Heads exploded over the weekend in response to a Washington Post article that claimed the Centers for Disease Control would “ban” seven words in all future budget documents submitted to Congress. The article’s inflammatory headline, “CDC gets list of forbidden words: Fetus, transgender, diversity,” set the tone for an egregiously poor example of journalism, even by Washington Post standards.
Science reporter Lena Sun wrote, “the Trump administration is prohibiting officials at the nation’s top public health agency from using a list of seven words or phrases—including ‘fetus’ and ‘transgender’—in official documents being prepared for next year’s budget.”
Support for that explosive charge came from precisely one anonymous source, a CDC analyst who attended an agency briefing on December 14 where the word-ban was allegedly discussed. (Other terms Sun claimed would be banned include “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.”)
The analyst, who has worked at the agency for some time, told the Post, “the reaction of people in the meeting was incredulous. ‘Are you serious? Are you kidding?’ In my experience, we’ve never had any pushback from an ideological standpoint.”
The source said he could not recall another time when words were banned because they were controversial. Sun tweeted out her piece along with a photo of a baby afflicted with the Zika virus to drive home the point how inhumane the White House is.
But buried at the end of Sun’s story was this: “Kelly [Alison Kelly, a CDC official who spoke at the briefing] told the analysts that certain words in the CDC’s budget drafts were being sent back to the agency for correction. Three words that had been flagged in these drafts were “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” and “diversity.” Kelly told the group the ban on the other words had been conveyed verbally.”
As the Church Lady used to say: well, isn’t that convenient? The most provocative words—fetus and transgender—were not edited in drafts, so no paper trail exists. There is no document, memo, or email to support the allegation that these words were indeed “banned.” The entire article rests on the recollection of one analyst who refused to give her/his name and without a shred of evidence to back up the claim.
Not only that, the article went online roughly 24 hours after the CDC meeting occurred. How did the reporters or editors verify any of this in that short amount of time? Was there an attempt to contact Kelly for her response? Was there an attempt to corroborate the analyst’s story with several other attendees? No, this was clearly a rush to post a clickbait story headed into the weekend.
And it worked. The story quickly spread across the Twitterverse. Comparisons to Nazism, book-banning, and dictatorships were offered up by the perpetually-outraged blue-checkmark club of Trump haters. Here are a few winners:
Dictators ban words.
— Sally Kohn (@sallykohn) December 16, 2017
Word ban at CDC includes ‘vulnerable,’ ‘fetus,’ ‘transgender’https://t.co/WKBGYxjx36
WORDS THAT CANT BE USED‼️PPL THERES A REASON HE KEPT HITTERS SPEECHES.IF YOU TAKE CERTAIN WORDS AWAY FROM THE PPL ITS A DICTATORSHIP
— Cher (@cher) December 17, 2017
When I first heard this, I thought it was a lie. No reasonable person should follow this order. It’s dangerous and bigoted. https://t.co/6RtRDVx6CK
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) December 16, 2017
Our fearless Democratic House leader went all, “Danger, Will Robinson!” on it:
DANGER! Trump Admin is going further down a dangerous and un-American path of word and thought control. @POTUS has no respect for and has banned words including:
— Nancy Pelosi (@NancyPelosi) December 16, 2017
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” host Chuck Todd mocked the “ban” by referring to comedian George Carlin’s famous “seven words you can’t use on TV” bit. Todd gave an unfunny monologue about the words that are banned as they popped up on the screen, then finished with this: “But anyone who has observed totalitarian regimes knows how vulnerable we all can be.” If only Todd recognized the irony in that remark.
CNN escalated the hyperbole, posting a story based solely on the Post article without any independent verification from its own reporters. But it was mostly a portal for activists to vent about the purported ban, such as this gem from the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality: “To pretend and insist that transgender people do not exist, and to allow this lie to infect public health research and prevention is irrational and very dangerous. The Trump administration is full of dangerous science deniers who have no business near American public health systems like the CDC. They are actually going to kill Americans if they do not stop.”
The story did start to get some pushback; the New York Times ran a more accurate piece (you know you’re in trouble when the Times beats you on the facts), calling it a “purported” ban and quoting other sources who refuted the Post’s characterization: “A few suggested that the proposal was not so much a ban on words but recommendations to avoid some language to ease the path toward budget approval by Republicans.”
A former CDC official told the Times that “they are not saying to not use the words in reports or articles or scientific publications or anything else the CDC does. They’re saying not to use it in your request for money because it will hurt you. It’s not about censoring what CDC can say to the American public. It’s about a budget strategy to get funded.”
By midday Sunday, CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald tweeted her agency’s response: “I want to assure you there are no banned words at CDC. We will continue to talk about all our important public health programs.” Fitzgerald used two of the supposedly forbidden words—science-based and evidence-based—in one of her subsequent tweets to underscore the message. She also posted a statement from the HHS that called the Post’s article a “complete mischaracterization of discussions regarding the budget formulation process.”
In a follow-up article, Sun claimed: “the Trump administration has informed multiple divisions within the Department of Health and Human Services that they should avoid using certain words or phrases in official documents being drafted for next year’s budget.” But oddly, despite using the words “ban” and “banned” several times in her original piece, Sun didn’t use either word in her second story. Sun posted a tweet Sunday afternoon that hedged even further, asking “if folks at other federal agencies are also being asked to avoid certain words in drafting budget narratives.” That is a clear pivot away from her original accusation about a ban.
Her source even seemed to backpedal: “What would you call it when you’re told not to use those words? If that’s not a ban, maybe I need to improve my vocabulary.”
Perhaps. In all fairness, a politically motivated bureaucrat can use any language he or she wants. It is the reporter’s job to flush out what is fact and what is fiction. But in this case, as we’ve seen time and again this year, the Post ran with an incendiary, unverified, anonymously sourced story 24 hours after the alleged briefing took place, with little time to allow the agencies or the White House to respond, so it could incite the anti-Trump mob to spread misinformation about a word ban while subtly changing the narrative between the first and second articles.
Our discredited news media is certainly ending 2017 with a bang.