Richard Reeves

Why the Press Thinks the President Lied on Stem Cells

WASHINGTON -- I bow to no man, including the president of the United States, in my ignorance of the details of stem cell research. But I do know something about the distrust and active hostility between government and the press, and it seems obvious to many reporters that the White House of George W. Bush either does not know what it is talking about in the matter of this possible medical breakthrough and is making it up as it goes along -- or it is deliberately lying to mislead reporters, the medical community and the public.

There are, as you might suspect, many unanswered and some unanswerable questions about this promising new medical technology, beginning with: (1) What is it? (2) Will it work? (3) Why is anyone against it if there is the possibility that it could cure such horrors as diabetes, strokes and Parkinson's disease? Here are some answers:

(1) Stem cells are incredibly flexible (or still unformed) living elements found in days-old human embryos. They are self-replenishing and have the capability to become more than 200 different specialized cell types in the body, which means they could possibly produce unlimited numbers of new cells to replace diseased, damaged or dying cells in ailing bodies.

(2) Maybe. It will take a long time, billions of dollars and millions of cells to find out what they can safely do; among the mistakes that could be made is unleashing a plague.

(3) Because stem cells at this point can be derived mainly from destroyed human embryos -- so far, from embryos destroyed in fertility clinics -- there are many people who consider the process the equivalent of taking human life. Murder.

President Bush, on Aug. 9, announced a compromise policy designed to satisfy both researchers and others who believe in science above all and right-to-life activists. He said the federal government would fund expensive stem cell research, but only research using 60 "lines" of cells already in existence in laboratories. Federal money would not be made available for new "lines." (A "line" is an identified colony of cells that carries specific characteristics, including ethnicity and suitability for certain body parts.)

But -- and here is the problem with the press -- the White House will not or cannot identify the 60 lines and their characteristics. Scientific literature identifies fewer than a dozen lines. The highest previous estimate of lines was 23. The number is important, for instance, because most of the identified lines so far are from embryos produced in Asia. In the simplest terms, experimentation using only those lines would not benefit Caucasians or blacks. There is also a problem with the use of mouse cells to feed the existing lines as they grow -- there is a fear that animal diseases could thus be transmitted to humans.

So, reporters have been asking the White House for specifics on the 60 lines referred to by the president. The answer, from press secretary Ari Fleischer, has been: The burden of proof is on anyone who doubts the claim.

In other words, the press must either accept the government's numbers -- without any proof -- or go about the rather unpleasant business of proving that the government is wrong. Our job, on orders from the government, is to try to prove they are liars.

And we have begun to try to do precisely that, because that is the way our leaders want it. This, as Fleischer so candidly defines it, is a hostile relationship, an adversary process -- and both the press and presidency will be diminished in this contest over the next few weeks.

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