op-ed

The Washington Post Sure Does Love Dumb Clickbait Headlines These Days

Shutterstock/Nicole S Glass, Shutterstock/Zheltyshev

William Estes Freelance writer
Font Size:

The Washington Post recently broke news that was quickly hailed as the Trump administration’s latest turn at jackbooted thuggery: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Post then reported (and later walked back), has been banned from using seven terms in documents related to the president’s next budget request. Some words — “fetus,” “transgender” — evoke thorny political disputes, while others, like “science-based,” seem largely unobjectionable.

On social media, which skews young, left and trigger-happy, the response was immediate and overwhelming. Orwell was quoted; protests were streamed; teeth were gnashed. A typical post collected hundreds of likes and retweets for warning that “banning doctors and scientists from using medically-accurate terms is not just politics – it puts lives at risk,” never mind that the reporting discussed no ban on doctors or scientists. The Human Rights Campaign went so far as to project the supposedly verboten speech across the Trump International Hotel in Washington, in an ironic illustration of the expansive American tolerance for political demonstration, no matter how half-baked or trivial.

Of course, bearing in mind that the social media outrage mill never wants for grist, it’s a vain hope one holds out for measured responses in that venue. But what about the cooler heads in the scientific and medical communities? What even-keeled guidance had they to offer as regards this presumed iniquity? Not much, it turns out, save a few helpings of hooey. Over at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, CEO Rush Holt let his imagination run wild: “Among the words forbidden to be used in CDC budget documents are ‘evidence-based’ and ‘science-based.’ I suppose one must not think those things either.” Former Surgeon General (and founder of Doctors for Obama) Vivek Murthy offered up a sage non sequitur: “the purpose of science is to search for truth, and when science is censored the truth is censored.” And Planned Parenthood, with characteristic aplomb, soberly warned the “unimaginably dangerous” decision had put “millions of lives at risk.” Even the American Academy of Family Physicians puzzlingly averred that with this move the CDC would be “required to temper its reliance on evidence-based medicine,” putting “the health of the public… at risk.”

As unequivocal statements from Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spokesmen and CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, as well as the Post’s subsequent crack at the story later made clear, concerns the CDC was outright forbidden from using any term in the context of scientific inquiry or public health efforts were unwarranted. This should have been relatively obvious from the initial report, which plainly indicated the supposed prohibition applied strictly to budget documents. Yet at the top of the page, it took the Post just six words to whip up a false narrative about seven: “CDC gets list of forbidden words,” they declared in 42-point font. Could the Post’s writers and editors not have indulged a relevant qualifier or two to provide fair context? Perhaps the clickbait headline was irresistible; democracy may die in darkness, but our discourse, it would seem, must drown in drivel.

But The Washington Post deserves only a small portion of the blame here. In these lean times for media outlets, the Post can’t be held entirely responsible for cultivating an audience unable to critically read (or even click) beyond the headline. Over the weekend, thousands upon thousands of Twitter users liked and retweeted unsubstantiated assertions that citizens’ individual right to free expression was or would soon be subjected to censorship. A charitable heart can only conclude these folks leapt before they bothered to look at the reporting; surely no high school graduate could confuse government-imposed restrictions on government speech with government-imposed usurpation of individual liberty. On the other hand, recall the old saying about hammers and nails: It’s likely a story about the Orwellian tendencies of the Trump administration probably struck votaries of the #Resistance as too good to check. While we must zealously protect our liberties, when baseless allegations of fascism become the instinctive public response to the actions of an unpopular administration, the long-term security of our republic is threatened. Our freedom depends on our ability to correctly identify and appropriately address true instances of government encroachment; it depends, in other words, on a healthy civic immune response. Misfires like these only serve to desensitize and curtail our ability to contend with legitimate future threats.

The scientific and medical community had an opportunity to smother this burgeoning firestorm over the weekend. Instead, they uncorked the lighter fluid. More disturbing than the absence of any pushback against this hysterical dystopian rhetoric was the willingness of many public health luminaries to promulgate an air of certainty where none could possibly yet exist. “…[O]f course the administration and its defenders are going to argue that this is only about what goes into the budget,” declared celebrated Harvard professor Ashish Jha, smoothly dismissing as Trumpist shills those who would dare to faithfully portray the facts. “We know,” he explained, “that the signal to the agency is much stronger than that. And it’s going to change behavior of people who work there.”  Au contraire professor: a devastating new report indicates this signal may have been nothing more than advice generated by HHS careerists with misguided assumptions about Congressional biases. Rep. Tom Cole, the powerful Labor-HHS “cardinal” on House Appropriations, has already panned the news as “more silly than sinister,” and that seems to find the mark.

Make no mistake: These words — the three aforementioned along with “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” and “evidence-based” — each have a justifiable place in discussions about the nation’s scientific and public health endeavors. Attempts to curtail such terms, even in budget documents, whatever the motive, are bad policy, and should be objected to by leaders in science and medicine. But those objections must be thoughtful, accurate and firmly grounded in the reported facts. What Dr. Murthy, Dr. Jha, and many others in the medical and scientific establishment seem to have forgotten is they ought to occupy a special place in our society, as beacons of rationalism and respect for evidence. But far too many have traded this away by using their credentials to lend authority and heft to attacks against their political enemies.

Scientists, physicians, and academics must recognize that undermining the perceived neutrality of science and scholarship is kindling for the very forces in our society that wish to burn down their rarefied perches. How about some “evidence-based” irony? In their rush to defend the term, elites in science and medicine disregarded the principle. Reports of possible scientific censorship are certainly concerning. But by recklessly disregarding the available evidence, and fanning the flames of a misbegotten controversy, these elites have served the public just as poorly.

William A. Estes is a medical student and a proud Texan.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.