A Dose of Media False Equivalence

Matthew Freeman

July 8, 2010

Over on Slate this weekend, William Saletan posted an Elena Kagan piece in which he describes a 1996 incident in which the future presumptive Supreme Court Justice, then working at the White House, commented on a draft statement on “partial birth abortion” by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). 

Congress was then on the verge of banning certain abortion procedures lumped together under the umbrella of “partial birth,” a name made up by the right wing and not otherwise used by doctors. ACOG had drafted a statement saying that its select panel on the subject had concluded that while it could identify no circumstances under which the “intact D&X” procedure, which seemed to be the procedure the right wingers in Congress were after, “would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman…the potential exists that legislation prohibiting specific medical practices, such as intact D&X, may outlaw techniques that are critical to the lives and health of women.”

ACOG submitted the draft to the White House for comment, and Kagan, in her role as associate White House counsel, proposed revisions, which ACOG subsequently incorporated, revising the relevant portion of the statement, by adding the sentence, “An intact D&X, however, may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman, and only the doctor, in consultation with the patient, based upon the woman's particular circumstances, can make this decision.”

Some on the right wing are jumping up and down about the story, in a last ditch effort to scuttle her nomination. Saletan writes, 

The basic story is pretty clear: Kagan, with ACOG's consent, edited the statement to say that intact D&X "may be the best or most appropriate procedure" in some cases. Conservatives have pounced on this, claiming that Kagan "fudged the results of ACOG's study," "made up 'scientific facts,'" and "participated in a gigantic scientific deception." These charges are exaggerated. The sentence Kagan added was hypothetical. It didn't assert, alter, or conceal any data. Nor did it "override a scientific finding," as National Review alleges, or "trump" ACOG's conclusions, as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, contends. Even Power Line, a respected conservative blog, acknowledges that ACOG's draft and Kagan's edit "are not technically inconsistent." Kagan didn't override ACOG's scientific judgments. She reframed them.

 But Kagan's defense is bogus, too. On Wednesday, at her confirmation hearing, Hatch pressed Kagan about this episode. She replied that she had just been "clarifying the second aspect of what ACOG thought." Progressive blogs picked up this spin, claiming that she merely "clarified" ACOG's findings and made its position "more clear" so that its "intent was correctly understood." Come on. Kagan didn't just "clarify" ACOG's position. She changed its emphasis. If a Bush aide had done something like this during the stem-cell debate, progressive blogs would have screamed bloody murder.

It’s that last sentence I’d like to take issue with. You might think that because Saletan includes a link in the sentence asserting that progressive blogs would never have sat still for editing by a Bush official that the link goes to an example. Not so. Click through to the link and you’ll find a National Review blog entry accusing liberals of hypocrisy for not screaming about Kagan’s comments.

There was no shortage of mucking around with science by the Bush Administration. And indeed, liberal bloggers right here on CPRBlog – including me – often took Bush officials to task for, among other things, forcing EPA to revise its global warming findings or otherwise suppressing them.  Then again, that was a case in which the White House suppressed actual scientific data and conclusions. By contrast, in the ACOG example the scientists asked for advice on how to phrase something and got it. Perhaps they shouldn’t have asked, but they did. As Saletan observes, Kagan left the facts intact and changed the emphasis. Indeed, it’s a perfectly reasonable and truthful construction, and ACOG accepted it.

Perhaps it’s true that progressive bloggers would have “screamed bloody murder” at a comparable bit of editing by a Bush official. But given the wide range of scientific abuses by the Bushies from which to choose, it’s odd that he doesn’t cite any examples, since, after all, he’s leveling an accusation of hypocrisy. Saletan’s not entitled to make such assertions without offering up an example, at least not without cashing in his journalism credential.

So if there’s a good example of something comparable, let’s have it. Slate and Saletan are too good to smear by false equivalence, that big, broad brush that mainstream media use to equate right wing outrages with lesser sins by progressives, on the way to concluding that both sides are hypocritical, and by implication, that only moderates and journalists can be trusted.

I’m all for clean science, and think politicians ought to stay out of scientists’ business. But where exactly is the outrageous behavior by Kagan here? What findings did she suggest be misrepresented? What facts did she suppress, obscure, or ignore? What scientist did she intimidate? This is a cheap shot at Kagan by the right wing, and at progressive bloggers by Bill Saletan.

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