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Media Bias in the Stem Cell Debate
One Source Cited In June of last year Newsweek Magazine presented on its cover an obvious example of partiality and bias in its presentation of the stem cell debate.Order now
From top to bottom, the cover text reads: “The Stem Cell Wars: Embryo Research vs. Pro-Life Politics: There’s Hope for Alzheimer’s, Heart Disease, Parkinson’s and Diabetes. But Will Bush Cut Off the Money?” Why didn’t the magazine just go all the way? “Science vs. Pro-Life Fanatics: Will Bush Condemn Millions of People to Lingering, Painful Deaths?”(Newsweek)
The image on the cover is of a three-day-old human embryo.
Most people will look at that image and think, “That doesn’t look like a human being at all.” (This reaction, while understandable, is irrational: In fact, the embryo looks exactly the way a human being looks three days after conception.) It’s perfectly fair and reasonable for Newsweek to use the image. We would note only that it is unimaginable that Newsweek would use an image that loaded in the opposite direction. A story on abortion would be much more likely to be illustrated with a coat-hanger than a sonogram of a five-month-old fetus. (Let alone a dismembered fetus.
The stories inside the magazine are exactly what you’d expect, given the cover. Proponents of stem-cell research get to make their case at length. Opponents are quoted too: They get exactly two words (eleven letters) in. And that quote is immediately rebutted, unlike any of the pro-research quotes. Here’s how the piece concludes: Not funding stem-cell research would amount to “squelching what is, more than anything, a quest for knowledge. We simply don’t know how embryonic cells might help people who are suffering and dying today.
By banning the research, we uphold the most extreme view of the sanctity of life, but at a price: foreclosing the possibility of doing all we can to improve the lot of the living.”
Set aside that bit about extremism. Any research, including research on humans that most people would find objectionable, can legitimately be described as “a quest for knowledge.” And the reference to “the living” skates right by the actual subject of the dispute-whether the embryos are in fact living human beings. (They’re not dead, and they’re not inanimate.)
Next come three pages on the politics of the research from Evan Thomas and Eleanor Clift.
Subhead: “The president is trapped between religion and science over stem cells.” Here’s a flavor of what the article is like: “Pure politics helps explain why the White House has long been expected to ban federal funding for research on stem cells extracted from human embryos. . . . And yet Bush is clearly discovering that the politics and ethics of stem-cell research are more complicated than a simple ‘no’ from the federal government.
By a 3-1 margin, the public wants to go forward with research that has the potential to provide magical cures for a host of neurological and other diseases.” The article concludes with some helpful suggestions on how President Bush can betray stem-cell opponents without suffering too much political damage.
Finally, a note of fairness: The magazine’s religion correspondent, Kenneth Woodward, has a short piece on the ethics of stem-cell research that doesn’t have a conclusion to pound us over the head with.