Has the Media Learned a Lesson?

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Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

On Tuesday, the president held a press conference at the Rose Garden – and it went as most recent press conferences have gone. The press dutifully lobbed softballs in the president's direction, and he proceeded to leisurely answer with whatever talking point came to his mind first.

One topic that has been receiving increasing attention in the media owing to a rare Republican congressional rebuke of the president – stem cell research – was covered with a single question, with no follow up. (This is also, unfortunately, hardly unprecedented.) When asked, "Last week you made clear that you don't think there's any such thing as a spare embryo … what do you believe should be done with those embryos that never do become pregnancies or result in the birth of a child?" Bush's reply: ''There's an alternative to the destruction of life. But the stem cell issue is really one of … whether or not we use taxpayers' money to destroy life. I don't believe we should.''

Despite the president's beliefs about how taxpayers' money should be spent, Congress and the American people appear to be of a different mind. And aside from the feeble question posed to him at the press conference, for the first time in a long while, the media are challenging the president in what – compared to recent practice – is a pretty forceful manner.

The whole debate, readers will recall, harkens back to 2001 when the president signed into law the first federally mandated stem cell research – while restricting research to then-current lines of stem cells. The stem cell lines were subsequently found to be tainted, which rendered most of them useless for most research purposes. Despite this, the president has refused to allow more lines to be used for research.

Now two new bills are looking to reverse the president's decision. The first one, sponsored by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.), seeks to lift the restriction, which would allow federal money to go to research on new embryonic stem cells lines. The second one, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and Rep. Arthur Davis (D-Ala.), wants to increase funding for umbilical cord blood cells by establishing a national network of blood banks that would make the cells available to patients and for research purposes.

Despite polls demonstrating that the majority of Americans agree with expanded stem cell research – 60 percent approve, according to a recent poll – the president has threatened to veto the legislation, and is fighting to prevent an override. Bush's primary objection, contained in a White House fact sheet, relies on his own personal religious convictions. He argues, "Taxpayer money should not promote research that destroys life." By "life" in this instance, the president means frozen embryos.

While the president says that stem cell research "would take us across a critical ethical line," many scientists say that the research could lead to finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, cancer and paralysis. But this hasn't stopped the far right from spouting all manner of falsehoods in the press. Tom DeLay thundered recently that voting "yes" for the new legislation would be to "vote to fund with taxpayer dollars the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings for the purposes of medical experimentation."

But DeLay was hardly alone. As Chris Mooney points out in an excellent piece on the American Prospect Web Online, conservative Rep. Henry Hyde recently claimed that "I myself am a 992-month-old embryo." This stands in stark contrast with what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) says of embryos, which it defines as "the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation, when it becomes known as a fetus."

Some of the media continue to allow to let the far right drive the debate. As the great Jon Stewart pointed out this week, “On Sunday’s ‘This Week with George Stephanopoulos,’ Kansas Senator Sam Brownback took on Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, because these days, a debate between a conservative Republican and a moderate Republican is what passes for hearing from both sides.” Still, that was an exception, Now the religious Right has lost a few recent media battles – first Terri Schiavo, then the nuclear option, and now, possibly, stem cell research. One is hard-pressed to decide whether the mainstream media have finally started to do their homework or if the far Right is no longer quite so adept at securing their compliance. Maybe next-time, someone in the White House press corps will go so far as to ask a follow-up question. At least there’s hoping….

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including most recently, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences.

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Eric Alterman

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