April 6th 2002

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Stem cell research: the way forward

The facts behind the 'people overboard' affair

Opinion: The banks' power over small business

STRAWS: Selective amnesia / Slow boat to China / Tower of Babel

TRADE: Sugar price collapse threatens future of canegrowers

MEDIA: Debating points

New Zealand faces winter of discontent

Manufacturing: an endangered species (letter)

Afghan specialities (letter)

The great water debate: facts and myths

COMMENT: Healthy disinterest no bad thing

UNITED STATES: Behind Washington's self-serving free trade rhetoric

Switzerland, Taiwan seek UN membership

HISTORY: Demons and Democrats: the story of the Labor Split

Books: JOHN GORTON: He Did It His Way, by Ian Hancock

MEDIA: Stem cells: what debate?

Books promotion page

Stem cells: what debate?

by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, April 6, 2002

The 60 Minutes debate on stem cell research (Sunday, March 17) was a perfect example of how to conduct a debate - perfect, that is, if you want to push an agenda, instead of the truth. The debate revealed much more about how biased media outlets skew a debate than it did the intricacies of the debate about stem cells.

The "debate" centred around whether stem cells should be obtained from embryos (in which process the embryo is destroyed) in order to possibly produce cures for various diseases such as Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease. That was at the core of the way the 15 minute segment was presented: do we want to find cures for these tragic diseases or do we not? If we do, then surely we should all favour embryonic stem cell research.

But as was discussed in last week's News Weekly, this is a false dilemma. The issue is not, do you want to cure disease? The issue is, what source of stem cells shall we use? That is, there is a third option, namely adult stem cells. They seem to be able to perform all the functions of embryonic stem cells, but with these three major advantages:

1) They do not require the destruction of an embryo.

2) They avoid the problem of immunological rejection.

3) They already have a proven track record in treating patients, whereas embryonic stem cells do not.

But not once during the entire discussion was this option mentioned. Surely it would have been mentioned to the reporters, but it must have been left on the cutting room floor. Thus a genuine debate (embryonic stem cells vs. adult stem cells) was displaced by a non-debate: should we cure diseases?

Again, no one is arguing that we should not seek to cure diseases. It is simply inaccurate and unnecessary to argue for some kind of a tradeoff: cure disease or save embryos. All agree that disease may well be treated by stem cells, but the question is, what source of stem cells should be used?

This deliberate omission was also seen in the show's email vote-line which took place before the show was aired. The question featured on its web site was as follows: "Should stem cell research be banned?". After a few people contacted the site and complained about the misleading nature of the question, it was changed to a more objective, "Should embryonic stem cell research be banned?" (But of course, even this question is deceptive, if background information about the benefits of adult stem cells is not supplied.)


Thus 60 Minutes was disingenuous at best, and down-right deceptive at worst, in its presentation of the debate. But wait, there's more. The whole episode was a perfect example of how portions of the media manipulate images, twist facts, and distort information to achieve their own ends.

The way in which the debate was advertised beforehand is a case in point. The gist of the ads was that the debate was a clash between Superman and the Catholic Church. That is, wheelchair-bound actor Christopher Reeve (who played Superman) was to debate Catholic bioethicist Dr Nick Tonti-Filippini.

Mr Reeves of course is now a quadriplegic, ever since a fall from a horse seven years ago. He has become a keen advocate of embryonic stem cell research. (Indeed, actors and celebrities, over and above scientists and other experts, tend to feature in these debates, with undue impact on public policy. Michael J. Fox, actor, and a Parkinson's disease sufferer, is another example.)

To help swing a debate, another key tactic is to appeal to emotion.

That was clearly at play in this debate. Wheelchair-bound Reeves is, of course, to be pitied, and we all would like to see him set free.

Indeed, this leads to another trick of the media: playing the sectarian card. The whole debate was pitched as an uncaring Catholic Church, with its outdated and obtuse moral platitudes, versus genuine human need. For example, not once, but twice, Dr Tonti-Filippini was shown walking into, and kneeling in, a Catholic church.

Thus the debate was presented as the old reactionary Catholic Church versus the rest of the community. But a related trick was used: make the debate appear to be one between archaic religion and progressive science. Thus you had Catholic ethicists, not only pitted against suffering celebrities, but you had them pitted against scientists like embryonic stem-cell advocate Dr Alan Trounson of the Monash Institute of Reproduction and Development.

Now while Dr Tonti-Filippini is just as capable a debater on the scientific and academic levels as Dr Trounson, 60 Minutes portrayed him as a religious fundamentalist standing in the way of science and enlightenment. Or as Mr Reeve kept saying, he is part of the "lunatic fringe". (In this, Mr Reeve resorted to name-calling instead of rational argument, just as the other week Melbourne IVF specialist Dr John McBain resorted to calling his opponents the "local Taliban" and "Catholic conservatives".)

It demonstrates that on complex moral and social issues, much of the media already has its mind made up, and such a bias can readily be discerned in its programming.

  • Bill Muehlenberg

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