Journalistic Malpractice: The Media Enables the Right-Wing Politicization of Science

Source: The Nation, via AlterNet

Author: Reed Richardson

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,when and where of the world any more, 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 to actual 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. 

Emphasis Mine

see: http://www.alternet.org/environment/journalistic-malpractice-media-enables-right-wing-politicization-science?akid=12036.123424.C4BKaG&rd=1&src=newsletter1012131&t=9

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An Abbreviated Guide to 5 Arguments Against Contraceptive Coverage in Obamacare

Source: Religious Dispatch

Author: Post by SARAH POSNER

Over 50 friend-of-the court briefs have been filed in favor of the position of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, as the Supreme Court considers whether the religious exercise of these companies and their owners is infringed by the contraceptive coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act. Twenty-two briefs have been filed supporting the government’s position, although numbers certainly should not be taken as an indicator of the strength of either argument or a predictor of the ultimate outcome.

  • A law or regulation violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), if it imposes a “substantial burden” on a person’s religious exercise, unless it furthers a compelling government interest, or if there is a less restrictive way of furthering that interest. In bothHobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the plaintiffs do not object to providing coverage for all contraception, but rather just four types, including the emergency contraceptives ella and Plan B, as well as IUDs, which they insist can act as abortifacients, despite medical evidence to the contrary.Many of the briefs say much more about the politics of abortion, reproductive rights, and religion than they do the finer points of the law — although many do address questions such as whether a corporation can have a religious conscience protected by the law, and whether the contraception coverage requirement burdens that religious exercise. But many of them address political, scientific (or, more accurately, pseudo-scientific), and theological questions that highlight how the politics of these cases have played out in the court of public opinion, and reflect how many advocacy groups and pundits will react to the ruling, however the Court decides the case.In other words, however the Court decides Hobby Lobby, these same arguments will continue to play out in the context of free exercise and establishment law cases, in public health policy, as well as in the drafting of legislation aimed at, for example, expanding the ability of business owners to discriminate against LGBT people, using religious freedom as an excuse, or restricting access to reproductive health care. They represent the heart of the religious conservative worldview on religion in public life.1. The Upside-Down Health Argument.

    The Breast Cancer Prevention Institute and other related groups have filed a brief charging that contraceptives are actually detrimental to womens’ health, and that the Institutes of Medicine, the group on whose recommendations the rule is based, gets the science all wrong:

    the Government selectively ignored and wholly disregarded a large body of relevant, widely available, scientifically sound, scholarly research. The research surveyed for this Court shows that some of the contraceptive drugs have been classified as carcinogens, and that each of the contraceptive drugs and devices have been shown to significantly increase risks of other serious health conditions, including HIV, stroke and heart attack.

    Just as with claims that abortion causes breast cancer, that simply isn’t true. As the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance notes in its brief supporting the government’s position, “the contraceptive-coverage provision takes an important step forward toward increasing access to treatments that reduce the risk of ovarian and other deadly gynecologic cancers, but the position of the companies and shareholders challenging that provision jeopardizes that access for thousands of women nationwide.”

    Dr. Nancy Stanwood, board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, said that hormonal contraceptives such as the pill, the patch, and the ring, “actually decrease the risk of cancers,” including ovarian, uterine, and colon cancers, and “they do not increase the risk of breast cancer.” The scientific community “is very clear on that, and the medical community is very united in that understanding,” she said. She added that IUDs, one of the devices challenged by Hobby Lobby, decrease the risk of uterine cancer.

    Although there has been some suggestion that Depo-Provera might increase the risk of contracting HIV, she said, the World Health Organization did not recommend against Depo-Provera’s use, but rather emphasized the need to combine it with a condom, the only contraceptive method also used for HIV prevention.

    As for heart attack and stroke, Stanwood added, that risk is slightly increased using hormonal methods that contain estrogen, but that the “actual risk is very small,” and smaller than the risk when pregnant. It is “important to put them in context of how high is the risk, and the risk compared to what?” said Stanwood. “It just sounds unfortunate that someone decided to write an amicus brief that contains things that were not in context and were somewhat inflammatory and not based on modern science.”

    2. What “gender inequality?” The mandate is sexist!

    The brief written by the Life Legal Defense Foundation, and joined by the Beverly LaHaye Institute of Concerned Women for America takes issue with the government’s claim that its compelling interest in establishing the contraception coverage requirement is to promote women’s health and gender equity. The biggest headscratcher in their brief is the claim that there is no dichotomy between an intended and unintended pregnancy, and that the government’s goal of preventing unintended pregnancies is therefore somehow misguided. “Some women welcome ‘unintended’ pregnancies, and some ‘intended’ pregnancies end in abortion due to complications or a change in a woman’s social situation,” they write. That’s true, of course, but doesn’t therefore prove that there’s no such thing as an unintended versus intended pregnancy. Ask any woman.

    The brief questions whether getting contraceptives for free will actually result in women . . . using contraceptives: “The Government hypothesizes that women are deterred from obtaining contraceptives because of their cost, and that therefore the Mandate will increase utilization of contraceptives.”

    As the Guttmacher Institute notes in its brief, though, “access to the range of contraceptive methods without cost sharing can dramatically reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy, with profound consequences for women and society.” Also, lest this get lost in the fog of distorted data, “reducing the rate of unintended pregnancy is by far the most widely accepted and effective means of reducing the need for and incidence of abortion.

