Journalistic Malpractice: The Media Enables the Right-Wing Politicization of Science
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We’re at a particularly hyper-partisan moment in our country. As such, one would think the existence of a scientific consensus on a policy issue would offer the mainstream media a welcome oasis from the mirage of social media myths and the desert of dueling soundbites that all too often crowd out informed comment. Using such a consensus as a no bullshit baseline, an objective journalist could more honestly explore opposing arguments, measure them against evidence, and judge their veracity. This is no small thing, because if modern journalism is to continue to live up to its Constitutional promise, it can’t merely be about telling the who, what,whenand where of the world anymore, it must go beyond that to explain the how and why.
But time and again, the establishment media fails at reaching this higher bar. Instead of contextualizing policy debates by weaving in extant scientific knowledge or academic research, the national press all too readily churns out formulaic stories filled with superficial horserace reporting. A press corps so consistently unmoored from facts becomes very vulnerable, however, when one of our nation’s two political parties undertakes a proverbial war on science. With very little effort, policy debates can get hijacked and devolve from discussing relevant facts to lobbing ad hominem insults. This simple-minded journalistic approach renders the underlying science of any issue moot. But it’s a safer career move, since it just wouldn’t do well for an “objective” journalist to always be pointing out that, on issue after issue, one party has become fully detached from scientific reality. In a “both sides do it” media culture, no party or ideology can ever lose legitimacy, no matter how crackpot its ideas about how the world works.
Exhibit A in the mainstream media’s failure to execute this due diligence is its consistently ill-informed climate change coverage. Even though an overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and man-made, the media rarely, if ever, treats this mountain of evidence as a given. Instead, it treats this reality very much like a battle of opinions or, more accurately, of belief systems: Liberals believe in climate change, conservatives don’t. Climate change is not an ideological principle or a policy outcome about which reasonable people can disagree, though; it’s an observable phenomenon. So when the media enables anyone to deny the existence of climate change, it is tantamount to journalistic malpractice.
Nevertheless, this malpractice happens every single day. Whether pigeonholing global warming as a niche topic,soliciting denialist voices and granting them an outsized platform, or outright disappearing of the crisis, the press regularly plays into conservatives’ hands, helping them manufacture dissent and sow confusion amongst the public even though none exists in the scientific community. Among Tea Partiers, disbelief in anthropogenic climate change has become something of an article of faith, so much so that, contra the parable of Noah, no amount of catastrophic warnings can change their stubborn minds. And in much the same way that Pope Urban VIII’s Vatican concocted an “investigation” to disprove Galileo’s proof of a sun-centered solar system, right-wing denialists have cooked up numerous alternative climate change theories that neatly conform to their worldview, but which all fall apart under scientific scrutiny.
The public policy ramifications of this media failure hit home again this past Monday. That’s when the Roberts Court’s conservative majority ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a craft retailer that sued the federal government for infringing on its religious freedom. At the core of the company’s objections was its claim that four of the 20 methods of contraception mandated by the Afforable Care Act are abortifacients (i.e. they terminate an in-progress pregnancy).
The good news: just like climate change, there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim. Let’s be totally clear—the idea that IUDs and morning-after pills are abortifacients is clearly rejected by medical science. And no less than the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and the Mayo Clinic agree. To all of these organizations, to whom we trust to regulate, advise, and train our nation’s professional healthcare providers, pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg is successfully implanted in the uterus, so IUDs and Plan B morning-after pills are contraceptives. Full stop. So, case dismissed, right?
The bad news, of course, was that there was an overwhelming scientific consensus about this claim, and just like with climate change, conservatives on the court simply didn’t care. Never mind that the medical facts in the case strongly suggested Hobby Lobby had no real standing to sue in the first place. In fact, on page 9 of Justice Alito’s majority ruling, we find this inconvenient truth conveniently tucked away down in a footnote:
“The owners of the companies involved in these cases and others who believe that life begins at conception regard these four methods as causing abortions, but federal regulations, which define pregnancy as beginning at implantation.”
The whole Hobby Lobby case, in other words, was built upon a willfully accepted fallacy. Monday’s Supreme Court decision wasn’t a victory for religious freedom over the government as much it was a triumph of religious belief over science. (There’s also rank hypocrisy and disingenuousness at work here as well. Hobby Lobby’s employee retirement plan invests in the very pharmaceutical companies that make emergency contraception. And up until two years ago,Hobby Lobby’s health insurance plan actually offered IUDs and Plan B. Only after being contacted by a right-wing legal group—hunting for a proxy in their fight to weaken Obamacar—did the company conveniently discover its religious objection.)
