Bush vs. Science?

Is President Bush trying to stem the tide of scientific progress?

That's what the media seem to believe, based on their heavily biased coverage of the President's Wednesday veto of a bill to expand federal spending for research that kills human embryos.  

The media showcased scientists who support greater federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, distorted recent advances in non-embryonic stem cell research and overstated public support for the controversial practice.  ABC's World News Tonight went for the heartstrings, showing clips of actor Michael J. Fox shaking with Parkinson's disease.   

Much of the coverage depicted the veto story as a conflict between Bush and science, failing to report that the president also called on Congress to pass a law expanding other noncontroversial forms of stem cell research. “Science, morality and politics collided Wednesday as President Bush again vetoed a bill to expand federal help for embryonic ran the lede of a June 21 USA TODAY news story. 

ABC News, the Washington Post, USA TODAY and the Associated Press all printed the same statement by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (the New York Times ran two AP articles with the quote): “This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science.”  Is the stem cell debate really about science versus politics or is it a moral controversy on how to conduct scientific research ethically?   

Several media outlets implied that Bush's veto throws up barriers to lifesaving treatments:

The New York Times quoted an unnamed source from the Society for Women's Health Research: “It is a tragedy to allow embryos to be wasted and discarded, when we could be exploring their unique potential to alleviate human suffering.”

ABC's World News Tonight quoted shaking and stumbling Parkinson's victim Michael J. Fox: “It's a sad day for our country when our president invokes his personal belief on legislation that would provide cures and hope for millions of Americans.”

Many media outlets quoted almost exclusively scientists who downplayed, distorted or dismissed the promise of other forms of stem cell research which the president supports.    

The New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post and USA TODAY, June 21, all cited various statements by Sean Tipton, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.  The Post quoted Tipton:  “[t]he fact that it doesn't change the policy adds insult to injury for the millions of patients who suffer every day,”

ABC World News Tonight quoted Dr. Arnold Kriegstein: “The truth is, none of these alternatives really have the potential embryonic stem cells do to create cells of different types. Heart cells, muscle cells, nerve cells and so forth.” 

ABC White House correspondent Martha Raddatz added: “Critics say this type of research has been around for a long time. There is nothing new here. What is really needed is more concentration on the promising embryonic stem cell research.”

Raddatz failed to note that scientists have developed several methods to obtain embryonic stem cells without killing human embryos, or that research on adult stem cells has proven more effective in curing diseases than embryonic stem cells.

Some media outlets also claimed that the public broadly supports embryonic stem cell research.  While polls do frequently show a majority in favor of stem cell research, it may not be as overwhelming as journalists imply. 

On ABC's Good Morning America, Claire Shipman said, “Diane, he is doing it again, another veto on this extremely emotional issue. You know, 68 percent of Americans actually support embryonic stem cell research.”

What polls was Shipman referring to?  She didn't say.  But a June 15, 2007 CNN Opinion Research Corporation Poll found Americans divided on the issue, 41 percent opposed and 53 percent in favor of federal funding.  In January 2007, Rasmussen Reports found a plurality (47 percent) believe embryonic stem cell research is not “morally wrong.” 

David Niedrauer is an intern at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.