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Splitting the baby

National | Reporters crusade for a stem-cell compromise

Issue: "Don't have a cow," Aug. 11, 2001

Washington pundits love to poke fun at President Bush's public-speaking ability. On a nationally syndicated shock-jock morning show, Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman and host Don Imus belittled the president's performance on his most recent European trip. Then the radio personality cracked: "My favorite event of the whole trip was listening to the president and the pope both try to speak English, with equal success I might point out."

But opponents of federal funding for embryo-destroying stem-cell research are often the ones wondering whether reporters need an interpreter. Journalists build entire stories around single quotations, or fragments of quotations, in an attempt to stoke public pressure on the White House to reverse a campaign pledge not to fund such research. Pro-life politicians, professors, and even the pope have had to complain in recent weeks to news organizations that their words were misunderstood.

When Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert appeared on NBC's Meet the Press late last month, he didn't think he was making news when he declared "what the American people want him [President Bush] to do is to look at this issue, reason it through and come up with good, solid evidence for the decision he's made." But Reuters quickly found "A leading Republican congressman on Sunday suggested President George W. Bush may be able to drop his opposition to embryonic stem cell research without dire political consequences." Hastert spokesman John Feehery was befuddled and frustrated by the story: "Welcome to my life."

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When Pope John Paul II announced after meeting with Mr. Bush at his vacation home that he especially opposed the cloning of embryos to be killed for research, pundits found "wiggle room" that the pope opposed only the cloning, and not research on embryos currently frozen at in-vitro fertilization clinics. Horrified by that intrepretation, officials at the Holy See insisted that nothing the pope said should be understood as the church's blessing on a compromise.

Three Catholic advisers who participate in a weekly conference call with the White House-Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute, Princeton professor Robert P. George, and Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson-were also compelled to correct the record when the Los Angeles Times reported they were giving Mr. Bush room to play "Let's Make a Deal."

The media portrait of the debate can be summed up by a recent Newsweek cover story with the headline "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?" The embryo-splitters are painted as the forces of science and healing, opposed by the forces of conservative politics and religious superstitions.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected the notion that science isn't playing a role inside the administration: "The president believes that it's best to apply both science and principle to all matters that come before the government. And that's reflective of the actions that his administration has taken."

The Statistical Assessment Service found one reason that "science" appears to be all piled up on one side of the debate: New findings on adult stem cells (a method that won't require the death of any human embryos) aren't receiving the media spotlight. "The eagerness to publicize embryo-related breakthroughs is understandable, but as the political stakes were elevated, the subsequent silence on non-embryo developments was striking."

Does the pro-life argument earn any TV time? "I'd say quote-wise that the networks have shown an unusual deference on some nights to the concerns of those on the pro-life side," said the Media Research Center's Brent Baker, who writes an overnight e-mail update on TV news coverage. "But they always jump to promote the credibility of any conservative, such as Senator Bill Frist, who approves of embryonic stem-cell research since it is assumed to be the more enlightened position."

Mr. Baker reported that when the Tennessee Republican announced his desire for a research compromise, reporters were giddy. On one TV show, Newsweek editor Evan Thomas exulted: "I cheered when I saw

that.... I sort of secretly hoped that the White House put him out there to have him run up a trial balloon." National Public Radio legal reporter Nina Totenberg hoped "that we not sort of let know-nothingism dominate our federally funded science."

As members of Congress fan out across the country for recess, expectations of a presidential announcement grow dramatically, and the permanent press corps is offering Mr. Bush the temptations of praise for his sweet reason and growing intellect.

CBS and U.S. News pundit Gloria Borger suggested "if Bush delivers a Solomonic compromise on federal funding of stem-cell research," only "Catholic purists will be unhappy." Ms. Borger must have missed the irony of the reference, that somehow Solomon would have been just as wise if his famous decision to split the baby in two had been carried out, as long as the sacrifice came in the name of medical research.

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