Nevertheless, right-wing and “pro-life” supporters have so successfully muddied the facts about contraception, the press demonstrated little interest in correcting them. Case in point, the New York Times’ big, lead story on the decision, which whistled right past the plaintiff’s key claim:
“The health care law and related regulations require many employers to provide female workers with comprehensive insurance coverage for a variety of methods of contraception. The companies objected to some of the methods. “No one has disputed the sincerity of their religious beliefs,” Justice Alito wrote. The dissenters agreed.
“The companies said they had no objection to some forms of contraception, including condoms, diaphragms, sponges, several kinds of birth control pills and sterilization surgery. Justice Ginsburg wrote that other companies may object to all contraception, and that the ruling would seem to allow them to opt out of any contraception coverage.”
Notice something missing here? For some reason, the Times tells us all about which specific contraceptives Hobby Lobby doesn’t object to, but we never learn which ones they do object to, and more importantly, why, and if their objections had any scientific merit.
The Washington Post’s Supreme Court write-up at least included more specifics than the Times, but its scattershot approach leads it to fall back into the same old false equivalence framing:
“Some businesses object to offering contraception at all, while others, like the companies that brought the challenge to the Supreme Court, say offering certain types of birth control, such as IUDs, make them complicit in abortion.”
[…11 paragraphs later…]
“In this case, the companies’ owners say that four of the 20 contraceptives approved by the FDA work after an egg has been fertilized and thus are abortifacients. While many, if not most, doctors and scientists disagree, Alito said the point is that the owners believe offering such services—such as the morning-after pill and IUDs—violates their religious faiths.”
Notice, again, how Alito’s whole justification for ruling against Obamacare rests upon what the Hobby Lobby owners believe. Does the Post pushback on this citing expert medical analysis? Does it point out a lot of people believe a lot of crazy things with no basis in fact but they still don’t merit a judicial carve-out from federal health regulations. Not really. It equivocates with “many, if not most doctors and scientists disagree,” an intentionally squishy qualifier that offers little more than the pretense of context.
Tellingly, mainstream media coverage, overall, wasn’t much better than Fox News. This was how they didn’t get it right: “Dozens of companies, including Hobby Lobby, claim religious objections to covering some or all contraceptives. The methods and devices at issue before the Supreme Court were those the plaintiffs say can work after conception.” In fact, the latest research suggests that IUDs and Plan B actually don’t work after conception. But even if they do, it’s important to remember that the scientific consensus clearly says that preventing a fertilized egg from implanting is not an abortion. In fact, the Affordable Care Act is explicitly forbidden from funding coverage for abortions. That “dozens of companies” are making—or, more precisely, making up—an argument to the contrary shouldn’t be worth a bucket of warm spit when it comes to crafting public health policy.
This doesn’t stop some conservatives from trying to have it both ways—to both dismiss scientific consensus while pretending its on their side. Back in May, for example, GOP Senator Marco Rubio even went so far as to claim the “science is settled” that life begins at conception. No sir.Others on the right have tried to polarize the medical definition of pregnancy, claiming it is “an odd insistence” of “the Left” without mentioning all the nonpartisan medical professional organizations that endorse this same conclusion. Getting points for chutzpah and projection, one obtuse conservative snarkily dinged the “anti-Science Left” for failing to recognize that you can’t produce a life without a fertilized egg. Of course, you can’t produce life beyond a few cells unless that fertilized egg is implanted in a woman’s uterus, but then disappearing women out of the discussion of contraceptive choice and reproductive rights is another common tactic among the right. On a related note, Alito’s 49-page opinion only mentioned “woman” or “women” 13 times.
By failing to honestly address the science at the root of the Hobby Lobby case, the media has fallen for the same old conservative spin that, for years, has also corrupted its climate change coverage. In a way, it mirrors the actions of the Roberts Court’s conservative majority, which similarly granted greater weight to the plaintiffs’religious interpretation of medical science than toactual medical science itself. Sadly, this brazen act of judicial corporate activism was compounded by a tragic failure of explanatory journalism. And thanks to the latter, the public is less informed about broad consequences of the former. As now almost anyone—or anything, for that matter—can construct a so-called religious freedom if science and the evidentiary process need not be involved in defining the boundaries of said freedoms.
The Hobby Lobby case has set us upon a dangerously slippery legal slope. By endowing for-profit companies with unprecedented rights over their employees and unheard of freedoms from federal regulations, conservatives have set the conditions for future corporate discrimination as well as delegitimization of the government. But it is also a broader, cautionary tale about how poorly the mainstream media holds conservatives accountable for their often specious scientific claims. Facts are the most precious currency of journalists, but if they aren’t willing to speak scientific truth to power—whether it’s on reproductive rights or evolution or climate change—it’s not just the press’s reputation that suffers. We all do.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
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