    LLDF adds the mandate doesn’t act to decrease gender inequality (a term placed in scare quotes in the brief) but actually increases inequality by putting women at risk for the alleged health risks of contraceptives (see item 1, above).

    Religion, LLDF argues, is not the only issue in the case. The mandate, said Dana Cody, LLDF’s president, said in a statement, is “unbelievably irresponsible and sexist.”

    3. Strange bedfellows: Democrats for Life

    While the religious (and mostly Republican) opposition to the contraception mandate has been marshalled as evidence of a Republican war on women in Democratic talking points, the organization Democrats for Life — once thought to be the key to Democratic gains, now representing a nearly extinct breed in Congress — positions itself on Hobby Lobby’s side. In its brief, on which it is joined by former Rep. Bart Stupak, who drew the ire of pro-choice groups during the debate over the ACA, Democrats for Life specifically takes on Hobby Lobby’s opposition to emergency contraception:

    Although the government has made statements that terminating a fertilized embryo before it implants in the uterus is not an abortion, the relevant matter for the claim of conscience under RFRA and the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause is plaintiffs’ belief that a distinct human life begins at fertilization. It is no salve to plaintiffs’ conscience to be told that the government defines abortion differently. Furthermore, plaintiffs have a colorable cause for concern that the drugs and devices to which they object may act to terminate embryos. And even applying the government’s definition, there is evidence that the “emergency contraceptive” Ella may terminate embryos after implantation.

    Once it has maintained that ella is an abortifacient (which it isn’t), DFL then makes the leap that because the conscience objections of anti-abortion doctors, hospitals, and others are protected under laws granting them the right to refuse service, that Hobby Lobby should also have its objection to “abortifacients” recognized. “This case implicates the tradition of protecting conscientious objections to abortion, in that plaintiffs object to devices and drugs that may act to terminate a newly fertilized embryo,” Democrats for Life argues, and since “these objectors believe that a distinct life begins at conception, it is no salve to their conscience to be told that the government defines abortion differently.”

    Although many observers have pointed to courts’ unwillingness to question the authenticity of a RFRA plaintiff’s “sincerely held religious belief,” Mary Briscoe, Chief Judge the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, took a different view in her dissenting opinion in Hobby Lobby.The connection, she wrote, “is not one of religious belief, but rather of purported scientific fact, i.e., how the challenged contraceptives operate to prevent pregnancy. Consequently, rather than being off limits to examination, plaintiffs’ allegations regarding the abortion-causing potential of the challenged drugs are subject not only to examination but evidentiary proof. In short, they must be proven by plaintiffs on the basis of sufficient evidence.”

    4. Be careful what services you ask your plumber to do

    A brief signed by the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Coalition of African American Pastors, the Manhattan Declaration, Instep International, and 38 pastors and theologians, including Rick Warren, argues:

    The Christian doctrine of vocation teaches that all work—whether overtly sacred or ostensibly secular—is spiritual activity, that Christians are called by God to specific occupations and businesses, and that Christians must conduct themselves in their vocations in accordance with their Christian beliefs. A Christian may not simply check his faith at the workplace door. Accordingly, Christian business owners, as a matter of scriptural requirement, are obligated to conduct their business as an expression of their faith and in accordance with the dictates of faith and conscience.

    “This case throws into sharp relief the problems that can arise when the Christian doctrine of work is not properly understood,” Hugh Whelchel, the executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics, who signed the brief, said in a statement. “We as Christians cannot compartmentalize our faith from the work we do every day, whether we’re a pastor, a plumber, or business leader. The Bible teaches that all of life is integrated and matters to God. This fundamental doctrine needs to be preached more often in our churches as well as understood in our courts.”

    Daniel Akin, Southeastern’s president, tellsReligion News Services’ Jonathan Merritt:

    “I am convinced this is a critical issue that if Hobby Lobby loses, a door is open for further infringements on religious liberty and freedom of conscience,” Akin said. “That this is even on the table signals a new day, and not a better one, in matters of religious liberty and matters of faith.

    Ravi Zacharias, told Merritt, “Sadly, over the years, the Christian faith has been targeted by a rabid secularization and evicted from any or all public expression. The encroachment upon our civil liberties is frightening and we ought to take a stand.”

    This argument obviously has wide-ranging implications for church-state separation law.

    5. The “sex and marriage marketplace” as a war on women

    As Merritt notes, all 38 signers of the theologians’ brief were men. Not to worry! The group Women Speak for Themselves, which formed in opposition to the contraception coverage provision, has filed a brief. Written by lawyer Helen Alvaré, who has said that the availability of contraception has led to the “immiseration of women,” the brief explains the group’s opposition to the regulation as “because the Mandate threatens religious freedom and proposes a reductionist and harmful understanding of women’s freedom.”

    Alvaré reprises the “immiseration” theme in the brief, arguing that “even if contraceptives have the indirect beneficial effects HHS identifies, HHS does not indicate the size of these benefits, or whether they outweigh the adverse health outcomes caused by some contraceptives, or the adverse effects of the immiseration of women in a sex and marriage marketplace shaped by contraception.”

Emphasis Mine

see: http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/sarahposner/7542/