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Opinion Journalism at the Post

The Washington Post confuses an editorial with a news story, and takes a shot at the president's new Bioethics Council.

11:01 PM, Jan 17, 2002 • By J. BOTTUM
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HERE'S A juxtaposition, for you--a pair of enjambed propositions fresh from Thursday's Washington Post: "In November, researchers announced that they had made the first human embryo clones, giving immediacy to warnings by religious conservatives and others that science is no longer serving the nation's moral will. At the same time, the United States was fighting a war to free a faraway nation from the grip of religious conservatives who were denounced for imposing their moral code on others."

We have a name for this in journalism. We call it "editorializing," and it's a perfectly fair thing to do. Or rather, it would be a perfectly fair thing to do if its implication--that those who oppose cloning in the United States are equivalent to the Taliban in Afghanistan--were remotely plausible and if it had been printed on the newspaper's editorial page.

But that's not how such editorializing seems to work over at the Washington Post these days. That pair of propositions (and others, just as bad) occurred in what billed itself as a news story in the January 17 issue of the paper. Run with the headline "Bush Unveils Bioethics Council," and written by Rick Weiss, the article appeared on page A21--the "Federal Page," which reports news about the government.

Just the facts, that's what the Washington Post promises on such pages, and the implication is fascinating. For what that means is that in the minds of the Post's writers and editors, it's simply a fact that the members of the president's new bioethics council are our homegrown Taliban.

It's hard to imagine anything more deliberately insulting to one's fellow citizens at a moment in which all Americans, whatever their position on cloning might be, are under attack by actual Talibans.

But then, maybe the article is even more insulting than that, for the people whom the White House picked to sit on the council are as distinguished as academics can be.

Council member Robert P. George is the legal scholar who holds President Woodrow Wilson's old chair in political philosophy at Princeton University. But the Washington Post misidentifies him as a theologian. (How often, one wonders, has Woodrow Wilson been called a theologian?) And then we're off to the races, by a logical progression so obvious it seems not editorializing but mere reporting to Rick Weiss: theologian=religious; religious=opponent of cloning; opponent of cloning=conservative; conservative=member of the Taliban; and Taliban=evil. The scariness of Prof. George follows by hard, Aristotelian logic. And if you have any doubts, you can read in the Post that he once admitted that some people believe in the unity of Christian doctrine and some people don't.

Meanwhile, council member Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard, but Rick Weiss seems to wonder why she--and the University of California's Elizabeth Blackburn, Washington University's Rebecca Dresser, and the University of Chicago's Janet Rowley--aren't in burkas. I mean, if you oppose cloning, you belong to the Taliban, right?

Leon Kass, the council's director, is treated with surprising softness by the Post's news account. But, just to balance the picture, the Kass council's executive director, Dean Clancy, is declared a "proclaimer" of Christianity, the word printed in quotation marks just to let the reader know how much like the Taliban it is. If fact, it's so Talibanny, that the article gives it to us not just once but twice in quotation marks.

You can tell that all this is coming from the Washington Post itself by the fact that none of it is quoted from people on the other side. "Experts said every appointee on the list is an intellectual powerhouse," Weiss admits. "Any public policy body making recommendations to the executive or legislative branch is going to have a political character to it," he quotes from Eric Meslin, executive director of the old bioethics commission. "We should give them a chance to do their work."

But then Rick Weiss and the Washington Post don't want to give the commission a chance. They apparently want to poison that well before it even gets dug. And what's more poisonous than labeling it the Taliban?

Still, that's an awful nice picture of Leon Kass accompanying the article. Too bad the AP photographer who took it couldn't have written the piece that went along with it.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.