Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Stem Cell Lead Into Gold: Analyzing the Media’s Bias in the Debate


My pal Joseph Bottum over at First Things had a piece on the FT blog the other day (that I partially quoted previously), concerning the great breakthrough. But his analysis ranged beyond the apparent capability now to obtain ethical pluripotent stem cells. He suggests that the wild media bias on this issue--which we have documented repeatedly here at SHS--was a stalking horse for an anti-religious and anti-anti-abortion agenda:
But there were reasons for all the hype. I have long suspected that science, in the context of the editorial page of the New York Times, was simply a stalking-horse for something else. In fact, for two something-elses: a chance to discredit America's religious believers and an opportunity to put yet another hedge around the legalization of abortion...

Shake loose from the narrative of anti-science fundamentalists and pro-science liberals, however, and a different story starts to be visible. Abortion skewed the political discussion of all this, pinning the left to a defense of science it doesn't actually hold. The more natural line is agitation against Frankenfoods and all genetic modification, particularly given the environmentalism to which the campaign against global warming is tying the left.

Narratives about positions on public policy are like enormous steamships: It takes a long time to turn them around. But if the news of stem-cell breakthroughs prove accurate, we may well see over the next few years a gradual reversal in news stories and editorials. Watch for it, now that abortion is out of the equation: Much less hype about all the miracle cures that stem cells will bring us, more suspicion about the cancers and genetic pollution that may result, and just about the same amount of bashing of religious believers--this time for their ignorant support of science.

I think there is much to what Bottum writes--particularly of the far Left--but I don't think that liberal media modernists will turn against science because reporters generally see themselves as its boosters.

Moreover, the way I look at it, an even bigger issue driving the media herd in their often terrible stem cell reporting was--and is--a shared and visceral hatred of President Bush and a deep desire to destroy his policies, in this case his embryonic stem cell funding rules. Remember last year when a relatively minor proof of principle experiment at Advanced Cell Technology resulted in wild--and inaccurate-- international headlines that embryonic stem cells had been derived without destroying embryos? (That imbroglio was covered extensively here at SHS throughout August and September of last year.)

The only reason that story received such undue prominence was that it was perceived as undercutting Bush.

While the media certainly has generally covered the iPS cell story responsibly, that bogus non breakthrough received far more breathless and excited coverage than this bona fide earthquake. Why? The media through line is a desire to hurt Bush: The former story was played as destroying his policy. This story validates it.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review