Human Exceptionalism

Newsweek Wins The Hwang Spin Award of the Week

I predicted earlier that the mainstream media would report the facts of the Hwang cloning fraud scandal, but downplay or spin away its core significance. Yesterday, I quoted some Time magazine spin that tried to hold Hwang responsible for the fraud, but not really blame him. But the worst example of avoiding the heart of the story I have seen so far is Newsweek, which barely even reported the facts. Early in the story readers learn that “Last month Hwang resigned after revelations that his lab had faked much of the work.” Makes it sound like an old story doesn’t it? Hwang actually resigned only on December 23, barely more than a week ago.

Toward the end of the story, we find a few sparse details: “A probe by Seoul National University concluded last week that the 11 stem cells Hwang claimed to have produced from cloned human embryos were in fact obtained from fertilized embryos, not cloned ones,” and that the 2004 paper remains under investigation. That’s it. Nothing about the devastating impact on stem cell science. Nothing about the implications to the American political debate, which Newsweek emphasized when first reporting the controversial “giant leap forward.” Nothing, on whether the scam indicates anything seriously wrong with peer review. No big picture analysis: Nada. Zilch. Niente.

Instead, Newsweek deflects readers away from the deeper questions by producing a puff piece that all but dismisses the scandal, while touting the excellence of South Korean science.

In the piece we learn that despite serious doubts that Hwang made human cloned embryos, “his team is still the best in the world at the delicate work of transplanting the nuclei of tiny cells—which is central to further progress in stem-cell research.” We learn that “A team at Maria Infertility Hospital…produced stem cells from fertilized eggs in 2000. Their work may lead to the ability to grow specific human organs to replace damaged ones.” (American researcher James Thomson derived embryonic stem cells from frozen embryos in 1997.) We learn that “Nearly 100 treatments for such diseases as Parkinson’s using adult stem cells from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood are undergoing clinical testing.” This is good to know, but why wasn’t it considered news before?

Besides, Hwang’s fraud is really all a “blessing in disguise.” From the article: “Now that Hwang’s project will no longer be hogging the spotlight, funding will be more equitably allocated to worthy projects, analysts say. Scientists are already talking about setting more stringent ethical guidelines for themselves, standards they see as essential to repairing the damage to their credibility.”

I have heard of the media playing hide the ball before: But this is ridiculous.

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