Picking possible narratives

chooseadventureIt's early but this Washington Post headline about President Barack Obama's changes to federal funding of embryonic stem cell research would have to be up for one of the worst of the year:

Obama Aims to Shield Science From Politics

Nope, not a Democratic press release, it's a headline on a page two story in today's paper. Whoever wrote and approved that headline should be instructed about how politics works and how it's not just something that your opponents do. And how did the editors determine that this was the aim of Obama's latest move?

Of course, all laws and regulations that restrict experimentation on humans could be portrayed as political interference in science. I don't think Obama wants to change political policies restricting experiments on the incarcerated or institutionalized -- just those restricting experiments on embryos.

Anyway, onto the story itself. It basically just says that people who care about science love to destroy embryos for research. People who hate science don't.

The decision by President George W. Bush to restrict funding for stem cell research has been seen by critics as part of a pattern of allowing political ideology to influence scientific decisions across an array of issues, including climate change and whether to approve the morning-after pill Plan B for over-the-counter sales.

Okay, first off, Bush opened federal funds for stem cell research. He was the first president to do so. I know it doesn't fit with the media narrative, but them's the facts. Secondly, this unquestionable swallowing of the Democratic talking points fails to present the information in a balanced way. Leave aside the scientific advances that may make destroying human embryos unnecessary, is this best presented as a question of political ideology or morality?

I mean, just assume for a minute that pro-lifers actually believe that destroying human embryos is immoral. Let's say they view destroying a human embryo in the same way that they view destroying a newborn. Now, would you describe a belief that the state should protect the lives of newborns as "political ideology"? Again, everything is politics -- this decision to expand taxpayer funding of embryo destruction is politics -- but we don't normally allege that people seeking to protect the lives of citizens or the freedom of speech or of the press or what not is playing politics.

Stein's piece repeatedly uses the words "restriction" and "limiting" to describe President Bush's opening of federal funds -- the first time that ever happened, again -- to embryonic stem cell research.

Note this bit:

Because of their ability to become any type of cell in the body, many scientists believe human embryonic stem cells could lead to new therapies for many diseases, including diabetes, Parkinson's disease and paralysis. But the research is highly controversial because the cells are obtained by destroying embryos, which some consider to be immoral.

On Friday, officials confirmed that Obama would fulfill a longtime promise to lift those restrictions today, thrilling supporters but stirring intense criticism from opponents, who argue that there are alternative approaches free from ethical concerns.

It's a helpful passage. It balances out some of the concern I listed above, even if it is too far removed from the paragraphs alleging political play. Some people do think that destroying humans at any stage of their life is immoral. But note how the second paragraph just slides over the fact that SCIENCE has come up with all sorts of other promising methods to get stem cells that don't involve destroying human embryos. See, it doesn't fit with the media narrative.

Stein has reported on some of these breakthroughs before. Last November saw that huge advance in stem cell research when scientists announced they had found a way to produce the biological equivalent of embryonic stem cells without creating, using, or destroying any human embryos. They've refined their techniques in the last year and last week's announcement was just the latest to be revealed.

So if we were able to completely sidestep all of the moral and ethical concerns about destroying human embryos and still have all that "scientific promise" of breakthrough cures but chose to keep on destroying embryos, who, exactly is playing politics? I present the information in this manner to show how that could have been the media narrative we're reading or seeing today. Instead, we get the opposite.

I understand the desire of Democratic politicians to present this argument as something about politics vs. science. That is a great campaign strategy. But should reporters be swallowing that campaign message so easily?

One final note. Here's a good indication your story lacks balance. If you have quoted Melody C. Barnes, director of Obama's Domestic Policy Council twice and Harold Varmus, who co-chairs Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology four times you should probably try to get, you know, at least one comment from someone who disagrees with the administration.

Here's Rep. Eric Cantor, for instance:

Nearly every American supports continued stem cell research, and Republicans laud the miraculous innovations made in ethical and sensible adult stem cell research. Unfortunately, today the Administration wasted an opportunity to unite our country around these ethically and scientifically sound innovations by allowing the use of taxpayer money for embryo-destructive stem cell research, which millions of Americans find morally reprehensible. This divisive action will divert scarce federal resources away from innovative and proven adult stem cell research.

Without that kind of balance, your story comes off like a DNC press release.

Please respect our Commenting Policy