? Not at all–it’s considered a far-left political position.

This particular Times article doesn’t do much better when it comes to explaining what constitutes a move “away from the center. ” As reporterJonathan Martin puts it, “issues related to banks, entitlements and the rights of consumers” are at issue here, with some liberals arguing that Democrats “must shift away from the center-left consensus that has shaped its fiscal politics since Bill Clinton’s 1992 election.”

The first issue that comes up is a discussion about lowering the interest rate on student loans. What’s the “centrist” position on that–higher rates for students? Funny, then, how the “center” is wildly unpopular. The Times also talks about Democrats who have pushed back against Obama’s plans to cut Social Security and Medicare. Again, this is apparently a move “away from the center”–even though maintaining those programs is hugely popular, and cutting benefits is anything but.

The other policy issue is a plan to restore Glass-Steagall limits on the banking industry– something that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is proposing, as part of her challenge to the “centrist consensus on high finance.” But is there something particularly “centrist” about allowing big banks to get even bigger? As Ezra Klein pointed out (WonkBlog7/25/13), “Regulating the banks is really popular. Even breaking up the big banks is popular.”

On an array of issues, the “center” in Washington politics is actually well to the right of the “center” of American public opinion. Journalism that made this clear would be much more helpful. Published in Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.

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